26th April 2012
THE HON JOE HOCKEY MP
Like many Australians with olive skin I often get asked about my heritage. And I always get a puzzled look from people when I say that my father was born in Bethlehem.
They tend to skirt around the question of what that means because they expect someone who is part Palestinian to be a Muslim.
They often don’t know how to breach the subject of faith and how to deal with the issue of cultural diversity.
This inquisitive shyness is understandable. For those of us who have grown up in culturally diverse homes it is somewhat amusing.
As a young boy, every Sunday was dedicated to our extended family get togethers.
In the morning my “Sitty” (grandmother), my aunty and my Australian mum would make kibbe, tabouli and hummus.
Over lunch – on countless occasions – when my Uncle Eddie said that he hoped one day to grow his menswear business everybody would say “insh’Allah”.
When Uncle Jack would say he hoped to be able to go on a family holiday everyone would say “insh’Allah”.
And when my father would say he hoped, one day, his children would do well at school everyone would say “insh’Allah”.
The fact that all these things became a reality is testimony to the fact that diversity in Australia is alive and well.
And I’ll let you into a secret… my father still counts in French, can talk to friends in Hebrew, and even occasionally yell at me in Arabic. I’m jealous of the seven languages he speaks.
This is the story of cultural diversity, and it is important we embrace it.
Faith and politics
When I was sworn in to Parliament in 1996 some people warned me to avoid discussing issues of religion and faith, even inside my constituency of North Sydney.
I was told that whatever you say, you will end up offending someone.
But despite this, in 1998, my second year in Parliament, I chose to tackle the combined issues of both faith and religion head on, when I took my father back to his birthplace in Bethlehem.
As you can imagine, it was an emotional journey for us both.
When he left war torn Palestine back in 1948 as a Christian educated 21 year old, he swore as he crossed the Allenby Bridge over the grand Jordan River that the land he was born in had no future for a young man.
So 50 years later as we walked amongst the refugees in Gaza and then Amman, my father sadly had his youthful anxieties confirmed. A new generation of young Arabs shared his despair that they had no hope, they had no voice, they had no freedom and so they had no future.
Of course the Arab Spring is changing this world.
We were shocked when it began with the self immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor that started the revolts which led to the toppling of Ben Ali in January last year. Tunisia is well on the way to being a successful democracy.
After Ben Ali fell, we cheered as young Christians and Muslims then took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest against the denial of democracy and ultimately force a long overdue regime change.
And we continue to be horrified, as I have said on a number of occasions in Parliament, when we hear reports of 12,000 Syrian deaths, caused by Bashar al-Assad’s vicious regime in Syria.
In March a video appeared on YouTube of an empty street with a lost three-year-old boy running aimlessly in search of safety, only to be shot at by Syrian snipers in a nearby building.
In a moment of courage akin to the famous defiance of a tank in Tiananmen Square, a young man ran onto the street, to create a human shield between the snipers and the toddler. A young life was saved.
This happened to a three-year-old boy – an innocent three-year-old boy.
A close observer would note there is a common narrative amongst all these movements.
Young people, motivated by their faith, were taking control of their own destiny by demanding their rights from totalitarian governments.
For me, the most powerful image of the Arab Spring was seeing young Coptic Christian protestors in Tahrir Square forming a human shield around Muslim protestors during prayer. Hours later, Muslim protestors reciprocated by guarding Christian churches during services in downtown Cairo.
I am not afraid to recognise that across the world the values of faith have made society all the more richer – and this includes the contribution Islam has made to our society here in Australia.
While I aspire to be, once again, a Minister of the State, and not of the Church, I have long argued that a secular society imbued with the values that faith engenders will be stronger not weaker.
This is because the values that the great religions teach are the burning beacon of a just, fair and compassionate society based on truth and respect for a common humanity.
We can no longer just see ourselves as citizens of a country, but we must see ourselves as citizens of the world.
The essential message of all faiths – that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves – is contained within Islam as much as Christianity, in Judaism as it is in Buddhism.
As many Muslims tell me, Muhammad spoke in his final sermon “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you”.
I could not think of a more important lesson we can teach our children.
To judge Islam based on the actions of extremists and terrorists would be no different than judging Christianity on the actions of those who have over the centuries committed atrocities in the name of Christianity.
Whether this be the brutality of the Crusades, the destruction of Constantinople, or the defence of Apartheid by Afrikaans churches in South Africa – these are not shining moments for Christianity and those of us who are Christians would reject that these were deeds properly undertaken in the name of our religion.
I find it hard to believe that any God would call on people to stone unbelievers, invade lands to convert people to another faith, or prevent women from having the same life opportunities as men.
Yet some people throughout history have used faith to justify all of these actions.
The people that commit atrocities in the name of Islam are forgetting the fact that Islam, democracy and compassion have been linked for hundreds of years.
Bernard Lewis, Professor of Islamic History, at Princeton University recognised this when he noted that:
“The medieval Islamic world…offered vastly more freedom than any of its predecessors, its contemporaries and most of its successors”
Islam led the world in promoting freedom for hundreds of years, and there is no reason Islam will not continue to be pivotal in promoting liberty in society for centuries to come.
Islam in Australia
In Australian history, Islam has had a focal place since well before Federation.
The legendary Burke and Wills, responsible for one of the most important expeditions in Australian history, were ably guided and assisted by a number of central Asian camel traders in the 1860s.
