Issue 101 / September - October 2014
Cultural and Religious Co-existence: An Australian Perspective
Harry Sprintz / Mehmet Aslan
The concept of multiculturalism in Australia has been widely written and spoken about over the past fifty years. In light of this, Australia has become recognized as one of the leading countries in the world for peaceful coexistence and social harmony. It is disappointing how little the progress that has been made in terms of Australian coexistence has been shared with the rest of the world. There are many reasons for the lack of awareness and shortage of knowledge regarding the basic fundamentals that underpin various groups of people from different cultures and religions.
Generally accepted as a Christian country, Australia became exposed to Christianity along with Judaism and Islam little more than 200 years ago, due to the arrival of the British settlers and scattered landings of Muslim Indonesian sailors on the northern shores (Stephenson, 2007). Evidence has shown that it is inaccurate to claim that Indonesian Muslims were the first to discover Australia. The earliest reliable evidence dates their presence in Australia to the mid-1700s, whereas it is known the Dutch had discovered it by 1606 (Ganter, 2008). Since the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, Australia has been subject to a regular influx of refugees and immigrants. As a direct result, integration of cultures has become an integral part of Australian society. Over the last 60 years, the population of Australia has become one of the most ethnically diverse in the world (Kurti, 2013). It is clear that today's Australia is a multicultural and religiously diverse society. According to the 2011 Australian Census, over a quarter (26% or 5.3 million) of Australia's population was born overseas and a further one-fifth (20% or 4.1 million) had at least one parent born overseas (Ozdowski, 2012). Since the 1970s, federal and local governments, NGOs, and various intercultural and interfaith organizations have worked incessantly to make Australia everyone's home. The primary aim of this was to overcome misconceptions and to promote community cohesion through principles of respect, acceptance, tolerance, and collaboration.
Many cultures, including Australian (and by implication Western European cultures), view anything or anyone who comes across as different in regard to customs, appearance, dress or language, in a mistrustful way which can invoke a variety of emotions, ranging from mild loathing to extreme fear. Such views are further affected by constant media exposure of adverse events, including minor misdemeanors carried out by minority groups from particular ethnic and religious backgrounds. Controversial news travels faster and attracts more attention than noncontroversial news, so it is unsurprising that print and electronic media release unfavorable news almost exclusively on a daily basis. Furthermore, the overwhelming influence of visual and print media has on people's perceptions and views, intentionally or otherwise, results in a one dimensional view of events. This type of news, informed by biased information, tends to shape responses to events in our lives in a way that creates serious prejudices.
Australia can be proud of its record when it comes to amicable and respectful inter-cultural community relations. This, along with its inclusive view of the religious beliefs of others, is founded on mutual respect and the forbearance of alternative points of view. In recent times, however, small but concerning components of insularity and corresponding multi-racial indifference has emerged, threatening the otherwise harmonious levels of co-existence. Much of the early success of colonial expansionism was due to the respect and tolerance of cultural differences by the British colonialists, especially in the Indian-sub continent. A notable exception, however, was the early treatment of the native Aboriginal people in Australia by European settlers (Reynolds, 1987). The initially negative treatment of native people by the white settlers evolved over time and led to a general shift in attitudes towards accepting each other's views, cultures, and traditions.
In today's world, one would have to be either intellectually myopic or simply deeply misinformed to have formed the view that 'all is well' in the world of human relations, with naked violence, in its worst possible forms, paraded in front of us daily in the international and local media. Those who profess naivety would appear to accept no responsibility for what is all too often a one-sided view of events. At a personal level, our relationships are strengthened by an open minded approach to the beliefs of others without feeling the need to force others with differing views to believe what we believe and perceive. However, they can also be affected by a sense of profound disquiet that comes in the wake of the often quite virulent proselytizing of those who cannot, or will not, acknowledge the rights of others to believe in their own version of the "truth."
Few will argue that prejudice 'feeds' on ignorance, possibly the worst form of ignorance being one that is "fed" by innuendo, half truths, and downright slander. Australia, as a country with a historically Christian tradition, can be quite proud of its generally open-minded and fair approach towards fellow Australians who choose to follow other religious or cultural beliefs and traditions. According to (Koleth, 2010-11; 3-41) in Australia: "Multiculturalism has served a variety of goals over the years, including, the pursuit of social justice, the recognition of identities and appreciation of diversity, the integration of migrants, nation building, and attempts to achieve and maintain social cohesion." This has become one of many reasons why our immigration policies, which have led to an enhanced acceptance of "multiculturalism," now enjoy high levels of success and positive acclaim within the international community (Ozdowski, 2012).
