A recap of Professor Scott Alexander’s 2017 Sydney tour

On Monday 7 August, Professor Scott Alexander, from the Chicago Catholic Theological Union kicked off the Sydney leg of his Australia and New Zealand speaking tour with a presentation titled, Reforming Reform: Hizmet and the survival of ‘Civil Islam’ in contemporary Turkey.

Held at Western Sydney University’s new Peter Shergold Building, the event was a collaboration between Affinity Intercultural Foundation and Western Sydney University’s School of Social Sciences and Psychology.

The talk included a response from Professor Kevin Dunn, Dean of the School of Social Science and Psychology and Professor in Human Geography and Urban Studies from Western Sydney University (WSU). The conversation was moderated by Associate Professor Cristina Rocha, WSU’s Director of Religion and Society Research Cluster.

Professor Alexander began his talk with a brief historical perspective of Islamic renewal and reform, before highlighting the spectrum of contemporary renewal and reform, which includes Neo-Modernist, Neo-Traditionalist, Puritan and Shiite thought.

He provided a Turkish context by discussing Secular Nationalism and the seeds of “civil Islam” (a term coined by Professor Ihsan Yilmaz) in the Nurcu and Hizmet Movements. Professor Alexander highlighted the principal teachings of Fethullah Gulen, which are inspired by Said Nursi and the Nurcu Movement.

Gulen advocates a socio-spiritual approach to renewal, linking traditional, personal, spiritual and moral character and duty with family values and social reform. He emphasises “service” (hizmet) in the form of education (there are over 1000 Hizmet schools operating worldwide), social justice and intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

Professor Alexander presented a quote from Gulen to accentuate the links between democracy and Islam.

Gulen states that, “democracy has developed over time…it will continue to evolve and improve in the future…it will be shaped into a more humane and just system, one based on righteousness and reality. If human beings are considered whole, without disregarding the spiritual dimension of their existence and their spiritual needs, and without forgetting that human life is not limited to this mortal life and that all people have a great craving for eternity, democracy could reach the peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity. Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help it do just this.”

According to Professor Alexander, the survival and future of “civil Islam” in Turkey and other Muslim majority societies will depend on a “re-evaluation of the role of the state in post-colonial social renewal and reform; as well as the depth of popular commitment to an intersectional approach to building strong civil societies.”

Professor Alexander’s talk gave everyone in the audience a greater insight into the survival of civil Islam in contemporary Turkey as well as food for thought. The event wrapped up with gifts presented to the two speakers and facilitators as well as a Vote of Thanks from Ahmet Polat, Executive Director of Affinity Intercultural Foundation.

Professor Scott Alexander continued his tour on Tuesday 8 August with a Lunchtime Lecture at Affinity Intercultural Foundation’s offices. At his second Sydney event, Professor Alexander presented a talk on the topic of Difference in Dialogue: Promise or Peril? The talk included a response from Professor Neil Ormerod, Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University.  The conversation was moderated by retired ABC radio journalist, John Cleary.

Special guests in attendance included Leo Oaeke, Papua New Guinea Consul, Karl Hartleb, Austrian Consul-General and Anthony Long, Chief Inspector Commander of the Engagement and Intervention Unit, Anti-Terrorism and Security Group and Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Command from the NSW Police Force.

Professor Alexander prefaced his talk with a positive affirmation. “Coming together for the fellowship of ideas is a sacred act…intercultural dialogue is like stepping into someone’s garden. You don’t know where the seeds are planted” he said.

In his talk, Professor Alexander interrogated what he refers to as the ‘sameness platitude’ and asks what inter-religious and other forms of dialogue would be like if they were founded on the alternative premise that we are often more different than we are alike.

“Gatherings like this one—gatherings which are intentional about celebrating difference—oftentimes are not celebrating difference at all, but rather attempting to lasso it, reign it in, domesticate it. We almost instinctively see the peril of difference and have a hard time perceiving its promise,” he said.