The diaries and records of the duo pay testament to the work of these camel traders, particularly Dost Mohamed a Pashtun from modern day Afghanistan. They were highly regarded because the Afghans possessed the skills to survive for long periods of time in unforgiving and harsh desert conditions.
The colonial administration in Victoria noted at the time that:
“The camels from Afghanistan would be comparatively useless unless accompanied by their native drivers.”
They got that right! The camel drivers contributed more than just the skills of navigation and survival in harsh desert conditions. They are responsible for the introduction of Islam to Australia, and the construction of Mosques through Australia’s outback.
It was surprising for me to find out in a recent trip to Adelaide that Australia’s first mosque was built in 1861 at Marree in South Australia.
When talking to a young man last year who was part of the Young Muslim Leadership Program in Parliament House, an annual program I take delight in addressing each year, I was told of how he was preparing to go on a ‘mosque-crawl’, visiting each and every mosque throughout Australia’s central outback.
That is no mean feat considering that over the last 150 years more than 30 mosques have been built across remote Australia.
If Islam has been able to exist in Australian society peacefully for more than one and a half centuries, I have no doubt it will continue to play a significant role into the future.
I know from the likes of Melbourne Academic Susan Carland, Australia Post Chief Executive Officer Ahmed Fahour, Richmond’s Bachar Houli, former Rugby League legend Hazem El Masri, and most recently Imam Afroz Ali, who eloquently and passionately spoke against forced marriages on the ABC Four Corners program the other night, that Islam in Australia is in safe hands.
Role of Faith
Finally tonight, I would also like to touch on the role of secularism in the modern world.
We have all seen faith used as a tool to justify repression of freedom of thought in the Islamic world, most recently in Syria.
For many years, some governments in the Middle East were propped up by the international community because they were deemed ‘secular’. But a closer examination of these states proves that authoritarian regimes are consistently brutal whether they are secular or not.
The defence of authoritarianism by secular regimes is that minority rights are protected when without the regime they would not. That is …authoritarianism may be bad but if we did not have it ethnic minorities would engage in conflict.
History is littered with conflicting stories; however in modern times there is no reason to believe that Christians, Muslims and Jews cannot successfully and peacefully live side by side in a Muslim majority country.
Modern day Australia is testimony to the fact that religious groups can live in harmony.
Secularism cannot be used as an excuse to subvert democracy and restricting the legitimate aspirations of millions of people. For using secularism as a reason to restrict democracy, in the way it has occurred in Syria, offends both the principle of secularism, and of democracy.
Instead, there is an important role of faith in any secular society, for restricting the role of faith in society is the antithesis of secular behaviour.
At the core of any secular state must be that the practice of any religion is a human right.
But part of the trade-off for a tolerant and democratic secular society is the requirement that we abide by the laws. They are the laws created by the Parliament and the court. They are the only laws that mandate behaviour in our country.
So whilst custom may have its place there is no room for conflicting rules that seek to mandate or restrict behaviour in direct conflict with our Australian laws.
Whilst differences in beliefs will always exist, we must focus on the common ground of all faiths and cultures, rather than the differences.
Noted Muslim theologian and Oxford Professor Tariq Ramadan, not a usual source for me, spoke recently of the challenge that diversity poses, but offers a comprehensive solution:
“The point is not to integrate systems, values and cultures with other systems, but to determine – in human terms – spaces of intersection where we can meet on equal terms.”
For the sceptics of diversity, the strongest argument is to make people aware that part of society’s many successes has been because of diversity. One of our failings over recent decades is that diversity has become such an ingrained part of Australian society that some people don’t realize that they are living in one of the most diverse societies in the world.
Of course globalisation has made diversity a more relevant part of everyday life.
Information and trade flows make diversity a way of life for more and more people.
Throughout history commerce has lowered the social barriers between people and societies.
When people have social or business relations with people of other faiths and cultures they start to realize the aspects that unite us, not divide us.
This is the power of human relationships.
For example, Australia should be taking greater advantage of the emerging insatiable demand across Asia for sophisticated financial services.
The number of High Net Worth Individuals in Indonesia, that is individuals with more than $1m in investable assets excluding property, will almost triple by 2015 to nearly 100,000. These wealthy Indonesians will hold close to $500 billion worth of wealth. This is the fastest rise in Asia.
This is a tremendous opportunity for Australian business to develop and provide a high standard range of products and services for a demanding market. By offering diverse products and Islamic banking and finance products in particular, Australia has the capacity to benefit from greater capital flows, more affordable investment and a more sophisticated and diverse financial services sector.
However, there remain regulatory obstacles, such as the issue of double taxation. The UK’s Financial Regulator, the FSA, has summarised their approach to Islamic Banking as ‘no obstacles, but no special favours’.
In Australia we should not treat Islamic Banking differently or preferentially, but we should be mindful of making Australia an attractive market for all types of financial services, provided they are in line with Australia’s high national standards and stable banking system.
At very least, it is a business opportunity available to all Australian business.
The role of faith in Australian society is an underestimated commodity.
Australia is made all the richer by the role that all religions play in our society.
Forming part of the rich mosaic of Australia, Islam is contributing to Australia in its own special way.
But we cannot afford to be complacent.
When it comes to diversity, the motto of the Returned Services League rings true ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.
Australia must continue to be proud of our diversity, but we also must be vigilant to protect both our diversity and our liberty.