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Woman of Faith Dinner ‘Unity from Diversity’

Race Race Discrimination

Woman of Faith Dinner ‘Unity from Diversity’

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

8 July 2012, Lidcombe


Thank you for your kind invitation to be part of this event.  I am privileged to share this evening with all of you, particularly when I know that so much of your spare time is spent working to build a better community, a better suburb, a better family and a better country.

May I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, and to pay my respect to elders past and present.

In April of this year, I was privileged to be part of a study tour to visit Turkey.  The purpose of the study tour was to promote interfaith understanding and dialogue, and my husband and I joined a group of people organized through the Australian Intercultural Society in Melbourne.  We were ten plus two guides – a senior policeman and his wife, a politician and his daughter, a journalist and his wife, a Bishop and his wife and a human rights Commissioner and her husband.  It sounds like the start of a joke – these ten people walked into a pub…

But in fact, it was a wonderful journey, looking at the intersection of cultures from the East and the West, from ancient religions to modern Christianity, to visit the shores of Gallipoli for the dawn service, and to understand that modern Turkey was defined by that battle, just as maturing Australia has historically been defined.

We visited Troy and Ephesus, and marvelled at the ruins that traced to story of ancient times and ancient lives – an amphitheater seating 20,000 people in Ephesus.

We went to Kusadsi and swam in the Agean for a day and thought about the richness of the history and the beauty of that country.  We went high above the town of Mansina and looked at the misty view of yet another large city that contributes to the 75 million people in Turkey.

We visited Busa and in the mist of the morning, stood under one of the oldest trees in Turkey – 600 years old – and then breakfasted on chestnut honey, mulberries and nuts.

During our time, we visited the mosques that are on the tourist routes, we understood the importance of symbols, the basic pillars of the Islamic religion.  We also visited the Haighia Sophia where the Turkish people proudly demonstrate the respect shown to its origins in 532 BC and its journey as a place of Christian worship and then a place of Muslim devotion. 

Our Muslim guides provided the commentary of the Turkish story and this was richly embellished by the presence of an Anglican Bishop, Bishop George Browning, retired, from Canberra.

There was much cause to think and reflect on the important role of faith through the history of this beautiful country, to reflect on the modern pillars of the Gulen movement in Turkey and the balance that is constantly being strived for – moderation versus militarism, equality versus religious adherence, emancipation versus devotion, economic security versus managing a vast population, world security and managing its borders.

We were impressed with the nuances of our discussion with elected leaders – governors and politicians – although mindful that Turkey was presenting is proudest and best face to us as visitors.

And of course we ate – we were entertained in the homes of families – brought into their families to have dinner – masses of food beautifully prepared and tables laden with wholesome and goodness.

My husband and I feel privileged to have been part of that group and to have that experience.  For both of us, it was as much about learning about the group we were with, learning about the country we were in and also learning a bit about ourselves in the process.

So special was the experience that we held a reunion dinner on Friday night – to recap, to laugh, to reflect and to see where that journey has taken us all since.
There were many special moments, but one that I want to share with you tonight.  This occurred in a town called Iznik.  Iznik is a smallish town in the Province of Bursa, and is bound by Lake Iznik, and still retains the wall that was built around the city to protect it from siege in ancient times.  The original walls were 10m high and still remain, although now interrupted by roads that have been made into the city.

The town is known for many things, including its beautiful fruitware vessels and tiles from the 16th and 17th century.  We purchased our mementos to bring back to Australia from here.

It is also known for Church of the Koimesis/Dormition, which was originally built around the 6th–8th century but then rebuilt after the 1065 earthquake. This was the only church in the town that was not transformed into a mosque.  We visited and viewed the Christian trappings as people worshipped in its center.

And for those of you who are more scholarly than I, you will also know that in its previous iteration, Iznik was called Nicea, and of course is a critical place for the meeting where the statement of faith was agreed by the Christian Churches.

With the benefit of tuition on tour from Bishop Browning, the Nicean Creed, something that we all knew about but did not fully understand, was brought to life.  We were in the town, we were in the place where nearly 2,000 years ago, the Ecumenical conference of Bishops for the Christian Churches met, called together by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

There are people in this room that know much more about the Nicene Creed than me. But as I understand it, it was important to identify conformity of beliefs among Christians. It was first established in 325 and a further ecumenical conference was convened in 381. 

The creed is now a mainstay in many Christian services and is recited in its various iterations.

Now the benefits of having a Bishop as a travelling companion, and indeed a theologian with an extensive and deep understanding of faiths from across the world, is that the richness of the environment in Iznik was brought to life, and in a meeting with the Mayor of Iznik, Bishop Browning respectfully acknowledged the importance historically of Iznik, noting the defining features of the Nicean Creed as a unifying document that brought together the Christian faiths.  He then reflected on the challenges of the world we live in – the alleged Clash of Civilizations, the anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish sentiment in our own country, the fear of the outsider.  And in this reflection, Bishop Browning posed the opportunity to again make history in Iznik, previously Nicea, and to call together the faith leaders of the world to develop a creed that would unify rather than separate, that would bring a common understanding and respect, that would acknowledge the differences between religions and the commonality of their central tenants.  And the Mayor agreed that this would indeed be a good thing to do – particularly as this was his last term as Mayor!

