By examining the experience of an innovative and ambitious initiative in the evolution of the interfaith movement in Australia, this article analyses three contested themes: (1) how to connect religion more closely with culture, thereby placing interfaith relations within the context of intercultural awareness; (2) how to develop a regional initiative which, informed by Australia's urban history and sociology, would complement and dovetail with pre-existing interfaith and intercultural activities; and, (3) how to translate the general principles of dialogue into the operational environments of local communities. By analyzing the insertion of dialogue into the modalities of "everyday" life, this article illuminates how a multidimensional approach to interfaith dialogue can resonate with the cultural-political specificities of a major metropolitan concentration.
Keywords: Australia, dialogue, intercultural, interfaith, multiculturalism, regional networks
At the launch of a government commissioned report on religion, culture and security, one of its authors triumphantly exclaimed that "God was not dead!" - at least in Australia.1 This proclamation encapsulates the sense of opportunity felt by many religiously inclined scholars whose discourse had been sidelined for decades by an essentially secularist public discourse. Whether this resurgence of religion was explicable in terms of the decline of ideological conflicts in the post-Cold War period or as an identity based reaction to post modernity, one thing is clear: religion was back on the agenda.
Australia prides itself on being a peaceful, open, multicultural and multifaith society. There is much to support this view, not least the relatively successful immigration program of the post- War period (Castles, 1992). Yet there is also evidence of unhealthy levels of racism, intolerance and xenophobia in the hysteria directed towards Asian migrants as exemplified in the Hanson phenomenon of the late 1990s, the recent treatment of asylumseekers, the high incidence of threats against Muslim individuals, schools and mosques, and the growing number of attacks against Indian students (Poynting, et. al., 2004; Neumann, 2004; Berman and Paradies, 2010; SEEWR, 2009).
As an antidote to the "politics of fear" and an investment in social cohesion, Australia has during the last decade experienced an increase of interfaith dialogical activities. Government funded programs, interfaith and multifaith councils and networks, in conjunction with community and municipality initiated projects, have contributed a good deal of impetus to interfaith and intercultural dialogical activity. However, despite their proliferation, dialogue initiatives in Australia - as elsewhere - are confronted with a daunting challenge: how to ensure the relevant effectiveness, sustainability and interconnectedness of these initiatives. This tension is perhaps most clearly evident at local and regional levels which represent a microcosm of Australian society.2
By focusing on a particular initiative - the first of its kind in Australia - the establishment of a Northern Interfaith and Intercultural Network (NIIN) in Melbourne's ethnic and religiously diverse northern suburbs, this article examines the extent to which the principles of dialogue have informed government and community responses to cultural and religious polarization, and whether or not an approach based on these principles can be effectively applied to local discourse and practice. By seeking to test the practical application of theories and methods that have been expressed at a relatively high level of abstraction, the article tackles the central question: how can dialogical principles be given practical relevance in the development of interfaith relations in a specific multicultural setting? Furthermore, how might these be made the subject of constructive communication and refinement in the regional context? …