Remarks of Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner to the 12th Annual Victorian Parliament Iftar Dinner

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Acknowledgements

  • Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation;
  • Ahmet Keskin, Executive Director, Australian Intercultural Society;
  • Sarah Abo, SBS World News, for that kind introduction;
  • Distinguished members of parliament and others.

Introduction

I’ve been worrying a lot about fish recently. 

Throughout the fisheries of the world, a strange phenomenon has been occurring. In coastal village after coastal village, where families have relied for generations on catching fish for their livelihood, a truly horrifying scene is playing out.

It starts with something subtle: a fisherman, with a keen eye, will notice a small decrease in the number of fish he’s catching. It won’t really worry him; the decrease is small, but he’ll note it and make the sort of adjustment that his predecessors always did to preserve the overall health of the stock.

But the problem will persist. It doesn’t get much worse, so it’s worrying, but really no more than an irritant. There are still plenty of fish to catch; it’s just that the stocks don’t seem quite as plentiful as they once were and the adjustments that have always helped the ecosystem to re-balance don’t seem to be doing much.

And then one day, the fish are gone. All of them. Not a gradual decline on the same modest trend line that the fisherman has been observing, but a catastrophic plummet to nothingness.

Why? What the fisherman couldn’t see was that, as the fish were being over-fished in his area, the fish from the neighbouring areas started moving into his patch. He had the illusion that not much was changing. But as those new fish were themselves over-fished, there were suddenly no more neighbouring fish populations to rely on.

And so it is that a small problem can become a catastrophe when we see our world through a warped lens; when we only perceive part of the picture, but miss the crucial things that help us understand the most important elements.

I was thinking about this over the weekend, as I watched the news reports from London. I’m sure like all of you, the scenes of injury, death and destruction filled me with sorrow. I genuinely can’t imagine the anguish of anyone whose loved one died or was seriously injured in the London terror attacks.

All I can say is that I join with so many others in extending my sympathy, love and prayers to the innocent. And I condemn those who exult in wanton death and destruction. No religious or other ideology can possibly justify these acts.

Those horrifying events in London take place in a context. All events occur in a context.

Part of that context is that we are in the holy month of Ramadan. Another part of that context is that Ramadan is a time of extraordinary generosity by the Muslim community: last year, in Ramadan, British Muslims gave over GBP 100 million to charity. On a smaller level, after the terrorist attack last month in Manchester, a huge number of Muslim taxi drivers gave free rides to people desperately fleeing the stadium where the attack took place.

My point is that we also have some choice in what contextual factors we focus on. If we choose to focus only on things that divide our community, that give us cause for fear, then I’m sorry to say that we will have plenty to look at… but we’ll also see a grotesque distortion of the community we truly live in. And if we think the distortion is real, then we’re likely to make mistakes – terrible mistakes – in how we interact with each other.

Iftar in Melbourne

It’s inescapable that we come together tonight in this context. No doubt we wish some of the contextual factors were different, but fundamentally an evening like tonight’s Iftar Dinner repudiates a worldview that glorifies violence and hatred.

Speaking to my Muslim friends, I’ve learnt how Iftar provides a joyous rhythm throughout the month of Ramadan. Every Muslim family has its own Iftar rituals. Of course, there are the special recipes and tasty treats. I’ve also heard how some families routinely open their homes to strangers, helping new arrivals to connect to their community. And how fasting, as well as breaking the fast, can help bring families together in the service of something holy and important.

There’s also room to be a bit light-hearted. Many of the internet’s data farms seem dedicated to Iftar and Ramadan memes. There’s the picture of the skeleton lamenting that it waited too long for Iftar. There’s a popular Australian meme featuring a hungry-looking koala asking whether it’s Iftar time yet. There’s even a meme with a nice pun: “every night is date night during Ramadan”.

These jokes all focus on the most obvious part of Ramadan and Iftar – the famine and feast. But many Islamic scholars emphasise that these things are an easy entry point to much deeper questions. Ramadan presents an opportunity for the better angels of our nature to come to the fore. By foregoing things that we take for granted; by taking care to be kind, respectful and just; we are more likely to live out our values.

We don’t have to be Muslim or even religious to know that slowing down, focussing on doing good and avoiding mischief can help us recalibrate our lives, making us focus on what’s truly important.

The link is frequently drawn between Ramadan and the Christian period of Lent, as well as to practices in other traditions that draw out these universal themes.

It’s a hallmark of modern Australia that at any one time, a diverse mix of religious and spiritual ceremonies combine to create a wonderful, positive cacophony. This is a reminder that Australia is warm, welcoming and open.

This is true for me personally. Australia is the country my father’s father escaped to as the shadow of the looming Second World War was spreading over Europe. It’s the country my mother and her family fled to when the injustice of South Africa under apartheid became intolerable.

My family is a big, largely happy, often chaotic mixture of cultures, religions and languages – and I see that reflected in Australia’s own brand of multiculturalism.