“How many times have you heard what I like to call the “sameness platitude”? That pragmatic and well-intentioned phrase: “We are all more alike than we are different from one another”? But are we really?

“As creatures who are relatively low on instinct and relatively high on cultural programming, one of the characteristics we homo sapiens have most in common with one another as a species is precisely the capacity to be so radically different from one another. One need only think of the stunning pluriformity of language and the elemental role language plays in continually shaping and giving life to culture to see his point.”

He proceeded to quote verse 13 from the Surat al-Hujurat from the Quran to highlight that human beings were created in and for difference, and that “human difference is not an accident of history, but instead an outcome of divine providence and design.”

According to Professor Alexander, our difference has been “primarily intended, not as some kind of sadistic obstacle course to make our lives more difficult, but rather as an opportunity for growth…a growth in knowledge and awareness of one another, self, and ultimately God through the process of relational encounter in difference.”

He questioned why in the present day, society is still afraid of difference. He offered that one reason is because we have “become so attached to the necessary but limited  sense of security we get from homogeneity and the familiar, that we erect it as a false idol and lose the capacity to see the inherent beauty and transformative power of the heterogeneous and the strange.”

He proposed that dialogue and education be viewed as “sources of hope” to counteract hostile views of difference.

“When executed with dedication, integrity and authenticity— [dialogue and education] do not attempt to paper over the differences that make us who we are and in which we root our dignity. Instead, dialogue and education give us the ability to understand our differences on a level deep enough that we can begin to see the ways in which they complement each other.
Professor Alexander concluded his talk with a hopeful message about looking inwards and self-reflecting to realise our potential and begin to take positive action in our daily lives.

“Oftentimes we find ourselves spending a great deal of time waiting for governments and the powerful to act in the face of injustice. We also spend a great deal of time asking how to activate the “grass roots” never pausing to realise that we are all part of the grass-roots. If we can turn our foci from waiting to doing, from the expectation that it is for others who are more powerful to act, we will never open ourselves to the miraculous ways in which God can act in and through us.” he said.

Overall, it was a wonderful event as many in the audience remarked on the well-delivered and thought-provoking event.

Morning Conversation with Professor Barney Glover

 

About the speaker:
Professor Barney Glover commenced as the Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University on 1 January 2014.

Professor Glover is an accomplished academic leader and experienced Vice-Chancellor. Previously Vice-Chancellor at Charles Darwin University from 2009 to 2013, he has a long record of success in university management and leadership, particularly in research, intellectual property management and major capital development projects.

Professor Glover also has significant business leadership credentials through membership on the boards of a range of corporate organisations and several state and national centres covering areas such as health and medical research, energy, mineral exploration and processing and telecommunications.

Before relocating to the Northern Territory in 2009 Professor Glover was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research at the University of Newcastle. Prior to this, he held several positions at Perth’s Curtin University of Technology including Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research and Development. He has a strong research publication record and has co-authored four texts in mathematics education. Before his appointment at Curtin Professor Glover held a number of positions at the University of Ballarat in Victoria.

Building research infrastructure, strategic partnerships and fostering a culture of research excellence were hallmarks of Professor Glover’s tenure in senior executive roles at CDU, the University of Newcastle and Curtin University of Technology.

He has demonstrated a deep commitment to widening participation and exploring innovative approaches to higher education access throughout his career. Professor Glover is a leader in the development of flexible, technology-based learning and in furthering Indigenous knowledge and education. He also has considerable experience in developing strong and mutually beneficial relationships with the vocational education sector.

Professor Glover holds a PhD in Applied Mathematics and has worked on both the east and west coasts of Australia.

About the facilitator:

Darren Mara is a cross-platform reporter, producer and presenter for SBS World News. He has worked across print, online, radio and television for the past 10 years, and most recently filled in as sports presenter for World News.

Darren has covered major domestic and international news events including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Australian federal elections, Olympics and Commonwealth Games, FIFA World Cups and the Tour de France.

