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A Cup of Tea, a Mandarin and Welcome to our World

A community-based educational approach in promoting Muslim-Christian harmony

International Colloquium on Managing Muslim-Christian Relations
University of Melbourne
11-13 February 2004

ABSTRACT

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 the seminars.

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.


CASE STUDY

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 session.

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 the floor.

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?


ANALYSIS

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 speaker.

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 their behaviour.

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 theory.


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 so.

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’ venue.


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 general practitioner.

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 home.


7. Build on the successes

The seminar series has opened up further opportunities for dialogue and education:

  1. We have promoted the publication A Background Brief on Muslims in Australia to Catholic Schools throughout Australia. It can be downloaded on our website.
  2. Our organisation has participated in other evenings of Muslim-Christian dialogue.
  3. We have proposed a book, which would be an on-going dialogue between Professors Saeed and Madigan.
  4. We plan to invite the various Muslim contacts we made to attend our next seminar series on human rights within Australia.
  5. I have been appointed to the Commission for Australian Catholic Women, which has recently adopted Interfaith Relations as a key focus.


RECOMMENDATIONS

Our experience leads us to make the following recommendations, which are in effect principles of good adult education.

  1. 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 or coerce.
  2. 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 ‘thorny’ issues.
  3. Educational efforts would do well to begin by acknowledging preconceptions and challenging myths and stereotypes.
  4. Dialogue needs to be grounded in people’s experiences.
  5. Promote community-based educational approaches that allow for inclusive audience participation and informal social contact with the presenters.
  6. Plug into local networks.
  7. Capitalise on any success
  8. Conduct any dialogue in an atmosphere of deep respect and genuine enquiry.


CONCLUSION

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 of life.

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 closer together.


Patty Fawner SGS
Director
Uniya Social Justice Centre

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