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Affinity Friendship & Dialogue Iftar Dinner 2006

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Affinity Friendship & Dialogue Iftar Dinner 2006

There is an undeniable air of anti-islamic, and a broader, anti-religious feel in the atmosphere at the moment. The ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ frame of mind is in the foreground of our society, as it has been in Australia’s history at different times. While so much of the world’s attention focuses on religious conflict and rivalry, it’s easy to overlook the effective work being done particularly in Australia to promote peace and understanding between cultures and faiths.

On Sunday 1 October 2006, at a gathering of over 200 guests which was made up of religious leaders, academics, politicians, educators and various other individuals from differing backgrounds, Affinity Intercultural Foundation presented its Australian Affinity Awards, to recognise the efforts of individuals who actively promote interfaith dialogue and the removal of religious prejudice in the Australian community. Last years interfaith award receiver, Cardinal George Pell was also present amongst the audience.

Notable award receivers included Mrs Barbara Perry, NSW Labor Party MP for Auburn, who was awarded with the Public Officer award; Mr Jim Mein, NSW Moderator of the Uniting Church, as he has been an active advocate of Interfaith Dialogue; and Dr Stewart Sharlow of the Australian Catholic University for establishing the Asia-Pacific Centre for Interfaith Dialogue within the Australian Catholic University.

The youth of today have been noticeably in the forefront of this interfaith and understanding of the ‘other’ service. Education manager for the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Mr Josh Levin has been involved in steering and participating in a number of projects involving Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth. Mrs Fulya Celik, teacher and VCE Coordinator at Isik College in Melbourne has been, and continues to be, involved in educational and interfaith projects in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Fulya is also an executive member of the Australian Intercultural Society of Melbourne which is one of the leading interfaith organisations of Australia.

The Hon Mrs Barbara Perry MP was awarded in the area of Public Service. Barbara’s commitment and dedication to serving her community and beyond, greatly contributes to building dialogue and addressing women and youth issues of today.

The keynote address by Adj. Professor Peter Manning focused on the theme “Us and Them”, which is also the title of his recent book. Peter says, “Building bridges between communities that share Abrahamic tradition is more important than highlighting differences. The work that Affinity is doing to create dialogue between groups is healthy and encouraging and a positive way forward for all Australians.” Importantly, many of those listening were eating their first meal since dawn, as the dinner marked the end of the day’s fasting, a practice required by all observing Muslims during the month of Ramadan. The sharing of a meal is considered in all cultures of the world to be one of the most significant gestures of accord and goodwill.

In all, 8 awards were presented at the dinner hosted by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, an organisation founded in 2001 by a group of young Australian Muslims specifically to promote cultural and religious awareness and understanding across the entire Australian community.

According to Mr Mehmet Ozalp, Affinity’s President and author of 101 Questions You Asked About Islam, “The Awards recognise individuals for their significant contribution in bringing together Australians, and improving understanding between Australians of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds”.


Affinity Intercultural Foundation has been presenting ‘The Australian Affinity Awards’ since 2004. The awards are established to recognise individuals for their significant contribution in bringing together Australians and improving understanding between Australians of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds.

Below is a list of award categories and 2006 recipients:

Interfaith Dialogue: Mr. Jim Mein Uniting Church NSW Synod
Academic: Dr Stewart Sharlow Australian Catholic University
Public Service: Hon Mrs Barbara Perry State MP for Auburn
Media: Adj. Prof Peter Manning Australian Centre for Independent Journalism
Education: Mr. John McGrath CEO, Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay
Youth Interfaith: Mr. Josh Levin NSW Jewish Board of Deputies
Muslim Community: Mr. Umit Ismen Islamic Council of NSW
Youth Community: Mrs. Fulya Celik Isik College, VIC

Interfaith Dialogue Award Receiver: Mr. Jim Mein 
Mr. Jim Mein was elected as Moderator at the Uniting Church New South Wales Synod meeting in September 2004, taking up a newly-defined, three-year, full-time position in which he will be serving his church until September 2007. He has chosen as his theme for his term “Uniting in Christ” because it provides a challenge to each church member and congregation in the New South Wales Synod. He held many high level roles within the church for over 20 years. Since his appointment as the moderator, he has been an active advocate of Interfaith Dialogue. He has moved his church to engage with the Muslim community more than any previous moderator by becoming an active partner in the recent 5th International Inter-religious Abraham Conference held in Sydney in August 2006.

