ADJOURNMENT SPEECH 28TH NOVEMBER 2006

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Last Sunday, the 25th November, marked the 25th Anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion and Belief. And on 10th December we will celebrate Human Rights Day.  But despite such international covenants, many states fail to promote tolerance for others’ beliefs, or even to protect their citizens’ right to freedom of religion or belief.

 

The message of most religions is peace and tolerance, but too often we find that intolerance of one religion for another exists; indeed, in some parts of the world it seems to be thriving. So, this evening I want to speak this intolerance and I’ll begin right here in

Australia.

 

Australians are justly proud of our multicultural society, and have made substantial efforts to outlaw vilification and to encourage mutual understanding and justice for all. There are many, many examples of this effort -- in legislation, in education campaigns and public awareness programs.

Just one example: Australia was one of the first countries to endorse the final declaration at the 2000 Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, which included commitments to strengthen “efforts to promote education, remembrance and research about the holocaust” and to “promote education about the holocaust in our schools and universities, in our communities and encourage it in other institutions”.

How concerning it is, therefore, to read that in the year ending 30 September 2006, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry logged 442 reports of incidents defined by the human rights and equal opportunity commission as “racist violence” against Jewish Australians. This was 47 per cent more acts of vandalism, harassment and intimidation than the average annual total. The incidents included physical assault, vandalism – including arson attacks, hate mail, graffiti, leaflets, posters and abusive e-mails.

The offences were spread all around the country: racial vilification, anti-Jewish telephone calls, and text messages as a mode for harassment.

While all this was happening we in Parliament were doing our best to condemned anti-Semitism. In the last session the Senate resolved to condemn racism in all its forms. That resolution demonstrates that everyone in this place is united in the belief that the way forward to a more peaceful, tolerant world is through dialogue. As we are reminded in the Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed"

In the minds of men, and women, it is all too easy to harbour suspicion of those whose beliefs are different from our own – much easier, indeed, than making the effort to listen respectfully and trying to understand where they are coming from. Listening receptively does not mean forfeiting our own principled position. It means treating another person’s perspective with respect in the hope of finding a way in which we can live together peacefully. It’s not always easy to accept the fact that people have different traditions, religions and values. But it’s worth the effort.

Let me give you an example. When the late Pope John Paul II was planning his visit to Sydney, back in 1986, he requested a meeting with the leadership of the Australian Jewish community—and this caused quite a bit of apprehension. The Jewish delegation felt that until Israel received formal diplomatic recognition from the Vatican there would be an enormous chasm between Catholics and Jews —and they had no idea how the Pope might respond to this point of view.

In fact, their fears were baseless. Pope John Paul II treated them respectfully, as equal partners in dialogue. And it was at that Sydney meeting that the Pope first articulated the view that, for all Catholics, anti-Semitism is a sin. This was a huge breakthrough for inter-faith dialogue and understanding – for mutual respect and the growth of trust. Since 1998 the Australian Catholic Bishops' Committee for Ecumenism (ACBC) and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) have held a formal "Annual Conversation", to further dialogue in Australia, provide input into global Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and build a firm friendship grounded in intellectual, personal and theological mutual respect.

 

This story illustrates how the very nature of dialogue consists in the ability to see oneself from the perspective of the other. Since human nature all over the world is same, it is irrational to consider some persons as brothers and others as enemies, but rational or not, it happens all too often. We must do everything we can to prevent the vilification by one group of another, and to speak out against it when we see it happening.

 

A case in point is that of the Bangladesh journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury , who is facing charges of sedition, treason and espionage in a Dhaka court. Mr Choudhury is a devout Muslim who has been an outspoken critic of radical Islamic fundamentalism, denouncing the hatred and violence it has spread in its wake. A proponent of greater dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Jews, he has called on his fellow Bangladeshis to recognise the State of Israel and establish diplomatic relations with

Jerusalem.

Though Bangladesh was founded as a secular state in 1971, it is currently ruled by a coalition government that includes two Islamist parties. Of the 147 million people, 83 percent are Muslims. Islamic extremism is reportedly on the rise, with several fundamentalist groups wanting to replace the secular system with Sharia, or strict Islamic law.

To achieve this, these groups have turned to terrorism. In August last year, 430 bombs exploded across the country, killing two and injuring dozens. Three months later, Bangladesh suffered its first suicide bombings when at least three people detonated themselves in front of and inside two court buildings.

At least two arrested terrorists in Bangladesh have admitted to being sent by Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia, too, has recognised Bangladesh as a potential tipping point, sending millions of dollars to the 64,000 Bangladeshi madrassas, or religious schools that preach extremist Islam.

Bangladesh is due to hold elections in January, and it is widely held that the radicals are set to increase their strength at the ballot box.

In this tense atmosphere, Mr Choudhury’s English-language newspaper, The Weekly Blitz , has featured strong editorials against violence in the name of religion, and has called for dialogue between Muslims and Jews as the first step on the road to peace. Mr Choudhury has paid a severe price for this.

 

In November 2003, he was arrested at Dhaka's international airport and arrested for violating the Passport Act, which forbids citizens from visiting countries with which Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations. This is usually punishable by a fine of $8, but Mr. Choudhury’s experience was quite different: he was taken into custody, tortured and interrogated for 10 days in an attempt to extract a confession that he was spying for

Israel. He spent the next 17 months in solitary confinement, and was denied medical treatment.

 

He was released on bail in April 2005, thanks in part to the intervention of U.S. Congressman Mark Kirk, and by a campaign waged on his behalf by American human rights activist Dr. Richard Benkin. But the Bangladeshi government decided to pursue the charges against him.

 

In July, Islamist militants bombed the offices of the Weekly Blitz. In September, a judge ordered the case continued on the basis that

Mr Choudhury had "spoiled" the "image of Bangladesh" and "hurt the sentiments of Muslims" by his positive attitude to Jews and Christians.

 

Just days before the start of his trial, the offices of The Weekly Blitz were ransacked and Choudhury was assaulted by a mob of 40 people, including senior members of the ruling

Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Local police failed to make any arrests, and refused to allow Choudhury to file charges against his attackers. When he lodged a formal complaint with the police, an arrest warrant was issued for him.

 

Now Mr Choudhury’s trial has resumed, and if he’s convicted (as seems likely) he could face the death penalty. His case may be relatively unfamiliar to most Australians, aside from a recent article by Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian, and to some of us it might seem strange that Mr Choudhury printed articles knowing the likely anger they would provoke. Why would someone do such a thing? The answer has to be that, surrounded by extremist he believed in spreading truth and justice, no matter how high the price.

Renowned Israeli politician turned columnist Michael Freund wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “With the rise of Islamic extremism across the globe, speaking to Bangladeshi Muslim journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is like catching a breath of cool, fresh air on a hot and sweltering afternoon.”

We need to celebrate that breath of fresh air. To protest against the maltreatment of Mr Choudhury and to send the clear message that there should be no place for religious authoritarianism and ideological extremism. Here in

Australia, the Mufti Sheik Taj El-Din El-Hilaly has attracted public attention because of speeches in his Sydney mosque denouncing women and Christians and promoting holocaust denial.

Intolerance and fanaticism rob people of their ability to engage in dialogue.  Yet, serious dialogue can help to dispel negative stereotypes and build the mutual trust that will help us find peaceful solutions to the many conflicts we see around the world. Of course we must fight terrorism with the utmost vigour, but it is crucial, too, that we intensify our dialogue. How we respond to this challenge will determine whether we will in future live in a world of escalating cultural and ethnic conflict or in a world in which different civilizations coexist and cooperate in peace.