Melbourne's Mojo

Melbourne has mojo.  It’s a city of natural beauty.  Albert Park, adjacent to the harbor and where the Australian Grand Prix auto race is held, is lovely.  The city also has cultural dynamism, with an emphasis on athletics.  Our view from the top of Eureka Tower (the tallest spire in the Southern hemisphere) took in the city’s sports complex—at least three football and soccer stadiums that I counted, and Rod Laver Stadium where the Australian Open is played.  But the city’s mojo comes from its cosmopolitan conversation—very much in evidence throughout our brief stay.  Melbourne’s mojo is its multicultural mix.

We had dinner our first night in Melbourne at the home of Dr. Gursel Alpay.  The conversation--which took place over a delicious Turkish meal of stuffed grape leaves, kebabs, and eggplant (ending (of course) with baklava)--traversed over culture, politics, and religion. As we wrapped up with tea, the good doctor (who is traveling to the US in May), asked me about Barack Obama.  I offered my (generally favorable) opinions, and we agreed that the President inherited considerable challenges from the administration of George W. Bush.  His long-view perspective differed from many who live in the US, who tend to blame whoever is in power for problems.

After a much needed night of sleep, we had breakfast at the home of Ibrahim Dellal, an electrical contractor.  Our conversation took up the question of indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Australia.  There are, it would seem, some shared problems.  Ibrahim indicated that the government of Kevin Rudd had made real efforts to improve the status of the first peoples of Australia in education and social welfare.  I’m willing to be corrected on this, but I can’t remember the last U.S. President who made a similar prominent effort with Native Americans—perhaps Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960s?

Our panel that evening at the University of Melbourne, again on the topic of “Media and Values,” included two noted Australian journalists:  Peter Barnett, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (public radio), and Barney Zwartz, religion editor at The Age, one of two major daily newspapers in Melbourne.  Zwartz also produces The Religious Write, a blog on the interface of Australian religions and politics (you can read Zwartz’ speech here:  www.theage.com.au/opinion/blogs/the-religious-write/muslims-and-misinformation-20110403-1ctdw.html)

Barnett has written a book on Bediuzzaman Said Nursi—an early 20th  Turkish Muslim reformer—and drew from his research to suggest ways that Nursi’s Turkish mysticism might reshape media toward humanist purposes.  Zwartz suggested that problems covering religion in the media generally don’t stem from a conspiratorial plot against the faithful as much as benign (usually) ignorance of deep traditions.

The questions to our panel reflected Melbourne’s multicultural mojo.  Raymond Canning, of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue at Australian Catholic University, and an Augustine scholar, asked me about my last power point slide which had as its title “A Coming Religious Peace?” That’s also the title of a book I’m working on.   Canning shrewdly wanted to know about the question mark.  My answer clarified that, given global dynamics, to assert as I do that religions can (and should) be engaged on behalf of a just peace had to be carefully qualified by the contingencies of history—it depends.  Yet, I also contended that we can see in the recent history of religions—from Gandhi to Rosa Parks to Thich Nhat Hanh to Leemah Gbowee to Fethullah Gulen—how people of faith can be mobilized in powerful ways on behalf of justice and peace.

Budding Turkish journalist Nisa Nur Terzei asked me a direct question:  what is hizmet?  She knew the answer (as a participant), but hoped I could clarify how the Hizmet movement was a global civil society movement to advance scientific education, interreligious dialogue, and service (which is the meaning of the Turkish word hizmet).  I linked the inspiration for the Hizmet movement, Fethullah Gulen, to the non-violent peacebuilding tradition of Gandhi.           

Challenging this rosy-appearing historical trajectory was Faten Mohamed of the African Think Tank in Melbourne, who hailed from Sudan/Eritrea.  Forgiveness and peace is easy to assert in affluent Melbourne, he suggested.  What about with people who are hungry, poor, displaced, and suffering?  I invoked in response the example of Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, where the norm of communicating honest narratives of atrocities preceded any reconciliation. 

Finally, a female journalist from Syria wondered whether the recent events in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, were “home grown” or “dictated from the West.”  That led to a lively discussion of the relationship between old-line and new social media.  The basic hypothesis for the evening was played out in a new guise.  Social media has opened up grass-roots democratic (and religious) spaces, creating new fields of discourse and practice to involve new voices.  We speculated that maybe we needed someone to create a “Roogle,” a religious search-engine to stoke and encourage interreligious understanding.  Of course influences across media forms have been multiple.  No pure culture exists any more.  In Melbourne, with its multicultural mojo, this irreversible truth about our time is on vivid, and delightful, display.