Academic Award Receiver: Dr Stewart Sharlow 

Dr Stewart Sharlow is a person who is truly committed to interfaith dialogue. He has been actively working in this field for the last three years. He has been part of the organizing committee for the ‘International Inter-religious Abraham Conference’. He has led the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Interfaith Dialogue within the Catholic University, which was launched in August 2006. This centre is a major contribution to the interfaith movement in Australia.

Public Service Award Receiver: Hon Mrs. Barbara Perry
Barbara has lived in Auburn since birth. Barbara was a family law Legal Aid lawyer for almost eleven years before becoming the Member for Auburn in a September 2001 bi-election. Barbara is across all local and state matters having served on Auburn Council from 1999 to 2003 and in State parliament for the past six years. As Member for Auburn, she is heavily involved in numerous committees, working groups and community associations in addition to acting as Chairperson on the Parliamentary Committee on Children and Young People. She is married and is a mother to five boys. Barbara has a passion for women and youth issues and is passionate in building community and dialogue with the many varied ethnic and religious groups in the electorate of Auburn and beyond. She has worked very hard to bring services to the people of Auburn since she was elected.

2006vipsMedia Award Receiver: Adj. Prof Peter Manning
Peter was invited to the University of Technology in 2001 as an Adjunct Professor following a distinguished 30-year career in Australian journalism. He had been Head of Current Affairs at the Seven Television Network (1997-2000), Head of ABC Radio National (1993-5) and head of ABC Television News and Current Affairs (1989-92). Between 1985 and 1989 Peter was Executive Producer of the prize-winning ” Four Corners’, specializing in investigative reporting. Prior to that, he had been a television, radio and print reporter in ABC television and radio, the “Sydney Morning Herald” and “The Bulletin”. He was trained at John Fairfax and Sons Ltd. In 2004, Peter undertook a Doctorate of Philosophy examining representations of Arabic and Muslim people in Sydney’s media. He is the author of “Us and Them: A journalist’s investigation of media Muslims and the Middle East”.

Education Award Receiver: Mr.John McGrath
John McGrath is the Head of Mission Services in the Broken Bay Catholic school system and is the Chair of the NSW Board of Studies Curriculum Committee for Studies of Religion. As a religious educator for 29 years, John is an advocate for multifaith religious studies in all educational sectors. John was the leader of the Syllabus Writing Team for the first NSW HSC Studies of Religion Syllabus in the early nineties. Studies of Religion is now the fifth largest HSC subject in NSW, with 25,000 students studying it across Years 11 and 12. In the syllabus design and his ongoing textbook writing, John was instrumental in the introduction of interfaith and religion & peace units into the syllabus. In early 2006, John has started the successful program of training Studies of Religion teachers in interfaith studies through the Broken Bay Institute. This has become an example for others to follow suit.

Youth Interfaith Award Receiver: Mr. Josh Levin 
Josh Levin is the education manager for the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. He has been very active in the interfaith dialogue scene since 2003. He was in the steering committee and a participant in the successful Journey of Promise project which involved Jewish, Muslim and Christian youth living together for a week in an interfaith experience. Together with Affinity Intercultural Foundation, he later initiated the idea for the Youth Encounters initiative involving interfaith education and experience for high school students from Muslim, Jewish and Christian backgrounds. This initiative has been successfully running since 2004. The 2006 program of Youth Encounters will bring together 240 students from 12 high schools and colleges in Sydney.

Muslim Community Award Receiver: Mr. Umit Ismen
Umit Ismen has been serving the Muslim community for more than 30 years. Umit Ismen arrived to Australia in 1972. He was a rare person to know English fluently at the time of migration. In 1974-75, he served as an executive member of Cabramatta Community Centre. He then served as the president of the Cabramatta Saturday Language School until 1980. He was elected as the workers’ representative to the Miscellaneous Workers Union until 1981. From 1981, he was a full-time employee of the same Union. From 1989, he became involved in the building of the Bonnyrigg mosque, one of the major mosques in Sydney. He serves as the President of the mosque from 1991 to 2002. At the same time he was an executive member of the Islamic Council of NSW from 1992. He is now serving as the President of the Islamic Council since 2005.