Darren also spent four years in Europe as a reporter, editor and producer with German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, as well as around one year in Indonesia working as a sub-editor with that country’s largest English-language newspaper, The Jakarta Post.

If you are interested in attending this event, please complete the RSVP form below by Monday 28 August.

Mr Edward Santow’s Speech, Human Rights Commissioner

Acknowledgements

  • Gadigal people of the Eora nation;
  • Ahmet Polat.
  • The Hon Ray Williams MP (NSW Minister for Multiculturalism, and Minister for Disability Services)
  • Dr Elizabeth Coombs, Acting NSW Privacy Commissioner

Australia is a wonderful country: warm, welcoming, open.

It’s the country my father’s father escaped to as the shadow of the looming Second World War was spreading over Europe. It’s the country my mother and her family fled to when the injustice of South Africa under apartheid became intolerable.

My family is a big, largely happy, often chaotic mixture of cultures, religions and languages – and I see that reflected in Australia’s own brand of multiculturalism.

My late father used to talk about our family’s motley religious heritage. Dad’s mother was Anglican; his step-mother was a Quaker; and Dad’s father, my grandfather, converted from Judaism to Quakerism not long after immigrating to Australia. My mother and her parents were Jewish and this, too, is an important part of my heritage.

Because things didn’t seem complicated enough, my wife is Catholic. It feels like, in religious terms at least, I’m closer than I’ve ever been to having a full collection…

There’s enormous diversity in Australia and we should be proud of how well we get along. Yet there are times when our commitment to embrace difference is tested.

In some ways, now might be one of those times. There appears to be increasingly combative rhetoric about the value of multiculturalism in Australia.

Sometimes it helps to keep perspective and a sense of proportion by looking to history. My mother’s family is from South Africa. She grew up in the era of apartheid – a racist ideology that was woven into the fabric of the country.

I was born here in Australia and so it’s hard to imagine what growing up in that country, in that period, was like. Racial segregation was everywhere: your skin colour determined where you could live; how, where and when you could travel; your school; which hospital you could go to; which beach. It even determined which set of bathrooms you had access to.

Segregation governed every aspect of a person’s life. And, needless to say, the justification that life in South Africa was ‘separate but equal’ was a blatant lie. The facilities and services available to non-white people were much, much worse.

At some level, apartheid implicated everyone living in the country. Even if you opposed the regime and the racism on which it was based, your life was so bound up in the apartheid system that you benefited from it or were disadvantaged by it – whether you wanted to be or not.

As an idealistic law student, I travelled to South Africa 15 years ago. The apartheid era was over and I wanted to do whatever small things I could to help in this newly-reborn rainbow nation.

I used to ask people what it was like living in the new South Africa. Many would talk movingly about their hopes to rebuild the country on the foundations of equality, justice and freedom.

A much smaller number of white South Africans felt a keen sense of loss regarding the changes that were taking place. Some would begin an observation by saying, “I’m not a racist but…”. What then followed was usually the sort of racist comment that was once common in apartheid-era South Africa.

Apartheid-era South Africa is an interesting counterpoint to modern-day Australia. We should remember that every major Australian political party rejects racism and embraces a more open, multicultural ethos. Our laws are designed to promote equality and prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s race, their disability, their gender etc. We should be proud of these things.

The place of religion in Australia

When I think of the place of religion in Australia, two different dimensions spring to mind:

  • there’s the outward-facing role of religion – the vital role that organised religion and people of faith play in helping people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged, especially in education, health and alleviating poverty; and
  • there’s a more inward dimension – religious observance and practice.

In the first dimension, religion is the protector of people’s basic dignity; in the second, religion itself needs protection.

And isn’t this how most of us live our lives? One moment, we are the lion; in another, we are the lamb.[i]

Returning to my original point, religion can be both a protector of dignity and in need of protection. I want to address each of those dimensions in turn.

Protecting the rights of detainees

We are daily assaulted with bad stories about what happens in places of detention in Australia. But I want to offer some hope.

