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Toleration must include understanding

  • 24 October 2014

Observed from a distance, Australia’s treatment of religious pluralism in the last few months has been surprising and difficult to digest. The recent repeal of the burka ban in the national parliament brought an end to a period of ad hoc, knee-jerk tokenism. 

The whole fracas, including woeful comments from ignorant senators, and an obvious lack of real governmental consultation with Australia’s Muslim communities, spotlighted an embarrassing level of illiteracy with regard to Islam. 

But now that the general atmosphere of scandal has subsided, we might take the opportunity presented by these antics to reflect on how we think of - and practise - toleration in Australia, especially when it comes to religious traditions. The time seems ripe to ask: does ‘toleration’ as we commonly envision it encourage people to learn about religious traditions; or is the view of toleration that we put forward one that actually entrenches incomprehension?

We’re used to thinking of religious pluralism in terms of our rapidly diversifying Western societies, where demographic change has transformed cities like Sydney and Melbourne into sites of inter-religious encounter. So pluralism is often dealt with through reference to law, the questions being asked centring on how the state should relate to religious groups and the proper demarcation of the ‘civic’ and ‘religious’ spheres. (Think of the conflicts over public display of religious symbols in France and Italy). 

It’s easy to come to the view that maintaining stable pluralism requires only the right legal framework enforcing the boundaries of ‘the acceptable’, and that with this in place we can just get on with it.  

What the last few weeks, with their burka bans and Jackie Lambies, have really prompted us to confront is the challenge of understanding. 

In sustaining a stable pluralism, how do we encourage people to form some understanding or literacy with regard to each other’s moral, religious or cultural traditions? And by this I mean making efforts to learn, to come to some familiarity, perhaps even some nascent sympathy, with things profoundly alien to them. What if our doctrines of neutrality and ‘tolerance’ are actually keeping us complacent and stopping us from enquiring into the sources that shape or inform other traditions? 

Modern pluralistic Australian society is bound by principles that determine the boundaries of acceptable speech and action. One of the most important is that of toleration, which we tend to think of in terms of ‘toleration as non-interference’. That is, we can