Muslim Youth Award Receiver: Mrs Fulya Celik
Fulya Celik was born in Sydney. She has a degree in Communications with a specialisation in Journalism and a Graduate Diploma in English Education. She has taught Religious Education for eight years and has been involved in educational and interfaith projects in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. She has worked in the media, radio, and commercial television. She has an interest in Islamic Studies and Interfaith Relations and is currently enrolled in a Masters program in Islamic Studies. She teaches English and Interfaith Dialogue at Isik College in Melbourne, where she is the VCE Coordinator. She was recently involved in the ‘Building Bridges Project’. Fulya is regular speaker at community and interfaith events. She is a passionate volunteer to the activities of Australian Intercultural Society.

 


 

Us and Them: Keynote address to the Affinity Interfaith Dinner.

October 1, 2006 Bosphorus Reception Lounge, 7 Station St., Auburn, Sydney

The first thing I would like to say this evening is how brave the Conference organizers have been in holding this event on Grand Final night. They must have had some divine help in knowing that it was only the Melbourne Storm and the Brisbane Broncos who would be claiming our attention tonight. Imagine the problems if the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs were playing as we speak. My audience might be reduced to zero!

More seriously, it is great to be here. As a Catholic Australian with an anglo-Irish background but with a whole lot of close Arab and Muslim Australian friends, it is an honour to be asked to speak during Ramadan, the season of forgiveness. So many of these friends of mine look forward to Ramadan with genuine pleasure. My local Egyptian Australian shopkeeper said the other day how much he looked forward to the fasting and the sense of community that comes with the evening meal. He told me of his memories from his old country of how Ramadan was like a national celebration of joy. He re-celebrated it in Sydney with his own friends.

How precious are those migrant experiences! My stepfather, Karol Jaworski, my mother Rosemary and I used to live in Wilmot Avenue, Toongabbie. He was a Polish fighter pilot with the British RAF against Germany in the Second World War and, of course, started life in Australia in the tins sheds of Villawood under the midday sun. On school holidays we would go out looking for a place to picnic. His favourite place was the pine forests. They reminded him of the black forests of his native Poland. But when we’d get there, the pinus radiata never satisfied him. They didn’t look the same, in their straight rows of equidistant trees, they didn’t smell the same and the groundcover of pine needles was different, too. I remember how sad he became. He missed his homeland.

That feeling of being torn between two cultures is central to the Australian imagination. Only black Australians feel entirely at home, knowing their history here is 40 to 80,000 years old. Much English and Irish migrant writing of the nineteenth century in Australia is about missing “home” and you can see in the painting, the architecture and churches of early Australia the desire to re-build “the old country” in this foreign land. Suburbs like Paddington and Glebe in the inner city, with the rows and rows of terraced workers homes, are a tribute to ignoring the sunny open spaces of Sydney and trying to remember “home”. The novelist who most captures this sense of living in a foreign land is undoubtedly the great David Malouf. He shows how the Aboriginal reality sits at the edge of the consciousness of all Australians, no matter how much the new migrants cling to the coastlines of this vast continent.

2006msaral_manningSo we are all, except for the first people of this land, migrants together. Some have been here 10 years, some 30, some 50, some 100 or 150 and some 200. But we are all “new Australians”. In my own case, the Mannings were from Tipperary in Ireland 150 years ago. For most of our time we felt at odds with the dominant culture: the Protestant English. We called them WASPs. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. We, on the other hand, were white anglo-celtic Catholic. We were kept out of the best jobs, the best schools, the best clubs and the best suburbs. We hated them and they hated us. We never married them and they never married us. We thought they were genuinely weird and they thought the same about us. We thought we had a long history of grievance against them (going back centuries) and they thought much the same about us.

I can remember all these feelings from the 1950s. There was “us” and there was “them”. The task before “us” was to break through and capture the best jobs, get into the best clubs and occupy the best suburbs – or create our own. And, by the way, to outbreed “them” as well by having more babies!

