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There's no cheap path to harmony

Andrew Hamilton |  02 February 2016

Of the United Nations Days and Weeks, World Interfaith Harmony Week is one of the most recent and perhaps the most modestly celebrated. It may also be the most needed. But its claim needs to extend beyond religious faiths to secular views of the world.

'Coexist' mural on wallThe week originated in a proposal of King Abdullah of Jordan, a Muslim. He recognised that the great religions were united by their call to love God and their neighbour. They could come together on that basis without minimising the differences between them.

In Australia small local committees sponsor breakfasts, talks and gatherings to mark the week. These complement the all-important personal contact between people of different religions who are open to learn from one another about one another's faith.

These small initiatives and conversations, of course, are tiny when set against the violence in the name of religion that plagues the Middle East and elsewhere.

There, people of different Islamic groups and of other religions have been persecuted and polarised by IS with its corrupt and violent version of Islam. Hostility has been intensified by the intervention and destruction brought by foreign powers, which are then readily portrayed as anti-Islamic. Conflict fed by personal, political and economic interests is then framed in religious terms.

The conflict in the Middle East and terrorist incidents in other nations often provoke tense relationships between Muslim immigrant communities and the majority population in their host countries. This tension expresses itself in religious and ethnic prejudice and discriminatory laws, which in turn contributes to fear, withdrawal and alienation in Muslim communities.

Disenfranchised young Muslims are then vulnerable to recruitment by IS or by whatever will replace it. So the cycle of violence is continued.

To break this cycle requires serious efforts to create interfaith harmony based on a sympathetic understanding of other people and what their faith means to them. In Western countries, including Australia, it is unreasonable to expect that Muslim leaders of Muslim, preoccupied with supporting their often poor and harried immigrant communities, will be able to take the initiative in this.

So the task must fall on the leaders of Christian churches, by first going out to seek trusting relationships with significant Muslim religious leaders, and then making similar relationships between Muslim communities and their own a high pastoral priority.

When people who are Muslim meet people who are Christian and explore each other's lived faith, the prejudices based on the selective quotation of texts, on polemical pamphlets and on the listing of historical atrocities are exposed for the lazy rubbish they are.

Because the task of building interfaith harmony is vital for societies at large and not simply for the churches, it needs to be encouraged in appropriate ways at all levels of society. Faith-based community organisations which welcome Muslim workers and are present among Muslim communities in Australia must encourage conversations about the place religious faith has in life.

That conversation cannot be confined to the churches and to those with religious faith. In the present cycle of violence and discrimination which focuses on religious difference, exploratory conversation about their different views of the world must take place between people of religious faith and those with a non-religious outlook.

The obstacle to such conversation is the religious settlement in Australia and Western nations, which can be described as negative tolerance. This is an implicit contract neither to interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of others nor to enter into serious conversation with them about it. This has the merit of avoiding conflict. It also protects our own prejudices.

But in the present cycle, where violence designed to produce religious conflict also sharpens regional conflict, spills out into threats to the prosperity and order of other nations, and feeds religious and ethnic discrimination and prejudice in our own society, negative tolerance offers no counterbalance. It simply stands on the sidelines.

In our situation and society prejudice and hostility can be countered only if we are ready to explore and appreciate other people's religious and non-religious beliefs and practices, not in order to adopt them, but because they are important to our fellow human beings. That conversation is not easy, because in it our own convictions and prejudices, religious, non-religious or anti-religious, will also be in play.

But is there a cheaper path to harmony, and can we afford the costs of intensifying disharmony?


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: 1000 Words / Shutterstock



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Submitted comments

Harmony, in music, is the combining of musical notes into chords. The term "harmonious" is often used to mean 'pleasant-sounding', in contrast to discordant, but in reality discord has been an essential part of the harmonic theory of all periods of music history. (Thank you Penguin Encyclopedia). Approaching 'others' to converse and learn is essential in easing tensions and Christian churches can lead the way in this. Nevertheless, both Christian and Muslim have to allow that there are significant differences and respect for those differences must come into play. Then harmony has a chance.