My late father used to talk about our family’s motley religious heritage. Dad’s mother was Anglican; his step-mother was a Quaker; and Dad’s father, my grandfather, converted to Quakerism not long after immigrating to Australia. My mother and her family are Jewish and this, too, is an important part of my heritage.

Because things didn’t seem complicated enough, my wife is Catholic. It feels like, in religious terms at least, I’m closer than I’ve ever been to having a full collection…

In Australia, our diversity is celebrated as a strength. Yet there are times when our commitment to embrace difference is tested.

In some ways, now might be one of those times. There appears to be increasingly combative rhetoric about the value of multiculturalism in Australia.

We should remember that every major Australian political party rejects racism and embraces a more open, multicultural ethos. Our laws are designed to promote equality and prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s race, their disability, their gender, their age… We should be proud of these things.

Racism and false assumptions

But we should also be realistic in acknowledging that prejudice and discrimination continue to exist, and they affect some communities more than others.

Before I started as Human Rights Commissioner in August, I was CEO of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). At PIAC, we worked a lot with police as well as the communities that come into closest contact with the police – including people from a Muslim background.

Let me give an example. In a two-and-a-half year period, one of PIAC’s clients, whom I’ll call Jack, was stopped and searched by the police unlawfully on 59 occasions; he was directed unlawfully by the police to move on 7 times; and police entered onto his property unlawfully 87 times.

I’m not saying that the police were targeting Jack because of his religious or ethic background, but I don’t know young people with a skin colour or background like mine who experience this sort of treatment.

It’s not fair. It hurts community relations and it encourages people like Jack to distrust the police.

Many good people work hard to improve relationships between the police and the communities that often feel targeted by the police. That involves standing up when there is injustice.

But it also means taking a calmer, more soothing approach to build better understanding between these communities and the police. And it’s starting to be successful. Working with some excellent senior police officers, a great deal of progress has been made in improving the relationship with communities that have often had a difficult relationship with the police, including homeless people, LGBTI people and people from a Muslim background.

Religion, social cohesion and human rights

In Australia, equality and social cohesion depend on a combination of laws, policies and that amorphous thing we call ‘culture’. This can be threatened by anyone who claims some kind of religious justification for their violent, extremist ideology.

Too often we’re told that liberty and security are mutually exclusive. They’re not. Our federal and state governments are absolutely correct to target violent extremism. And to do so robustly with the many tools that the state has at its disposal. This is important in protecting one of the most fundamental rights of all: to live in peace and safety.

In Australia, equality and social cohesion can also be threatened in other ways too. There are increasing reports of attacks on people of faith and on freedom of religion.

In 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission surveyed the community and reported two findings that appear to be in tension. On one hand, the Commission found there was no general view that freedom of religion was at dire threat.

However, concerns were raised about the negative impact of calls to ‘Ban the Burqa’[i] and opposition to planning applications for mosques.  A recent Scanlon Foundation survey found significantly more negative attitudes toward Muslims than Christians and Buddhists.[ii]  In its most recent statistics, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry recorded in one year 210 anti-Semitic incidents, including physical attacks, verbal abuse, harassment, vandalism and property damage.[iii]  We also see too many reports of attacks on places of religious worship or people who are visibly religious.

Addressing these problems directly takes time and creativity. Clearly, we need strong laws. But we also need education and simply to open the hand of friendship – just as the organisers of this Iftar Dinner are doing.

Conclusion

It is such an honour for me to be invited to be here this evening. I realise that I now stand as one of the last obstacles between all of you and what might be an increasingly urgent desire to break the fast.

So, let me finish with one last thought. I started this speech by observing that Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism is broad and enduring. It is stronger than the fear of difference; stronger than hatred; stronger than violence.

Australia is literally an island. But that doesn’t mean we should retreat in isolation and fear. The pragmatic reality is that those responses provide no real protection anyway. We as a community are strongest when we are confident enough in our own identity and values that we can assert those things while embracing the good in others.

A community that acknowledges and values difference is better able to draw strength from its constituent parts. Terrorist events such as the weekend’s tragedy in London challenge us. Events such as tonight’s Iftar Dinner help us to meet that challenge with confidence, emphasising our mutual respect.

Ramadan Mubarak

Breaking Bread - Mural by David Fitcher, Photo by Lorianne di Sabato

Breaking Bread - A mural by Mural by David Fichter Photo by Lorianne DiSabato source: Flickr

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Endnotes

  1. Australian Human Rights Commission, Rights & Responsibilities Consultation Report 2015 (2015) 27-28. At: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/publications/rights-responsibilities-consultation-report (viewed 5 June 2017).
  2. Andrew Markus, Australians Today: The Australia@2015 Scanlon Foundation Survey (2016) Scanlon Foundation, Australian Multicultural Foundation and Monash University, 78. At http://scanlonfoundation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Australians-Today.pdf (viewed 5 June 2017).
  3. This covered the period from 1 October 2015 to 30 September 2016: Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Report on Anti-Semitism in Australia 2016 (2016) 20. At http://www.ecaj.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/ECAJ-Antisemitism-Report-2016d-WEB.pdf (viewed 5 June 2017).