The story starts with the federal Government’s decision last month – I’d be shocked if any of you were aware of it – to implement a treaty known as OPCAT. The treaty creates no new legal rights. Yet it could be the single most positive development this decade in improving conditions in all Australian places of detention.

What this treaty will do is to enhance how independent bodies inspect places of detention in Australia. The idea is to identify and address problems before they escalate into serious mistreatment and worse.

I mention this in part because people of faith have been at the forefront of identifying problems in prisons, immigration detention centres and other places where we detain people. One of the reasons I became interested in detention issues was because my father’s father opened his own home as a kind of informal ‘half-way house’ for people who had been released from prison.

We should be under no illusions about the scope of detention problems in Australia. Countless reports say we need to improve conditions of detention. Horrifying images, such as those broadcast last year from the Don Dale youth detention centre, show we must act now.

Terrible things can happen in detention. Yet, in Australia, mistreatment is almost never the result of a deliberate policy to do harm. Problems tend to be caused by something subtle but insidious: policies and practices that haven’t been properly thought through or reviewed.

One of the most haunting cases from my previous life as a lawyer concerned Mark Holcroft. Mark was a knock-about Aussie bloke: loved by his family and friends, and a bit rough around the edges.

Mark was sentenced to seven months’ prison for drink driving. After a few days of processing, he was transferred from Bathurst prison to a minimum-security facility to serve out the bulk of his sentence. The journey takes a few hours by prison van.

Not long into the journey, Mark was sick. Soon he was screaming in agony and frothing at the mouth. He and the other prisoners in the van pleaded for the officers to get medical help. Rigidly applying policy, the officers refused and the van drove on.

When they reached the destination, Mark had died of a heart attack. The inquest revealed the denial of medical care was a critical failure.

No one deliberately wanted to harm Mark, but system-wide problems needlessly put him at risk. For example, prisoners couldn’t easily communicate with corrections officers transporting them and prisoners often weren’t given the basic things – like regular food and water – that can keep people safe and well on long journeys.

Mark’s case led to change. But it received attention for the most tragic reason – because it was an inquest. OPCAT can help identify and address such problems before tragedy strikes.

When a person is detained – in prison; a mental health facility; anywhere – they remain human. Protecting their basic dignity is just as important as it was before they were detained. We should do it because it’s right.

But protecting a detainee’s basic rights is also in all our interests. If a person is brutalised in detention, they will be more dangerous on their release. By contrast, treating detainees humanely presents an opportunity for education, reform and healing.

Dostoevsky said that a community’s degree of civilisation can be judged by entering its prisons. And this is true.

But it’s not enough just to go inside. We need to get our hands dirty; to work within the system to make sure we live up to the standards we have set for ourselves. Ratifying OPCAT presents an opportunity to make sure that people who are detained in Australia have their basic rights respected.

And I’m saying we all have an interest in this. People of faith have been some of the most active and constructive in working with people inside and outside prison. They have also been at the forefront in pushing for Australia to ratify OPCAT. This is a significant victory for the protection of the basic dignity of some of the most despised, but also vulnerable, members of our community.

 

Freedom of religion

I also want to talk about the rights of people of faith.

International law

For me, as a lawyer, the starting point is to ask: what has Australia committed to in protecting freedom of religion, as well as the allied notions of conscience and belief? Probably the most important provision in international law is Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and indeed to hold no religion at all.

International law makes an important distinction between two elements of religion. First, the freedom to hold a particular religion or belief – this is essentially freedom to think – is absolute. It can never be limited or restricted.

The second element is the freedom to manifest a religion or belief. These are the actions a person might take in how they worship or practise their religion. For example, for some people, their religious practice involves avoiding certain foods, wearing particular clothes or praying at particular times and so on. International law also protects this second element of religious belief, but it recognises that this is an area where one person’s freedom can come into conflict with another’s, and so reasonable limitations on religious manifestation have always been permissible – largely to apply the ‘harm to others’ principle.