Pam 02 February 2016

Australia is a largely secular society and many adults will have little detailed knowledge of their putative religion: Christianity. That does not mean that the Christian ethic in terms of generally accepted norms such as giving someone a fair go does not pertain generally. Many Australians, especially after the enormities of the clerical sexual abuse scandal, do not hold Christian church leaders in particularly high regard, so any interfaith initiative these sponsor may only be taken up by those few who still warm the pews on Sunday. Likewise I am unsure as to how highly the average Australian Muslim would regard their supposed religious leaders such as the Grand Mufti. Some of the most intelligent responses to the problems of the Middle East, such as Isis or the Taliban, come from ordinary Australian Muslims. By all means, if clerics on both sides want to participate in World Harmony Day, so be it. I think the average Australian might learn more from observing the amazing decency and normalcy of the likes of Usman Khawaja and Waleed Aly: these people resonate with them.

Edward Fido 02 February 2016

Fr Hamilton the jaundiced optic re "nor to entering into serious conversation with them about" differing religious and non religious outlooks was characteristic of some last century blatant sectarianism But Negative Tolerance reductionism belies enormous progress in ecumenism re all faiths and none eg since Vatican2 and World Council of Churches [and eg Vatican reps discussing issues at UNO with other Faiths and none]

Father John George 03 February 2016

Thank you, Father John George. In 2005 Pope Benedict awarded me the Supreme Cross of Honour of the Order pro ecclesia et pontifice, for my 50 years (starting in 1954) of active ecumenism in France and Australia.

Kevin Aryeh Hatikvah Smith 03 February 2016

When a baby is first born, it is capable only of dealing with what is immediately present. Religions, (including Atheism), experience a call to respond to Reality, usually not realising that what we see as Reality is only our limited (and thus faulty) interpretation of Reality itself, which is vastly greater than can even be imagined. We tend to 'deify' our interpretation and consequently belittle and dismiss other interpretations. The price we all need to pay for harmony is to painfully rise above our immature cosy view and try to see that God's call is universal; that 'our' call is restricted and distorted by our as yet immature vision of Reality. It is GOD we must focus on, not our 'tribal' interpretation of 'That Which Is' In years to come, we may lament 'If we had served God as diligently as we served our tribal traditions, we would not be in this mess'.

Robert Liddy 03 February 2016

Thanks for the article and for drawing attention to World Interfaith Harmony Week. Andrew Hamilton's thoughts on negative tolerance are not reductionist. While progress has been made among theologians, academics and clerics, it is often very hard to see how their achievements translate into real-world realities and perceptions in the media. Let's hear more in relation to how genuine Interfaith Harmony is actually happening "on the ground."

Helen Crain-Welsby 03 February 2016

Refreshing in that this is one of the few articles which vocalises that there are two sides to every coin and thus presents a perspective which is bipartisan. The plea for harmony, however, is unlikely to be heeded when there are ideological extremists on both sides as well as on the same side. Words come easy but actions don't, unfortunately, simply because the actions required by both extremes require force if they are to achieve change. Humanity is at a crossroads perhaps which will only be resolved by sobering war as has happened in human society from the very beginnings of its history. Very sad!! When God made man in his own image he must have pushed the wrong button somewhere on the assembly line because the final biscuit was not a great quality cracker.

john frawley 03 February 2016

Thank You Andrew. You say, "Because the task of building interfaith harmony is vital for societies at large and not simply for the churches, it needs to be encouraged in appropriate ways at all levels of society." The Faith Ecology Network has been and continues to bring faiths and science together around the common ground of ecology and care for our common home, Earth. www.faithecology.net.au

Anne Lanyon 03 February 2016

One of the many hopeful signs that eventually things will change is the increasing canditure for the NSW HSC course Studies of Religion. Students from government, and non-government schools - students from all religious traditions and none as well as their teachers are exploring and appreciating 'other people's religious and non-religious beliefs and so, the conversation is becomes much easier. No one should wait for the leaders!

Janet M 03 February 2016

Congratulations Kevin!!! 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice' depicts the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and is the highest medal that can be awarded to lay people by the Papacy.

Father John George 05 February 2016

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