Article Categories: Speeches, Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Community
An interfaith conference of 500 Muslim, Jews and Christians
Leonda by the Yarra, Hawthorn, Melbourne
Sunday August 13, 2006
[check against delivery]
Rabbi Michael Melchior, Professor Mahmud Kilic, Philip Newman, George Lekakis, Mr Orhan Cicek, Mr Emre Celik, other speakers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman.
It is an honour to join you at the Fifth International Abraham Conference.
I applaud your objective of overcoming ignorance and fostering reconciliation at a grassroots level, of building bridges and focussing on what you have in common.
I am especially pleased to see the wide range of participants and sponsors here today. It’s a full house.
A broad dialogue on religious issues is so important in helping us identify the common approaches and positions that will reduce ignorance and misplaced fears.
I wish you well with that task today.
The crisis in the Middle East also shows just how necessary this conference is, because as I see it peace can be agreed within the walls of the UN forum, but unless it grows in ordinary hearts and minds it will not endure.
On behalf of the Government, I do express my sympathy to everyone affected by the loss of life and destruction.
Even nations such as Australia which are physically far removed from the conflict are obviously affected, and as the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Multicultural Affairs, over the past few weeks I have had a keen insight into the great sadness of many people, both directly involved, as well as those who have hopes for a more peaceful world.
I’m sure I share the hope of everyone in this room for a quick end to hostilities, and an enduring ceasefire and peace with the implementation of the UN resolution on the table.
This particular gathering here today is also timely, and I think symbolic, given the events unfolding in London over the last few days.
I think as a community we need to be very aware of what terrorists purporting to act in the name of Islam, and previously in the name of other religions, are seeking to do.
As I see it, every terrorist act is designed to do two things - firstly they seek to generate fear and suspicion and resentment among non-Muslim members of the community, while at the same time they seek, with the terrorist acts, to unfairly stigmatise Muslim members both of our community, and other western communities.
The clear intent of the terrorists is to divide our community through fear and misunderstanding, and to make Muslims feel alienated from Western societies, and in the process they hope to radicalise some of the angry and alienated young men and women by perverting their religion.
We must all - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - recognise the games that are being played with our minds by these terrorists. It is a game that has been played in the past by terrorists, in the name of other religions, and we must be awake to it.
At such times, religious leaders have to take a stand, and stand together. When religion is invoked as a justification for terrorism, religious voices must be raised strongly in protest and I commend you here today for that.
The Home Secretary of the United Kingdom made a very apt comment in this regard on Thursday when he said:
“this is not a case of one civilisation against another or one religion against another, there is common cause in this country among all people from whatever background, religion or ethnic dimension because the threat is common to us all”.
And I think those comments ring so true here as they might in the UK or other countries.
The only way to beat this attempt by these terrorists to manipulate our minds and our actions is to understand and respect one another - the phrase - ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ perhaps says it all.
This conference is a welcome expression of people of different faiths wanting to take that path, to put yourselves in one another’s shoes, to build understanding and respect, to foster cohesion within our community, and I thank you all for standing up to be counted.
The other reason this gathering is so important relates to the emergence of a truly globalised world, its impacts on people’s sense of identity and the role of religion in all this.
I read recently a contribution by the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which I thought summed up the challenges and I’d like to quote something from what I read. Jonathan Sacks said “throughout history until very recently for most people for most of their lives were surrounded by others with whom they shared a faith, a tradition, a way of life, a set of rituals and narratives of memory and hope. Under such circumstances it was possible to believe that our truth was the only truth; our way the only way. Outsiders were few; dissidents fewer still. That is not our situation today. We live in the conscience presence of difference. In the street, at work and on the television screen we constantly encounter cultures whose ideas and ideals are unlike ours. That can be experienced as a profound threat to identity…”.
Jonathan Sacks went on to say “… religion is one of the great answers to the question of identity.” He importantly said “But that, too, is why we face danger. Identity divides. The very process of creating an ‘Us’ involves creating a ‘Them’ - the people not like us. In the very process of creating community within their borders, religions can create conflict across those borders”.
As a consequence I believe great responsibility now lies with the world’s religious communities.
This conference, which brings together many members of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities, with the stated aim of building bridges and focussing on what you have in common, shows that you are accepting that responsibility, and I commend you for it.
I must say in the final issue I would like to raise, I also sense that the profound threat to identity that Jonathan Sacks talks about also includes, from my experience, a yearning for a spiritual dimension to the lives of so many who have put religion aside, for those who no longer have an active religious affiliation. And there are many in our society like that.
As a consequence we see the emergence of spirituality in a secular non-church context.
This yearning for a spiritual dimension to our lives, which I think is human nature, it is the essence of human nature to have a spiritual dimension to our lives, this yearning for a spiritual dimension to people’s lives is being seen in relation to the indigenous, the environment, the landscape and especially to war remembrance with the ritual of the Dawn Service and what are now being termed the “sacred dimensions” of Anzac Day.
All important things, but I think in my view it is a very serious attempt by people to reach out and find a spiritual dimension to their lives for those not involved in any direct link with religion. It appears that this spiritual imperative for many contemporary Australians is being increasingly fulfilled by secular spirituality.
These are really important challenges for all of you I think, and I suspect much of the answer lies in education. And I am really pleased to see the theme of the discussion for today centres around the importance of education.
In my responsibilities since February, I have now spent a lot of time with different schools in particular looking at the interfaith activities. There are some wonderful things happening in Muslim schools, Jewish schools and Catholic schools. And I talk to kids and they genuinely are excited, and moved, and appreciative of the understanding they gain by meeting and mixing and talking and being involved in sporting activities and discussions. You can see the richness of that experience and the way in which it can go back into their households, and they discuss things with their parents, their brothers and sisters. It is the power of education. We keep coming back to it so often in life. If you remove ignorance you remove fears and misunderstandings and you create social cohesion.
I was interested just in the last few weeks we launched, as part of the Living in Harmony program, an initiative bringing students together by the Jewish Christian Muslim Association. And the interesting thing about this one was that it had been taken not only to Jewish, Christian and Muslim schools, but groups of young Muslims, Jews and Christians had gone to various state schools. In particular Reservoir where I grew up and West Preston High School.
I talked to the teachers from those State Schools and they said that they are normally very cautious, and fearful, and reluctant to talk about religion, and to introduce the topic into classes or any of the curricula. They said it was such a wonderful opportunity for a lot of these kids who are not participating in any religious activities to spend an hour or two and have these really frank discussions with the Jewish, Muslim and Christian young people, to answer their questions with frankness and clarity.
They said it was remarkable how important and productive that experience was. These young people who have the commitment to a faith went in and shared it with these other kids in a state school who had not a commitment to a particular faith, and yet, who nevertheless are probably looking for a spiritual dimension to their lives.
The power of what you are doing today is very important, and I really do commend you for it and wish you the best.
I pray that you have great strength, and judgement and in fact divine help in your quest to deal with these very challenges, these very difficult challenges, in your quest to build a better society and a better world, in many ways one brick at a time. I think that is the way you have got to look at it.
I am proud to participate in this event, and wish you all the best with your proceedings today.
Media contact: Jonathan Granger 0417 460 338
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