One of the achievements of our immigration policy has been the acceptance of those who are refugees on humanitarian grounds, providing the bounty of many skills and practical abilities that migrants bring to our country. This has become vital to engender notions of acceptance and understanding in all people. In Australia, communities come from diverse political, cultural, and religious persuasions. Thus, the focus should be on a deeper level of unconditional acceptance, understanding, and affection between people who may not necessarily be well acquainted at a personal level. A good example of this is contained in a biblical utterance from Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Corinthians: "And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (Corinthians 13:2). As this quote highlights, love forms the foundation of social acceptance and cohesion. It is, therefore, not too fanciful or naive to suggest that this type of love offers the best possibility for peaceful and harmonious co-existence between peoples of widely differing cultural and religious backgrounds.
Similar to the Christian teachings, Islam and its proponents promote tolerance at all levels: between family members, husband and wife, parent and child, as well as between groups and nations. The Qur'an says, ''O Mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you might [affectionately] come to know one another. Surely, the most honored among you, in the sight of God, is the most righteous of you. Indeed, God is Knowing and Acquainted'' (49:13). To this end, the Qur'an commonly advocates tolerance, respect, and goodwill towards the People of the Book (Christians and Jews). For example, the Qur'an declares: "God does not forbid you, as regards those who do not make war against you on account of your Religion, nor drive you away from your home, to be kindly to them, and act towards them with equity. God surely loves the scrupulously equitable" (60:8).
Thus, in a spirit of tolerance, acceptance and understanding, Australia seems to fit well within this ideal paradigm. In Australia, immigrants of all nationalities and religious beliefs are well integrated by international standards. However, there still exists a pressing need for interfaith and intercultural dialogue between all members and from all strata of society. Currently, there are government organizations and NGOs promoting dialogue through various events and programs. Affinity Intercultural Foundation, the Australian Intercultural Society, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Victoria Multicultural Commission, and the Community Relations Commission for a multicultural NSW are some of the organizations who are genuinely exerting creditable efforts toward the goal of dialogue. The high degree of diversity in Australia could quite naturally lead to social segregation. Fortunately, the commonsense and basically fair-minded attitudes that prevail in Australia have prevented this from happening to the same extent as in Europe (Ozdowski, 2012). At the beginning of white settlement in Australia, by a combination of free and convict settlers, there existed a degree of European based xenophobia towards anyone who either looked or dressed differently; but familiarity, liberal values, and a broadly democratic view of life have tempered misconceptions.
Australia is proud of its strong and unshakable friendships with people of varying religious beliefs, including those encompassed by the large monotheistic religions Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It needs to be acknowledged after all, that if we can believe in one single external power in our lives, it is possible to accept that we are all children from the same source. Many philosophers have suggested that ultimately 'all is perception'; however, if that perception of our fellow human beings is one of 'difference' in terms of language, culture, dress, and beliefs, then we are presented with the challenge to ensure that these differences do not create the sort of divisions that lead to a 'ghetto' response that is sadly all too often one of the consequences of such differences.
There is beauty in diversity and diversity in beauty. This beauty is further enhanced in the human experience if all people in the world agree to differ amicably with a sense of respect for different views, or more simply put, "agree to disagree." What a beautiful world that would be to live in. Finally, it may be said that the achievement of cultural and interfaith harmony begins with the necessary education that enables us to recognize that whatever differences there are, these must not cause divisions and unfounded suspicions. Differences are something to be embraced rather than feared; they give life a special richness that would be absent if everyone was the same. Above all, along with viewing love as a bond between people, we are bound to recognize love as an ingredient for human tolerance and harmony.
Ganter, R. 2008. Muslim Australians: The Deep Histories of Contact. Journal of Australian Studies, 32(4), 482ÔÇô483.
Koleth, E. 2010-11. Multiculturalism: a review of Australian policy statements and recent debates in Australia and overseas, Parliament of Australia, Research Paper No.6, pp. 3-41.
Kurti, P. 2013. Multiculturalism and the Fetish of Diversity. CIS policy monographs 138: Centre for Independent Studies (Australia)
Ozdowski, S. 2012. "Australian Multiculturalism: the roots of its success." Third International Conference on Human Rights Education: Promoting Change in Times of Transition and Crisis, The Jagiellonian University: Krakow, Poland.
Reynolds, H. 1987. Frontier: Aborigines, settlers and land. Sydney: Allen - Unwin.
Stephenson, P. 2007. The outsiders within: Telling Australia's indigenous-Asian story. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press Ltd