Thank you for the opportunity to address this historic meeting of Australian Imams.
These are challenging times for Muslims.
As the spiritual leaders of Australian Muslims you carry major responsibilities.
In some ways those responsibilities are daunting, but they are also rich with opportunity:
In these times, each one of you not only provides that essential spiritual dimension to the lives of so many Australian Muslims, but you also have the opportunity to assist in efforts to protect the Australian community by denouncing, with authority, any link between terrorism and the teachings of your religion.
It’s no coincidence that similar meetings of Imams have occurred in other countries, such as the Muslims of Europe Conference in July, the Austrian Imam Conference in April 2005 and the European Imam Conference in June 2003.
The communiqué from the Austrian Imam Conference last year, said in part, and I quote:
“In this situation, Muslims themselves have the responsibility, even the obligation, to…bring the focus again on the overwhelming majority of Muslims who, in living up to the teachings of their religion, stand for mutual respect and understanding and reject terrorism...”
This theme of responsibility, leadership and opportunity is at the heart of my comments this morning.
I want to start with some brief words about the relationship between religion and a secular state, because one third of the world’s one billion Muslims live as minority members of secular countries, such as Australia.
As I see it, the relationship anyone, of any faith, has with their god is a one-to-one relationship. It is a personal commitment.
Yet, at the same time, we all must live in a world where we are part of a community, where we must have effective relationships with the other people who make up that community. It is a community commitment.
These two commitments are important. To achieve a cohesive society one commitment can’t dictate to the other.
In this regard, one of the most fundamental aspects of our democracy in Australia is the separation of church and state.
This separation of church and state has contributed significantly to the stability of our democracy and underpinned our commitment to values such as our respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, including freedom of religion, our commitment to the rule of law, the equality of men and women, the spirit of a fair go, of tolerance and compassion for those in need.
For this reason, in the context of this conference, whilst as a government we are happy to assist and provide support for your meeting, it is not our role to prescribe, for example, the qualifications for Imams, or to have a say in the creation of a Board of Imams, or to run seminaries for religious leaders.
Nor is it our role to step in and resolve disputes within the religious community – all of these matters are ones for leadership from yourselves.
Australia has been hugely successful at integrating people, millions of people with diverse backgrounds from over 200 countries.
We have created one broad family, with one overiding culture, based on those set of common values, but without denying people their roots.
In fact, Australia’s success in integrating people from so many diverse backgrounds owes much to the community’s willingness to embrace and draw from the wealth of that diversity, and we are all the richer for it.
But this success was not inevitable. We have all had to work at it. And, the task is never finished.
My sense is that fortunately Australians tend to treat people as they find them.
In general, Australians aren’t prejudiced against race or religion, or fixated on class or accents.
Australia’s billion dollar response to the Tsunami reflects this point.
The relief was delivered to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Seychelles as well as Thailand and India. These donations were made to people of many countries of many faiths - Islam, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist – and by far the biggest commitment was made to the largest Muslim community in the world, Indonesia.
The public and the Government responded without equivocation, at a very human level, to the tragedy that was unfolding. Australians gave generously to help them rebuild their lives.
Importantly, Australians made these donations in a post September 11 and Bali world.
As such, I believe that there is enormous good will from which Australian Muslims can draw comfort.
After all, Australian Muslims, like most Australians, just want to get on with their lives - to raise a family, hold down a good job, pay the mortgage, take a holiday, enjoy the company of friends and move comfortably and securely in the community.
International Terrorism and the challenge for us today
However there is a problem, a serious problem.
We live in a world of global terrorism where evil acts are being regularly perpetrated in the name of your faith.
I think it is important to be very clear about what these terrorists are seeking to do by purporting to act in the name of Islam.
As I see it, in order to achieve their objective, every terrorist act of recent years has had the intent of doing two things – firstly to generate fear, suspicion and resentment among non-Muslim members of western communities, while at the same time stigmatising Muslim members of the same communities.
The clear strategy is to divide our community through fear and misunderstanding; to make Muslims feel alienated from their western community with the objective of radicalising some of the angry and alienated young men and women.