The reason I tell this story is obvious – it focuses on Unity through Diversity.  I often use the quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu that best sums up this sentiment.

“Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”

This is important when we look at the issues we are facing in Australia today and this is critical when I look at my role as Race Discrimination Commissioner and the development of an Anti-Racism Strategy.

It is good to identify the positive aspect of difference and to challenge why people are frightened by it.  In a sense when the first ecumenical council met in Nicea they acknowledged difference as well as defined what is common.

In this country, what is common is our humanity, our desire to be part of this community and to build our lives here.  When fear of difference raises its ugly face, we need to have ways to combat it.  The anti-racism strategy is not going to solve the world’s evils, but it is important for a number of reasons.

It shows that we are brave enough to name racism and to identify what we are trying to fix.  It is complementary to other initiatives such as cultural diversity, discrimination protections, developing social cohesion initiatives and so on.  But if we are trying to tackle something that we know exists, then we need to name it.

Secondly it helps us fine tune and focus where we are going as organizations.  I know that Sydney is a leagues town, but I do have to say that the leadership shown by the AFL recently in condemning racial slurs from a supporter directed at Joel Wilkinson and the response from a Collingwood player is the sort of leadership that we need in this area.

So look out for the launch of the strategy at the end of August and also the campaign – “Racism. It stops with me.”

But I also want to reflect on leadership in other avenues of life and I want to share three short stories of women I have met since I have taken on my role, each of whom in their own way, and through their own faith systems, shows leadership in their community.

Ninorta was originally from Iraq.  She trained as an electrical engineer at the Baghdad University of Technology and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 2007.  She came to Australia to escape war, to look for a safe country and a better life, and has been here for two and half years.

Despite being a qualified Electrical engineer, Ninorta has not been able to find work in her chosen progression. So she spends her time volunteering for four different organizations, Karitane, Settlement Service International Fairfield office, Assyrian Resource Centre and Mission Australia.

Ninorta says her faith as a Christian guides her to help people in need and offer assistance in any way that would make life easier or less complicated. She also believes that putting a smile on someone’s face because of a simple job that they were not able to complete on their own means a thousand words.

She says:  “I would like my community to grow much bigger and get involved in wider community work. I also envisage my community to have the ability to build and develop a huge capacity for progression. I would like to see my community develop understanding and openness. I would also like to see more employment and education opportunities at all levels for my community in Australia. Also, I would like to see a safer and more secure environment for people of all ages in my community.” 

Awham came to Australia in June 2010.  She is an Iraqi Shiite Muslim.

Since her arrival in Sydney she has worked with settlement organization to ensure that women who live in the same way as she does are connected to services that they can benefit from so that their settlement experiences are good rather than bad.

Awham wanted to know her rights and my responsibilities as a citizen of this country. As a widow she had to play the role of a father and a mother, so she wanted to educate herself and be strong so that she could be a role model for her children. I was given the opportunity to participate and I found that to be rewarding and I felt that I was contributing to this society, I felt self worthy.

Awham says: “My trust in the settlement services and what goals they have to achieve in ensuring that the issues were addressed. My faith allowed me to trust people who perhaps didn’t have the same belief system as I did, but the simple thing that humanity had to offer which was trust.”  
In five years time she would like to see the community more accepting of each other and the community continuing the work that has started, I want to see people being better and contributing more to society.

These are the stories of women who are building their lives in Australia.  They are using their faith to guide their activities and to build bridges with men and women of different faith.  They in their local communities are building unity in their own way and in their own time.

I want to conclude with the story of a woman who is known to many people in this room.

Judith studied social work and law at university and in the course of her degree tackled the challenging issue of community attitudes to domestic violence in the Jewish Orthodox Community in Sydney.  Since that time, Judith has social justice sector for a number of years.

She is a member of the Jewish Alliance Against Family Violence.  She is also involved with interfaith activities in the Jewish community.

Judith says:  “As a result of my studies and work, I developed an interest and passion for working to address the issue of family violence.  I wanted to help my community to come to terms with this issue.

In relation to my interfaith work – I am a practising Jewish Orthodox Feminist. My family and community cultivated my strong Jewish faith and identity.  I was interested in the common stories that I shared with people of other faiths and cultures around being a person of faith in a substantially secular world.” 

When asked about the importance of her faith, Judith says:  “In Judaism there is a concept of ‘Tikkun Olam’ – literally this translates as ‘repairing the world’.  It encompasses the idea that individuals can ‘make the world a better place’ by undertaking activities to make the society in which one lives more peaceful, equitable, just and fair.

This concept of Tikkun Olam and the value placed by Judaism on working towards social harmony, justice and fairness are factors that propelled my community involvement in these ways.”

Judith would like to see her community continue to support, mentor and encourage interfaith dialogue and understanding into the future.

These are the stories of men and women in this room, of the people who gather together 2,000 years ago to identify commonality and who gather across the world today at various times to work for unity.

My small role is to identify race as a thing that is different but that is common.  You have an important role in that task and the tasks much bigger and beyond.

I commend your important work and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you all today.