Today, there is no “us” and “them” in the way I describe. Catholic birthrates saw the number of Catholics overtake their closest rivals, the Anglicans, many years ago, becoming Australia’s biggest religious denomination. But more importantly, sheer talent saw anglo-celtic Catholic Australians gain the top jobs in law, medicine and business, set up their own top schools, break down the discrimination that kept them out of clubs and buy homes in any suburb they liked.

And even more importantly, Catholics got to know Protestants. They got to know each other, to stop fearing each other, to exorcise the devils and to see the 95 percent of things – particularly the Bible – that they had in common. The differences seemed near irrelevant. No-one today would blink an eyelid if a Catholic boy married a Presbyterian girl. Indeed, the latest surveys show that Catholics are taking on board many of the beliefs of their fellow Christians across the board. “Us” and “them” virtually disappeared.

Now I should stop here to say that I am not pretending there are no differences between Catholics and Protestant Christians, any more than there are no important differences between Sunnis and Shia Muslims or Orthodox and mainstream Jews or the various wings of Hinduism and Buddhism. Differences matter.

But what happened in my time between Catholic and other Christians was that the false differences were eliminated through discussions, meetings, closeness, negotiation and friendship. The myths about each other – the conceptions that make for dehumanising your enemy – were gradually broken down. In this process, the literal differences were left as bedrock beliefs and these were found to be far smaller than the things that united us.

That’s the 1950s and maybe into the 1960s. Twenty years later there was a new “us and them” scenario. Vietnamese “new Australians” were the new “other”, the new “them”. And now fifty years later the “us and them” is anglo Christians versus Middle Eastern Muslims.

I have just written a book about this new “us and them”. I believe the roots of this
myth-making about how different Arab and Muslim Australians are to the rest of “us” goes back to conceptions of the Orient which took hold when the first Muslim armies and missionaries swept across Asia and Africa in the first century after the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) and then again after the Reformation, the Western divorce between church and state and the industrial revolution.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 he began 200 or more years of Western colonialism and imperialism based on the belief that the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East might once have experienced high culture but that civilization was long past
and now Muslim areas needed to accept the West as being superior, more rational, more peacable and more democratic. This Western belief vis a vis the East continued despite the incredible history of European violence that characterised the seventeenth and twentieth centuries and, of course, the wars of conquest and empire in South America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East itself.

This is the “orientalist” myth that is part of every anglo Australian’s “cultural baggage”. “They” are tricky, irrational, violent and autocratic, not like “us”.

Enter the Iranian revolution in 1979 of Ayatollah Khomeini and the American media went berserk portraying him as the latest example of the oriental devil. The Australian media, connected umbilically by syndicated contracts to the US media, picked up the theme. The hysteria about Iran developed further in the 1980s and then picked up with the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Its at about this time that a new wave of immigrants came to Australia from Lebanon seeking refuge from the violence and hatreds of the civil war. For the first time, Australia, and especially Sydney, had a large influx of Muslim migrants.

Then came Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the first Gulf War. Violence against Muslim women and attacks on mosques in Brisbane and Sydney began. Muslims were being positioned in the media as exactly the kind of “other” or “them” that Catholics like myself had been in the past. In my view, based on my own academic research, the media in Sydney have now settled in to the sort of stereotypes that express a dominant culture. And in those stereotypes the differences between “us” and “them” are over-emphasized and the things that are common under-estimated.

It’s easy to believe that the perceived differences somehow relate to September 11, Bali, London and Madrid. In other words, to terrorism. The truth is: they long pre-date those events. So what the post 9/11 critics have to contend with is this: what have these latest events got to do with the ordinary Muslim Australian living as an Indonesian Australian in Kingsford, a Pakistani Australian in Winston Hills, a Somali Australian living in Harbord or a Lebanese Australian living in Bankstown? Are they all blackened by the actions of 50 criminals across the other side of the world? Is it somehow inherent in being Muslim that violence of this kind will be tolerated, encouraged or allowed?

The overwhelming answer, of course, is “no”. There is no connection.

But you would never guess this from our media, from our politicians or from some of our so-called community leaders.