We must all - Muslim and non-Muslim alike – recognise the games these terrorists are seeking to play with our minds.
This is the first step, understanding what and who is the problem.
In this regard, the terrorists’ obscene campaign, in the name of a great religion, has led many to question and fear Islamic culture and beliefs. This is the problem.
The associated unfair stigmatisation of most of Australia’s 360,000 Muslims is not the problem, it is a symptom of the problem. The stigmatisation is one of the consequences intended by the extremists.
Yet, some people say that the problem of stigmatisation of Muslim people is a problem caused and generated by the media; that the media seeks to portray Australians Muslims in a negative way.
While there may be such elements I don’t subscribe to that point of view – more often than not the media simply reflects its readership, its listeners or viewing audience. In this instance, the media is reflecting the very real anxiety and suspicion within the broader community as a result of terrorist acts.
And, because it is your faith that is being invoked as justification for these evil acts, it is your problem.
You can’t wish it away, or ignore it just because it has been caused by others.
It is very much part of the world-wide struggle going on for the soul of Islam, a struggle that will be won or lost by Muslims, not non-Muslims.
The extremists want to take the Muslim community back to the 7th Century. But, there are many hundreds of millions of other Muslims supportive of democracy, who are economic modernisers, who want to see Islam regain its long lost prominence in world sciences, the arts, in commerce. For instance, the biggest Muslim country, Indonesia, is a democracy, and many of the Gulf States see themselves being the Singapore or Hong Kong of Europe.
There is nothing inevitable about the goal of the extremists, and there is much to be hopeful about.
But to win this struggle for the soul of Islam, Muslims, including Australian Muslims, need to take responsibility for their destiny; they need to tackle the root cause, not the symptoms, of current difficulties.
Australian Muslims need to be confident of themselves as good citizens given the long history of Islam in Australia and the very significant contribution to our society of many successful men and women.
Yet, all too often, since 9/11, so many lapse into recrimination, and paint themselves as the victim when political leaders or commentators raise the hard issues associated with terrorism.
Instead, speak up and condemn terrorism, defend your role in the way of life that we all share here in Australia. Some of your leaders do this, but too many are silent, or simply protest that they are being branded unfairly.
Fostering a victim mentality works against taking responsibility, it works against tackling real issues, it saps the confidence and resolve of Australian Muslims.
When Muslim spokespeople claim “discrimination” every time someone discusses the fears and anxieties of the broader community, this only reinforces the victim mentality, and contributes to further community division and alienation, as intended by the terrorists.
There needs to be a confidence about your position as Australians, and a frankness about the issues to be tackled.
In this context I was very heartened to read what was said recently by some of the younger members of the Muslim community speaking out, getting on the front foot.
For example, in response to recent comments by the Prime Minister on the need for immigrants to learn English and to respect women’s rights, one young leader said:
“ I am absolutely supportive of the Prime Minister on that issue…sections of the (Muslim) community want to play the victim card so we need to be careful…this is not the right pathway for Australian Muslims”.
In response, the Daily Telegraph wrote highly supportive pieces and editorialised that these comments “set a new tone in the dialogue on Islamic concerns and Muslim issues in the broader Australian community”.
I whole heartedly agree.
I appreciate that as Imams you are not necessarily the political voice of Australian Muslims, but you are the spiritual leaders in your communities, and you have very important responsibilities in helping many Australian Muslims function as a normal and confident part of the Australian community, especially in these very difficult times.
In particular, I see as critical the need for Imams to have effective English language skills – it is a self evident truth that a shared language is one of the foundations of national cohesion.
For Imams to present Islam in a truly Australian context, especially to second and third generation young Australian Muslims, it would seem essential that Imams be able to preach effectively in English. Fifty percent of the 360,000 Muslims in Australia are under 25 years of age, and most were born in Australia. Their view of Islam should come from the Mosque, not from the internet.
The fact that I have needed to have my comments translated into several different languages so that many of you could understand my address here this morning, very clearly highlights my concern.