Finally, international human rights law also prohibits religious hatred and discrimination – prohibiting any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, as well as discrimination on the basis of religion.

Australian law

Australian law doesn’t automatically apply international law. Our governments have to choose which elements of international law should be made part of our own country’s laws. Only when international law is directly incorporated into our own domestic law does it become a source of rights and responsibilities for individuals.

The way that incorporation has been undertaken has been a bit haphazard and so, now, we have piecemeal protection for freedom of religion.

There are some strong protections. For instance, the Australian Constitution stops the Government from establishing an official state religion. It also stops the Government from making a religious test a requirement for a job. But these are quite narrow protections. It’s worth noting that the High Court has never invalidated a law for contravening the Constitution’s religious protection.

Beyond the Constitution, our ordinary law offers some very limited protection against discrimination or vilification on the basis of religion – especially in a work context.

Interestingly, the Racial Discrimination Act doesn’t explicitly prohibit discrimination on the ground of religious belief. But the courts have decided that a religious group may be protected where they have a common ‘ethnic origin’. For example, courts have interpreted the term ‘ethnic origin’ as including Jewish and Sikh people.[ii]

Our law also protects religion in a different way. Australian anti-discrimination laws don’t apply to religious bodies (including religious schools and hospitals), meaning that those organisations can discriminate on, say, the basis of a person’s sex in deciding who to employ.

Reform

When you add all this together, there are some real gaps in how Australian law protects freedom of religion.

In 2014, the Commission surveyed the community and found that there was no  general view that freedom of religion was at dire threat. But this experience is not universal.

In that same consultation, concerns were raised about the negative impact of calls to ‘Ban the Burqa’ and opposition to planning applications for mosques.[iii] A recent Scanlon Foundation survey found significantly more negative attitudes toward Muslims than Christians and Buddhists.[iv] In its most recent statistics, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry recorded in one year 210 anti-Semitic incidents, including physical attacks, verbal abuse, harassment, vandalism and property damage.[v] We also see too many reports of attacks on places of religious worship or people who are visibly religious.

We need to improve how the law protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the rights of people of faith. One way of doing that would be to protect freedom of religion in our federal anti-discrimination law. This is an idea that I’ll be working on further this year.

Reform beyond the law

But we also need to understand the limits of the law in fostering a harmonious multicultural society. (As a lawyer, this is especially important for me to remember: for a person with a hammer, every problem is a nail…)

The law is very effective at regulating non-contentious behaviour. For example, everyone understands that for our system of commerce to work effectively, the law has an important role in holding people to the promises they make when entering a contract.

Imagine I offer you $100 for a box of apples; you duly provide the apples; but I decide to eat the apples and hold on to my $100. The law is quite effective at stepping in. It will say that I must give you the $100. In other words, the rule and the remedy are clear.

But what if a person’s human rights are violated? What if my boss threatens to give me the sack if I continue attending a particular church?

Even if the law says that my boss’s behaviour is unlawful, there’s a risk I’ll no longer feel comfortable and safe in my workplace. And if I am fired, what amount of money should my boss be required to pay me for my dignity being attacked?

In other words, the law has an important role to play here, but it’s perhaps more subtle than in other areas and it does have limits. What the law can do, and what it should do, is provide a mechanism to resolve these sorts of disputes informally – wherever possible, taking the heat out of the situation.

But perhaps more importantly, the law can also play an important educative function. We are essentially a law-abiding nation. With the possible exception of jay-walking and certain road rules, we tend to follow the law.

What human rights law can do is that it can set boundaries, helping to inhibit behaviour that violates people’s basic rights – so that it doesn’t occur at all.

Conclusion

I started this speech by observing that Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism is broad and enduring. A community that acknowledges and values difference is better able to draw strength from the various constituent parts of the community.

Such a community also recognises the lion and lamb in one another – that we can be simultaneously strong and vulnerable and that we should accommodate both of these qualities.