2006dinnerladiesI am reading at the moment Patrick Seale’s famous biography of the former Syrian leader Hafiz al-Asad. When Asad came to power he had to face the question of the role of Islam in the formation of his Ba’athist state in the early 1970s. Unlike the Turkish state, he wanted it to have a left-wing orientation but, like Kemal Ataturk, he wanted a secular state that allowed for all religions. But Islam clearly had a special place as most Arabs were Muslim and Damascus had long been a holy capital with the Ummayad Mosque and the Tomb of Saladin and so on. In agreeing to always install a Muslim president of his new state, Asad spoke to Syrians of his view of Islam. Islam, he said, should be
“far removed from the detestable face of fanaticism…Islam is a religion of love,
of progress and social justice, of equality for all, a religion which protects both
the small and the great, the weak and the strong, a religion in tune with the spirit
of the age.” (Seale, “Asad”, p. 173)
It reminded me greatly of another passage. It was the gospel according to Saint Matthew.
He quotes Jesus Christ as saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted;
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth;
“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled;
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy;
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God;
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
(Matthew, 5:3-9)
The similarities between the two statements could not be more obvious.

Or let me take another angle at addressing the alleged differences between “us” and “them”.

I was reading in a letter the other day of the attitude of Catholic Cardinal Julius of Indonesia when faced with the recent speech by Pope Benedict quoting an earlier medieval statement. Living in the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, this Catholic nun wrote in a letter that
“the person who spoke strongest of the hurtfulness of (the Pope’s) statement
was our Cardinal when he told our parish council how hurt he was at these
injurious words. The plenary session of the Indonesian Conference for Religion
and Peace had scheduled the installation of its president, Hasyim Muzadi, the leader
of the largest Muslim organization in the world, for the Monday following the
the Pope’s statement.When Cardinal Julius spoke he interrupted his remarks to have
the (Indonesian) Bishops’ Conference Statement of Apology read. After the
Cardinal’s speech, Hasyim Muzadi embraced the Cardinal and they mutually asked
forgiveness. The Cardinal knelt to do so.”
This kind of meaningful gesture seems to me eminently more likely to build bridges between communities that share an Abrahamic tradition than strident statements highlighting our alleged differences.

Trying to debate which community treats its women better, which salutes the flag more often, which is less violent, which can speak English more – and this in a city where a third of its citizens speak a language other than English at home! – and which loves Australia more seems to me pointless tests designed to promote fear and division.

I could go through each of these alleged differences – about women, about violence and about patriotism and loyalty – but I won’t. Its not appropriate to get too contentious on this happy evening tonight.

But I will take up one criticism, or alleged difference, aimed at the Muslim community by the Treasurer, Peter Costello, the other day. He said that, like the Christian West, Muslims should separate matters of state from matters of religion.

Now that question has a long history in the Christian West and even in Australia. Stem cell research, abortion, divorce laws, State aid to Catholic schools – all have seen Christian religious leaders in Australia heavily involved in politics. On the other side, Muslim leaders have been debating the question of church, or mosque, and state for at least 200 years and beyond. Al-Afghani and Mohammed Abduh are two. In the twentieth century, Turkey and Indonesia went one way, Iran and Saudi Arabia went another.

But just to emphasize, once again, the similarities rather than the differences, let me point out that when Australian forces are farewelled as they go to Iraq or Afghanistan, they have Christian leaders blessing their efforts. When John Howard speaks of “our” religion of Christianity being closest to the Judaic tradition, he’s talking of Christianity as Australia’s primary religion. And when Peter Costello himself talks of keeping church and state separate and that being the Western way, he’s doing so at a fundamentalist Christian convention – just like he did last election when he danced at the Hillsong Church in the only electorate in Australia where a Muslim Labor candidate was standing for office (the nearby seat of Greenway)!

The point I am making is that the alleged separation of church and state in Christian countries like Australia – or Britain where Anglicanism is the Established Church or the US where George Bush is heavily influenced by extremist Christians – is more a hazy one than a clear separation. Very much the same could be said for our nearest neighbour, Indonesia.

So maybe next time, Peter Costello might consider his words a bit more, and read a bit of contemporary history, before plunging in to moralistic clichés.

It is so easy to see figments of your imagination when irrational fears are lurking in your head. And the spectres grow into demons. And the demons become sub-human.

The truth is there is, of course, no “us” and “them”. There is only “us” migrant Australians living in the land of the Aboriginal people. We are one but we are many. And what a mighty strength that is.

Thank you.

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