: Muslim-Christian Relations
A Cup of Tea, a Mandarin and Welcome to our World
A community-based educational approach in promoting Muslim-Christian
International Colloquium on Managing Muslim-Christian Relations
University of Melbourne
11-13 February 2004
This paper explores a national seminar series on Muslim-Christian
relations held in six mainland cities in July 2003. About 3000 people
attended this community-based educational project organised by Uniya,
a small Catholic Social Justice Centre.
A key impetus for the decision to mount this series was the rise
in fear and tension between ethnic and religious groups within Australia
over the past two years.
The seminars were conducted in a spirit of deep respect and goodwill,
and with honest acknowledgment of theological and cultural differences.
Informal gatherings after the seminars were valuable and instructive,
particularly in Adelaide, highlighting that it is through normal
social interaction, that understanding and tolerance will grow.
Quality educational resources and good media coverage supported
Only a small number of Muslims attended the seminars, reflecting
that this was the first initiative of Uniya in the area of Muslim-Christian
relations. The contacts made, however, will provide the building
blocks for further collaboration and networking.
The usual way of concluding our seminar series was to relax with
a glass of beer or wine. Not this time.
I found myself saying a tentative and tired ‘yes’ as
an energetic group of young Adelaide Muslims urged – rather
begged – our team to accompany them to a late night coffee.
They wanted to continue the conversation that had begun in the formal
Adelaide was one of the stops on the seven-city tour of Muslims
and Christians – Where Do We All Stand? This was the title
of the 2003 Uniya Jesuit Seminar Series. For a number of years,
Uniya, a small social justice research centre based in Sydney’s
Kings Cross, had been hosting the Jesuit Seminar Series to provide
a platform for exploring issues of public policy and human rights
from the perspective of the Christian Gospel and Catholic Social
Teaching. In each series there have been well-informed speakers
– both laypeople and Jesuits.
Usually held in March to coincide with the Christian season of
Lent, the series was moved to July in 2003 so that Jesuit Islamic
scholar Dan Madigan could be a principle speaker. Father Madigan,
an Australian stationed in Rome, was the founding director of the
Department for the Study of Religions at the Gregorian University.
Uniya invited Abdullah Saeed, Associate Professor and Head of Arabic
and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne to be the other
keynote speaker. Uniya’s Associate Director, Father Frank
Brennan, well-known lawyer and human rights advocate, took on the
role of responder.
An estimated three thousand people attended the evening sessions
which were held in Brisbane, Sydney, Western Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne,
Adelaide and Perth.
The two-hour format was simple. Professors Madigan and Saeed each
spoke for 25 minutes. Father Brennan responded and engaged the two
speakers in further conversation. Then there were questions from
As Director of Uniya, my role was to co-ordinate the events and
to act as MC at particular venues.
The series was timely. The repercussions from the terrorist attacks
on September 11 and in Bali were far-reaching with an accusing spotlight
shining on Muslim communities throughout the world. Incidents of
discrimination and harassment against the Muslim community were
increasing in each Australian city.
We wanted to explore the Muslim-Christian relations in a post-September
11 world. We wanted to ask whether there was an inevitable clash
of civilisations – as many were proposing – between
a Christian West and Islamic East. We wanted to critique popular
stereotypes, and savour what is both common and unique in our respective
faith traditions. Pre-eminently we wanted to use the seminar series
as a means of dialogue, formation and education in interfaith matters.
We knew that the tile, Muslims and Christians: Where do we stand?
would have multiple resonances and nuances. ‘Where do we stand?”
could refer to the state of play of the current situation between
Muslims and Christians, politically and culturally. With the invasion
of Iraq still raw the question would, in some quarters, unfortunately
hold military connotations.
The question could also include theological perspectives: where
does Christianity stand on the issue of Islam? Where does Islam
stand in relation to Christianity theologically? Another way of
reading the question was: What am I prepared to do or whose side
am I on in regard to Muslim-Christian relations?
All involved judged the series to be extremely positive –
for many Christians who knew so little about the Islamic faith,
and for Muslim Australians who felt that such a series was taking
them and their concerns seriously. Our reflections since the seminar
have identified a number of issues and principles that led to the
success of the series and which hold implications for public policymaking
in promoting Muslim-Christian harmony.
