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Recovering the language of dialogue

Patty Fawkner SGS

  Preface to A Fair Go in an Age of Terror, Patty Fawkner (ed.), David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne, 2004, 148 pp paperback, ISBN 1 86355 107 7, RRP $18.95 (incl GST)

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 Read another excerpt: Duncan Campbell's "When the Smoke Clears"
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‘The politics of fear and anger and intolerance,’ warns UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, ‘may force us into an artificial clash of civilisations.’ Since September 11 2001, the world has been awash with fear and anger and intolerance. UNIYA, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre has sought to make a positive contribution to public debate on current geo-political issues within this climate by asking the question in its 2003 Jesuit Lenten Seminar series, Muslims and Christians – Where do we all Stand? and by arguing in the 2004 series for A Fair Go in an Age of Terror.

This book contains the papers given by the principal speakers at these two seminar series which were held in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Contributions from some of the 2004 panel members are also included.

In the 2003 series the two presenters were Rome-based Australian Jesuit priest Dan Madigan and Muslim academic, Abdullah Saeed. Frank Brennan, Jesuit lawyer and UNIYA’s Associate Director, responded to these keynote papers.

These three papers challenge the notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the Islamic East and Christian West. Dan Madigan notes that much of the fear so evident in the West – and expertly exploited for political advantage in the US and Australia ‘comes from the sense that we are confronted with a faceless and monolithic system that is of its nature inimical to us’. He reminds us that when we ask the question where Muslims and Christians stand we must first of all insist on speaking about Muslims and Christians as people, rather than about the abstractions of Islam and Christianity.

Professor Saeed outlines the common ground and positive aspects of 1400 years of Muslim-Christian relations. Since September 11 this positive history has been challenged. In Australia today, he says that many Muslim people feel that being visibly Muslim is a problem.

Frank Brennan suggests that, fed by our geographic isolation and history, the fear of the other is very deep-seated in the Australian psyche. He wonders if the excessively harsh treatment received by Afghan and Iraqi boat-people who turned up on Australian shores over the past few years, was due to the fact that they were Muslims. Would there not have been a more compassionate response, he asks, had these boat-people been white Christian farmers fleeing Zimbabwe?

The 2004 Seminar, A Fair Go in an Age of Terror, takes the discussion further by investigating how the rhetoric of the so-called ‘war on terror’ compromises human rights and traditional Australian values and contributes to the fulfilment of Kofi Annan’s prediction of an ‘artificial clash of civilisations’.

Frank Brennan, the keynote speaker, canvasses important questions that confront our country, questions about the justification for war, the role of religious leaders, the robustness of our democracy, and the checks and balances needed to maintain our human rights and Australian identity in an age of terror.

Father Brennan was joined in each city by a different panel of experts, people who had an interest in the moral, social and/or legal response to the war on terror, particularly the role Australia took in joining the Coalition of the Willing in the Iraq war.

The rich and diverse voices of these panel members include Muslim, Buddhist and Christian voices, voices of the young, together with voices of the more senior. There are voices of former diplomats and politicians, students and professors, lawyers and business people. They raise questions about the language and the rhetoric of terror. As one panellist declares, quoting Alfred Hitchcock, ‘There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it’!

The nationalist fervour at the time of the Tampa, the trauma of September 11, the Bali and Madrid bombings, the anticipation of terror, the demonising of the ‘other’, and the dangerous rhetoric of war is a toxic mixture that powerfully influences the parameters of current debate. Panel members critique the hasty legislative changes which have been introduced in the name of ‘homeland security’ and ‘border protection’. A climate of fear, it seems, has given legislators a licence to create laws which from a more sober vantage point might be seen to encroach on civil liberties and human rights. ‘We begin to believe,’ says one panelist,’ ‘that the human rights of the few are worth sacrificing for the human security of the many.’

These papers invite us, as individuals and as a nation, to expand our thinking. Should not respect for human rights and the rule of law be central to our understanding of human security? Do we really think that we can protect ourselves from terrorism while blithely ignoring the poverty, disadvantage and dispossession in communities in which anti-Western sentiment abounds? As we continue to wait for the dust to settle in Iraq, should we not have listened more critically to a justification for war that failed to assess the political, constitutional and regional impact of the invasion? When should we join with the United States in such preemptive action, without endorsement from the United Nations?

These papers sound words of warning and also words of hope. The final paper in this collection is from eighteen-year old, Hannah Moore. Hannah tells the story of meeting ‘Leila’(not her real name), an Iranian refugee at Baxter Detention Centre the day before Leila’s seventeenth birthday. The two became friends. Hannah also tells the story of two Afghan refugees who were students at her school. Their presence was quiet, unassuming yet, for the school community, utterly transforming. In both instances, in Hannah’s words, the ‘other’ became ‘another’, another person, another human being.

There is a shared recognition in these pages that terrorism cannot be destroyed by armaments and force. As Buddhist monk and mystic Thich Nhat Hanh has noted:

The root of terrorism is misunderstanding, hatred and violence. Terror is in the human heart. Only with the practice of deep listening and compassion can the root of terror be transformed and removed. Darkness cannot be dissipated with more darkness. Only light can dissipate darkness.

And again from Kofi Annan:

We must learn to see each other as individuals, each with the right to define our own identity and to belong to the faith or culture of our choice. Tolerance is essential, but it is not enough. We must be curious about each others’ traditions, anxious to find what is positive in them, and what we can learn from them.

The more we resort to heavy-handedness in dealing with social and cultural grievances, the more we contribute to an ‘artificial clash of civilisations’, and the more we compromise our own rights and identity.

All contributors to this book recognise that genuine and disciplined dialogue is the way forward. There is an implicit and explicit hope that we refrain from the discourse of fear, blame and reprisal, and recover the language of dialogue.

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