It started with a phone call from the then Premier of Western Australia, Dr Geoff Gallop. I was the president of the peak advocacy body representing the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities of WA and he was also the Minister for Multicultural Interests. His first comment was “what are we going to do?” This was 2004 and the date was the 26th of December, Boxing Day. What had happened that day was soon to play out as sheer devastation of the magnitude we had not seen for a very long time in the world. A Tsunami had stuck parts of South East Asia and carnage had ensued. Over the next few days we discovered the extent of the damage done in terms of lives lost in the region:
The “honour” table of casualties in some of the countries in the region read as follows:
Country & Number of casualties
India – 10749
Indonesia – 220000
Malaysia – 74
Maldives – 108
Somalia – 312
Sri Lanka – 35322
Thailand – 16669
Australia – 26
Over the ensuing period Premier Gallop and a host of us had a few conversations about what we could do in a meaningful fashion to commemorate the sheer tragedy that had occurred. We decided that we would work with an interfaith ceremony that would convey our sincere good wishes to the people of the region from the people of WA. A committee was formed and we discussed the various considerations. The Aboriginal community was represented by Ken, (Indigenous name: Nundjan Djiridjarkan), a man adored by many in the community. We had decided that the interfaith ceremony was to be representative of all the faiths and in the various discussions we considered the appropriateness of different venues. The Swan River was considered and the logistics were seen as too difficult to organise. So the alternative venue chosen was the area at City Beach between the eating establishments. Once that was decided, Ken informed us that this was a good choice of venue because Aboriginal legend and lore had it that the very first tsunami that had hit the earth had come through at City Beach. Whatever the legend, we had chosen the venue to signify what we, in WA had in common with the regions hit by the tsunami. The idea was that what we had in common with the region was the Indian Ocean. So the event commenced.
There were around 4500 people who attended the ceremony at City Beach that day in January 2005. The report in the Sydney Morning Herald read as follows:
“About 4,000 West Australians of all ages and nationalities gathered on the shores of the Indian Ocean this morning for a multi-faith memorial service. The City Beach gathering was attended by Premier Geoff Gallop and other services were held in regional areas including Albany, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie and Broome”.
On the day of the event, we had faith leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Catholic (and other Christian denominations), Baha’i and Sikh among others commemorate the lives of those lost. We released flowers from our gardens across the Indian Ocean to be taken there by the waves, on the same ocean that had wreaked havoc on the region just a few weeks earlier. It was an event that the then Federal Minister for Multicultural Interests said was the most significant one in our nation.
Now roll forward ten years and the Sydney siege has occurred. On 15th and 16th December a number of people were held hostage by a lone gunman. I have taken the view that I do not wish to glorify his actions by even mentioning his name. On the Monday night I received a call from a mate of mine who runs an organisation called Turbans for Trust. Harjit was keen to attend an interfaith service to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community against the expected community backlash. So commenced a journey that saw a seed of an idea grow into the “Interfaith service following the Sydney siege”. Details of that service are here:
There were a number of important lessons learned from the event. Some of these are as follows:
- The commitment to the concept of community engagement and harmony from the various faith leaders was unconditional. Reverend’s Chris Bedding and Craig Collas from the Christian faith, Sheikh Yahya Ibrahim from the Muslim community, Pandit Subramanya Bhat (Hindu), Dr Jimmy Seow (Baha’i), Ven Sujato (Buddhist), Rabbi Frielich (Jewish) and Sukhjit Kaur (Sikh) were completely committed to making it clear that the actions of the gunman were not condoned or supported by any of the faith groups.
- There was a common message that was being echoed by every one of these faith leaders. None of them had discussed with each other what they were going to be saying. But the basic tenets of all the religions were the same.
- There was unanimous agreement that we needed to do something like this more often. However, we wished that the events that led to such a commonality of purpose should be a happy event rather than one born in an attack of terror and murder.
- These events will be the significant part of future community engagement in ensuring a Multicultural and multi religious Australia.
There are many people who will read this article and take the view that religion is not a part of a secular society. This is a point of view I have considered at length for my years of living in this country. Let me draw a distinction between “secularism” and “anti-religionism”. I am an atheist and have been so for many years. I am also a person who believes in secularity in government issues. However, I have never been nor ever will be a person who is “Anti- religion”. As a person who has steadfastly argued the right of the different faith groups to practice their faiths within the confines of the laws of the country, how could I ever consider the position of denying ANY religious group this basic human right?
It is therefore, my view, that it is not a mutually exclusive position to be secular, atheistic and at the same time allowing religions to co-exist. The classic definition of secularism goes as follows:
“Secularism is the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. One manifestation of secularism is asserting the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, or, in a state declared to be neutral on matters of belief, from the imposition by government of religion or religious practices upon its people.”
On the other hand the term anti religion is defined as follows:
“Antireligion is opposition to religion. Antireligion is distinct from atheism (the absence of a belief in deities) and antitheism (an opposition to belief in deities), although antireligionists may be atheists or antitheists. The term may be used to describe opposition to organized religion, or to describe a broader opposition to any form of belief in the supernatural or the divine”. – Wikipedia.
This then leads me to the position where I regard myself as “Atheist” but far from “Anti-Religion”. I support the right of every person in our community to respect and practise the religion of their choice. The fact that I choose not to follow any organised religion of my own cultural upbringing is irrelevant to the right of my fellow human being to practise their own religious rites.
All of this leads me to the view that in a period of Human history unparalleled in its position of quite substantial religious dis-harmony, we need to examine what it is that draws us together rather than what separates us. Clearly, the area of religious tenets that are common across the faith groups is a significant magnet to bring us together. Therefore if I have one suggestion to the current Minister for Multicultural Interests, it is that we need to devote as much of the meagre resource allocated to the promotion of Multiculturalism in this state (around $5million) to interfaith issues. We already have leaders in that area that are committed to the concept. Utilising that energy that is in abundance already makes very good economic sense. Having been involved in two of the most significant interfaith services run in this town over the last ten years, I am confident that the strong sense of community togetherness and spirit that can be generated can be sustained and developed.
For now, it is over to the Minister for his action.