1. Providing Information and education
We were able to provide accurate, authoritative information about
Muslim-Christian relations. We knew that we could only do this if
we had a reputable Muslim presenter. It would have been patronising
to do otherwise. We were delighted when Abdullah Saeed readily and
generously responded to Dan Madigan’s invitation to be a keynote
Information was given in different formats, recognising that individuals
have different learning styles, and were at different levels of
understanding and experience of the other faith tradition. We could
not hope to give a basic introductory course on Muslim-Christian
relations in a two hour block, hence we produced an attractive eight-page
information brochure called “Background Brief on Muslims in
Australia”. This free handout explored issues of history,
culture and religious belief of Muslims within an Australian context.
Electronic support made the series available to a significantly
wider audience. We distributed a media release to alert local media
to the various sessions. The ABC’s Rachael Kohn from Radio
National’s The Spirit of Things conducted an extensive interview
with the three presenters. This interview and scripts were provided
electronically on our website. The series main sponsor, Eureka Street,
also published the talks.
2. Grounding the Dialogue in People’s Experiences and Preconceptions
Father Dan Madigan reminded audiences at each venue that when asking
the question, ‘Muslims and Christians – Where do we
all stand?’ we were speaking about people, about believers,
rather than abstract ideological systems.
The speakers acknowledged the commonly held stereotypes that one
faith tradition can hold of another but they insisted there was
no inevitable ‘clash of civilisations’ between the Christian
West and the Islamic East, and, while not discounting the fact that
major theological differences exist between Islam and Christianity,
highlighted the common ground between the two faith traditions.
They were at their best when speaking from personal experience
of living, studying and working in either predominantly Muslim or
Christian societies. Professor Saeed spoke on the negative impact
that the events surrounding September 11 had had on him personally
and on other Australian Muslims. The audience was moved when he
described his hesitancies, since September 11, to be seen with a
camera in a public place such as the Sydney Opera House. Excessive
talk of terrorism and the linking of all Muslim people with Islamic
extremists were causing Australian Muslims to self-consciously change
Genuine dialogue grounded in experience, rather than theory or
ideology, is a most potent and effective form of communication.
It enables participants to recognise their common humanity, rather
than segregate along an ideological divide. It is a common maxim
of effective communication that people remember stories rather than
3. Respectful Dialogue and Acknowledgment of Difference
We certainly achieved our aim of modelling respectful dialogue.
Frank Brennan in response noted that such exchange between Muslims
and Christians helped put a human face on another faith tradition
and helped break down the barriers between ‘us’ and
‘them’. He said that fear of the other was very deep-seated
in the Australian psyche.
Father Brennan observed that the level of respect and courteous
exchange of ideas could mask the real differences and tensions that
can exist between the Christian West and Islamic East – both
at international and local levels. In his role as responder he was
able to ‘push’ the speakers, inviting them to comment
on particular contentious issues.
Father Brennan asked the two presenters if inter-religious dialogue
helped them become either a better Christian or better Muslim. The
two scholars agreed that such dialogue had challenged them to think
more deeply about their own religion. They had to grapple with words
and concepts in an effort to communicate. Dr Madigan said that his
study of Islam had “taken him deeper into Christian theology
and the world at large.”
It was invaluable to continue the dialogue among the team –
the three presenters and myself – as we toured the country
over the weeks of July. In long plane flights and over meals we
explored issues and got to know each other better. We developed
a good working relationship that was reflected in the rapport between
the presenters at each seminar.
4. Inclusive Audience Participation
Uniya’s Jesuit seminar series have always had some form on
audience participation. During the seminar series there were some
insightful and challenging questions. A good question can stretch
the thinking of all – the questioner, responder and audience.
It continues the learning process and provides an alternative dynamic
to passive listening.
Questions from the floor, as we know, can be risky. Some questions
were distracting ‘advertisements’ or rambling ‘policy
speeches’ rather than dialogue-seeking questions.
In future we are thinking of asking some participants to read the
papers prior to the sessions and develop in advance some well thought
out questions. But we would always provide opportunity for general
questions from the audience.
One criticism we received was in regard to the lack of gender balance
on our team, to not being inclusive of women (we had women MCs).
The criticism is well founded. Our preference is to include women
presenters and in previous years we have had a number of women presenting
papers. However, for this series, we were not in a position to do
The fact that the series is a Jesuit Seminar Series, and that the
Jesuits are a male religious congregation influences the style of
seminars. Our intention is to provide a platform for Jesuit scholars
to explore issues and to invite other speakers, experienced in the
particular area of discussion, to join them. We welcome the inclusion
of qualified women presenters.
5. Plugging into Local Networks
The Jesuit Seminar series has been going for a number of years
and we have a strongly developed network system consisting of religious
groups (mainly Catholic), schools, parishes and social justice groups.
We relied on these networks to advertise the event. The numbers
of Christians attending attested to their efficacy.
