Ramadan Iftar Dinner Islamic Sciences and Research Academy, 10 June 2017.
Mahsheed Ansari, thank you for your very gracious introduction. Dr Mehmet Ozalp, President of the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy (ISRA), thank you for the great honour of being invited to address your annual Ramadan Iftar Dinner. Julie Owens MP, Member for Parramatta, Ladies and Gentlemen, Australians of all faiths and none: Good evening. I join with you acknowledging the people of the Durruk nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay my respects to their elders past and present. Julie Owens tells me that the Durruk word of welcome is: 'Wurami'. Let's turn to each other and greet each other with the word of welcome of the traditional owners: 'Wurami'.
All of us who have come to this land count our blessings. We live in a country which has welcomed people from every nation on the planet, people of every religion on earth. We are blessed to live in a country where peace and security are usually assured, and where the rule of law is strong and robust. Having chaired the National Human Rights Consultation for the Rudd Government in 2008, I am left in no doubt that the protection of human rights for minorities in Australia remains a demanding political task given that unlike the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, we do not have any bill of rights. When recourse to the courts is not possible here, as it would be in those countries, it is necessary for us to be more vigilant in our political processes and in our cultural perspectives ensuring respect for the dignity of every person, and at all stages of life. We are blessed to be citizens of a nation with resilient democratic institutions, a coherent separation of powers, a sensible separation of church and state, and an appropriate relationship between religion and politics. All these blessings contribute to an inclusive Australia where we can all feel at home, assured our place in the sun.
But this evening, I want to sound a few warnings, for we all need to remain vigilant if we are to be a truly inclusive nation, ensuring peace and security for all, and an assured place of belonging for the one who is 'other'. The gap between the rich and poor is widening; inequality is becoming entrenched in the land of the fair go. Faith in public institutions, particularly amongst the young, is in decline. Notions of tradition, authority and community are readily replaced by the individualism of the age, presuming that each atomised individual can work out the meaning and pursue the good without the need for recourse to past learnings or to inclusive institutions which provide the space for reasoned compromise and practical idealism. Major Australian institutions, whether they be the larger political parties or mainstream Christian Churches, are being augmented by smaller niche parties and faith communities without 'the baggage' of the past.
Though we accept people of all faiths and none, there is a growing tendency in the public square for secular atheism to be not only the default position, but the privileged perspective pushed by the self-selecting elites. The tell tale of this tendency is the increasing prevalence in our media of those commentators who label all religions as irrational. There are many aspects of our religious beliefs, whatever they be, which are non-rational, in the sense that they cannot be proved or disproved just by the use of reason. But this does not make them irrational. There are many aspects of life, including mortality, suffering, and sustained injustice which do not lend themselves only to rational analysis when we come to reflect on the chasm beyond death, the mystery of suffering, and the grace of mercy which transcends even justice. These non-rational aspects of life have to be embraced by us all, whether we be religious believers or not. We have our different ways of embracing these non-rational, mysterious aspects of life. We may confront them as non-relational emptiness or as relational blessing. There is no reason why the secular atheist should be able to define the terms or to limit the consideration of these aspects of life in the public square. Australia is not a theocratic state, and for that, I thank God, my fellow citizens and our forbears. But neither is Australia an atheistic state, and long may the status quo be maintained for the good of all Australians seeking a truly inclusive nation in which the state views religious faith and its absence equally and not preferentially. This evening, we come together deliberately as people of diverse faiths and none, affirming the blessing of life in an inclusive country where all world views are to be respected. We are able to affirm that our spiritual lives sustain and strengthen our public lives and the vitality of the polis. Our Muslim hosts show us how to give thanks reverently for all the blessings of life, and how to attest publicly the spiritual dimension of all human life.
Those of us who are migrants or descendants of migrants need to be particularly attentive to the yearnings and aspirations of those Australians who rightly claim an indigenous heritage with ancestors who have thrived on this continent for up to 60,000 years. We have had cause to contemplate these yearnings and aspirations afresh with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum two weeks ago, and the 25th anniversary of the High Court's Mabo decision last Saturday.
A year after the Mabo decision I travelled to the Torres Strait and met James Rice and David Passi, the two successful litigants in the case. Returning by boat to the mainland from the island of Mer in the Murray Islands, the waters of the Torres Strait were exceedingly calm. As the sun glistened on the water, Father David Passi, the Anglican Pastor of the Island of Mer, stood at the back of the speed boat pointing at a small island close to the shore, declaring, 'That's Possession Island.' David smiled broadly as he explained this was the place where James Cook came ashore after his epic voyage up the Australian eastern coastline in 1770, raising his King's flag and claiming possession in His Majesty's name of all he had sailed past. David chuckled, 'Cook had his back to the Torres Strait when he claimed possession.'
Next day at Bamaga on the tip of Cape York, David explained the significance of the Mabo decision to a meeting of his fellow Anglican clergy. His people believe that in ancient times a figure named Malo set down the law for relations between islanders regarding their lands and waters. All islanders speak of the myth of Malo-Bomai. Malo and his maternal uncle made a long sea journey from West New Guinea across to Mer in the east. These mythical heroes, Malo resembling an octopus, brought the eight peoples or clans into one, 'strengthening them with the qualities of a diversity of sea creatures, so giving the power to match the sea and make long journeys across Malo, the deep seas, for canoes and for battle.' In this part of Australia, the indigenous people define themselves in relation to land, sea, each other and seasonal time or prevailing wind. Fr Passi, known also as Kebi Bala, explains Malo's law:
For thousands of years we have owned the land and Malo who was the Meriam centre of it made sure that members of the society were given land. They are our laws. We have Malo ra Gelar. It says that Malo keeps to his own place; Malo does not trespass in another man's property. Malo keeps his hands to himself. He does not touch what is not his. He does not permit his feet to carry him towards other men's property. His hands are not grasping. He holds them back. He does not wander from his path. He walks on tip-toe, silent and careful, leaving no signs to tell that this is the way he took.