As Imams and spiritual leaders I believe you also have a very special responsibility to correct the terrorists’ false use of the Koran to justify their evil acts.
As I am advised, various passages from the Koran, such as Surat Al Mumtahinah Aya 1 (Chapter 60 The Examined One, verse 1), Surah At-Tahrem, Aya 9 (Chapter 66 The Banning, verse 9), Surat Al- Ankabut Aya 69 (Chapter 29 The Spider, verse 69), Surat Al- Furqan, Aya 52 (Chapter 25 The Criterion verse 52);Surat Al Hujurat Aya 15 (Chapter 49 The Dwelling, verse 15), are presented by extremists as justification for the killing of innocent people, including the killing of other Muslims.
Preaching in your Mosque a strong denunciation and correction of these extremist misrepresentations of the Koran would appear to be one of your fundamental responsibilities.
As well, communicating this denunciation as best you can to the broader non-Muslim community in Australia would help, importantly, to address anxieties and misunderstandings.
This leadership within your communities also enables you to reach out more generally to the Australian community.
In my responsibilities as Parliamentary Secretary, I have now spent a lot of time with different schools looking at interfaith activities.
There are some wonderful things happening in Muslim, Jewish and Catholic schools, as well as within some Government schools. I talk to children and they are genuinely excited, and moved and appreciative of the understanding they gain by meeting, mixing and talking, and being involved in sporting activities and discussions with young people of other faiths.
You can see the richness of that experience and the way in which it can go back to their homes and become part of the discussion with their parents and siblings.
It is the power of education. We keep coming back to it so often in life. If you remove ignorance you remove fears and misunderstandings, and you create social cohesion.
Opening your places of worship for open days, as a number of you have done, is another opportunity to showcase to the broader community what your faith is about and to contribute to dispelling myths and inaccuracies.
In September last year, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) requested the development of a National Action Plan to help all Australians to work together to protect Australia from intolerance and extremism.
The Muslim Community Reference Group established after the Prime Minister’s meeting with Muslim leaders, did an excellent job in helping develop the Plan, on issues such as employment, education, integrating communities and educational opportunities for Islamic religious leaders.
In July the Government approved a $35 million program of initiatives aimed at improving our understanding of extremism among young Australian Muslims, building leadership capacity in the Australian Muslim community and helping socially disadvantaged communities to better integrate.
The proposal for a ‘world class’ Institute of Islamic Studies, within a faculty of a prominent Australian university, offers an opportunity for non-Muslim Australians to get some understanding of Islam by taking a subject or two, or courses, in Islamic studies, with subjects as diverse as Islamic architecture, music, law and history.
As well, it will be an opportunity for aspiring Australian Imams to have important parts of their education undertaken in an Australian context, including the study of other religions.
Of course, such an Institute cannot be a seminary. The more theological components of an Imam’s training will need to be organised by the Muslim communities themselves, and one of the important things you can do this weekend is discuss how this might be achieved in Australia. ‘Home grown’ Imams, educated in Australia, are very important.
A ‘world class’ Institute would attract international scholars as full or part-time lecturers, people who would also provide an authoritative public voice to inform Muslim and non-Muslim Australians.
Overall there are more than 60 measures provided for in the National Action Plan to comprehensively and successfully address issues of concern.
This is a most significant commitment by the Government towards assisting Australian Muslims to deal with current issues, and I would welcome anything you can do to ensure that your communities take full advantage of the many programs being made available.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I do recognise the great pressures many of you are under.
These are tough times, and you will need all the personal resolve and divine help that you can muster.
However, you are leaders of one of the world’s great religions. You have responsibilities.
Terrorism is not part of orthodox Islam, and it’s an obscenity for terrorists to invoke Islam as a justification for their evil acts.
There is much you can and must do to condemn their words, their actions and their blasphemy.
If you can find a way to do this you will create a pathway to community cohesion, and a pathway for every Australian Muslim to properly share in our country’s prosperity, and to be properly at ease in the broader community.
And you will earn the support, gratitude and respect of all Australians.
My best wishes, and thank you.