We endeavoured to tap into a number of Muslim networks. This was
more successful in some centres rather than others, and generally
depended upon the initiative and networks of each city co-ordinator.
The largest number of Muslims attended the Brisbane seminar. This
was because of the energy, initiative and creativity of local co-ordinator
Camilla Cowley. Camilla had numerous Muslim contacts through her
involvement as Manager of the Tigers Soccer Team, which is comprised,
mainly of Afghan refugees on temporary protection visas.
We could have done more in contacting key figures within the Muslim
community in each city, informing them of the series and inviting
their promotion and participation. I did write a simple generic
invitation to local leaders in Sydney. It would have been more fruitful,
however, to send a personal letter which could be followed up with
a phone call. Our failure to do this certainly had much to do with
time constraints. But it also reflected the organising committee’s
newness to the scene of inter-faith dialogue, as well as our tentativeness
and lack of familiarity with Sydney’s Islamic community.
The seminars have usually been held on Catholic property –
a school, church or parish hall. These are venues operated by groups
with whom we have a natural affiliation. Some organisations waived
hall hire costs and this suited our tight budget! The City Hall
in Brisbane was the only non-Catholic venue. Again this could account
for the larger number of Muslims attending a more ‘neutral’
6. Informal Social Contact Before and After the Seminar
This has been an attractive feature of the Jesuit Seminars. Many
supporters and colleagues attend the sessions and have continued
the conversation over a post seminar ‘cuppa’ or drink.
Some venues, unfortunately, did not lend themselves to such arrangements.
Presenters, however, always made themselves available for further
discussion, book signing etc.
We did not know how a good number of Muslims came to hear about
the Adelaide session. It was there that the presenting team accepted
the invitation to a post-session coffee at the home of a local Muslim
For me, personally, this was the most significant event of the
entire series. I had never been inside a Muslim home and I had spoken
with a few Muslim men but to my knowledge had never held a conversation
with a Muslim woman, save from being served by women wearing the
hijab in western Sydney.
My usual way of relaxing after a night’s session was to wind
down with colleagues over a glass of wine. As I drank my tea and
ate a refreshing mandarin, the conversation in the doctor’s
home ‘wound up’. The group of mainly young Muslims were
animated in their discussion, thirsting for understanding and acceptance
within an increasingly suspicious Australian society. They were
grateful for the opportunity to have their concerns raised by such
a series and responded with enthusiasm to the encouragement they
received from the three speakers.
Their conversation with Professor Saeed was particularly energetic,
as together they explored issues of Muslim faith and life ‘down
under’. It was good to continue the dialogue that had begun
in a cold Catholic Church in the warmth and informality of a Muslim
7. Build on the successes
The seminar series has opened up further opportunities for dialogue
- We have promoted the publication A Background Brief on Muslims
in Australia to Catholic Schools throughout Australia. It can
be downloaded on our website.
- Our organisation has participated in other evenings of Muslim-Christian
- We have proposed a book, which would be an on-going dialogue
between Professors Saeed and Madigan.
- We plan to invite the various Muslim contacts we made to attend
our next seminar series on human rights within Australia.
- I have been appointed to the Commission for Australian Catholic
Women, which has recently adopted Interfaith Relations as a key
Our experience leads us to make the following recommendations,
which are in effect principles of good adult education.
- Provide community groups with reliable and relevant information
in a variety of formats. It is important that material be pedagogically,
rather than ideologically based, that is, that printed, spoken,
and web-based information aim to educate rather than convince
- That any efforts in promoting Muslim-Christian harmony and
cooperation focus on the positives in Muslim-Christian relations
yet not resile from acknowledging the existence of complex and
- Educational efforts would do well to begin by acknowledging
preconceptions and challenging myths and stereotypes.
- Dialogue needs to be grounded in people’s experiences.
- Promote community-based educational approaches that allow for
inclusive audience participation and informal social contact with
- Plug into local networks.
- Capitalise on any success
- Conduct any dialogue in an atmosphere of deep respect and genuine
My involvement in the series was personally enriching. I was exposed
to new and interesting information. More importantly, I was able
to engage at a personal and professional level with Christians and
Muslims who share similar hopes for an inclusive Australian way
This seminar series was one modest effort in promoting Muslim-Christian
harmony and cooperation. Muslim and Christians – where do
we all stand? No matter how incremental the steps we have taken,
it has, I believe, helped Australian Muslims and Christians stand
Patty Fawner SGS
Uniya Social Justice Centre
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© 2003 Uniya, PO Box 522,
Kings Cross NSW 1340
Tel: +61 2 9356 3888 Fax: +61 2 9356 3021