Passi explains that since colonisation there have been two laws, 'the white man's law and Malo's law'. Holding up one of his arms, Passi tells us that Malo's law is respectful of people's history and connection with the land. But it is a weak law. Holding up his other arm, he tells us that the white man's law is strong. It believes might is right. Bringing both arms together, he tells us that those who believe in Malo's law have to convince those who practise the white man's law that Malo's law is right. Might alone is not right. Together the two laws can make the right moral law strong and enduring for everyone.
The Mabo decision was basically a judicious realignment of the common law developed by judges to match the historical reality with the historic land grievance which for the first time had come before the highest court in the land. The decision posed no threat to sovereignty nor to the Treasury coffers. The decision was an honest acknowledgement that most Aborigines had been long dispossessed of their lands and any restitution or compensation was a matter for parliaments rather than the courts. The decision provided an historic opportunity to put right those wrongs of the past which could be put right and to acknowledge those wrongs which forever stained the nation's identity. This could be done without any threat to any other person's land rights or legitimate economic interests. The decision provided a unique opportunity for a negotiated settlement of the nation's longstanding land rights question with Aborigines at the government's negotiating table.
Just prior to the Mabo and constitutional referendum anniversaries, 250 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders gathered at Uluru in the centre of Australia to consider how they might best be recognised in the Australian Constitution which does not even mention them nor the history of their ancestors. They issued a statement from the heart at Uluru telling us that their sovereignty is 'a spiritual notion'. They told us:
[The] ancestral tie between the land, or 'mother nature', and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.
I was curious about this statement because I knew that not many 21st century Aboriginal Australians use terms like therefrom, thereto and thither. On inquiry, I found that this statement is an adapted quote from the submission put by Mr Bayona-Ba-Meya, Senior President of the Supreme Court of Zaire, who appeared on behalf of the Republic of Zaire in the International Court of Justice in 1975 dismissing 'the materialistic concept of terra nullius' substituting 'a spiritual notion'. Judge Fouad Ammoun, the Lebanese Vice-President of the International Court, quoted the submission in his judgment in the Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara. This part of Judge Ammoun's opinion was then quoted by a couple of the judges in the High Court Mabo decision. How extraordinary that the inheritors of the longest living culture on earth would quote a Lebanese judge quoting a lawyer from Zaire to express the depths of their spiritual relationship with the land. This is a profound lesson for those of us seeking an inclusive Australia. We are able to share our diverse cultural and religious modes of expression to communicate the deepest yearnings of our hearts. Judge Ammoun observed in his judgment that the 'spirituality of the thinking of the representative of Zaire echoes the spirituality of the African Bantu revealed to us by Father Placide Tempels, a Belgian Franciscan, in his work Philosophie bantoue. The author sees therein a "striking analogy" with "that intense spiritual doctrine which quickens and nourishes souls within the Catholic Church".'
Building bridges of reconciliation is very painstaking work requiring practical and symbolic action. Pope Francis from my faith tradition has given us all a lesson in bridge building with his recent visit to Egypt just weeks after the terrorist bombing of Christian churches there. In Cairo, he attended an international peace conference at the Al-Azhar Mosque and University with the grand imam Ahmed el-Tayeb. Pope Francis told the world: 'Three basic areas, if properly linked to one another, can assist in dialogue: the duty to respect one's own identity and that of others, the courage to accept differences, and sincerity of intentions.' This dialogue, enacted by our sharing this Ramadan Iftar this evening, is essential if we are to be an inclusive nation in these difficult days with terrorist threats appearing in places and at times we would least expect.
My heart goes out to you Australian Muslims of goodwill who recoil in shock at acts of terrorism just as everyone gathered here this evening does, regardless of our political or religious differences. I know that those of you who are Muslim often feel weary and overburdened with your fellow citizens constantly looking to you to abhor publicly acts of terror, even expecting that you will apologise for acts which are no more your responsibility than they are the responsibility of any of us living in the freedom of the west. I applaud those Muslims who take responsibility to educate your young people that terrorism has no place in your religious life practised faithfully and prayerfully. I take heart from the recent remarks by Sajid Javid, the British Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Speaking after the Manchester and London Bridge attacks, he said, 'After any terrorist attack, a lot of well-meaning people line up to say it has nothing to do with Islam. That the perpetrators are not true Muslims. They are, of course, right. But speaking as a Muslim, I say we need to ask ourselves searching questions.' He says that 'although we all share the responsibility for tackling terrorism, there's a special, unique burden on the Muslim community'. He says, 'We need to offer not just a counter-narrative, which rebuts the extremists, but a positive and self-confident narrative that promotes pluralistic… values — and their compatibility with an Islamic life. And that message can best come from within the Muslim community.'
Tonight, we gather with you in solidarity, respecting each other's identities, having the courage to accept our differences, and conversing with sincerity of intentions. We gather, counting, accounting and giving thanks for our blessings. We gather, as you break your Ramadan fast, extending the word of welcome 'Wurami' to all persons of good will, of all faiths and none, enriched by the sharing of food, company, and blessings. May God bless us all as we include all within the purview of God's love and mercy here in an ever inclusive Australia. Thank you. Wurami.
Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.
Main image: Dr Mahmet Ozalp, President of the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy, with Fr Brennan.