Professor Scott Alexander, from the Chicago Catholic Theological Union delivered two talks during the Sydney leg of his Australia and New Zealand tour in August with a presentation titled, Reforming Reform: Hizmet and the survival of ‘Civil Islam’ in contemporary Turkey and another one titled Difference in Dialogue: Promise or Peril?

The first event was held on Monday 7 August at Western Sydney University’s new Peter Shergold Building in collaboration between Affinity Intercultural Foundation and Western Sydney University’s School of Social Sciences and Psychology.

The talk included a response from Professor Kevin Dunn, Dean of the School of Social Science and Psychology and Professor in Human Geography and Urban Studies from Western Sydney University (WSU). The conversation was moderated by Associate Professor Cristina Rocha, WSU’s Director of Religion and Society Research Cluster.

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Special guests in attendance included Deniz Erdogan, Executive Principal of Amity College, Laura Beylerian, Multicultural Community Liaison Officer from the Department of Social Services as well as Commander Jodi Radmore from the NSW Police Force.

Professor Scott Alexander presenting a talk on Reforming Reform: Hizmet and the survival of “Civil Islam” in Contemporary Turkey.

Professor Alexander began his talk with a brief historical perspective of Islamic renewal and reform, before highlighting the spectrum of contemporary renewal and reform, which includes Neo-Modernist, Neo-Traditionalist, Puritan and Shiite thought.

He provided a Turkish context by discussing Secular Nationalism and the seeds of “civil Islam” (a term coined by Professor Ihsan Yilmaz) in the Nurcu and Hizmet Movements.

Professor Alexander highlighted the principal teachings of Fethullah Gulen, which are inspired by Said Nursi and the Nurcu Movement.

Gulen advocates a socio-spiritual approach to renewal, linking traditional, personal, spiritual and moral character and duty with family values and social reform. He emphasises “service” (hizmet) in the form of education (there are over 1000 Hizmet schools operating worldwide), social justice and intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

Professor Kevin Dunn provides a response to Professor Alexander’s talk.

Professor Alexander presented a quote from Gulen to accentuate the links between democracy and Islam.

Gulen states that, “democracy has developed over time…it will continue to evolve and improve in the future…it will be shaped into a more humane and just system, one based on righteousness and reality. If human beings are considered whole, without disregarding the spiritual dimension of their existence and their spiritual needs, and without forgetting that human life is not limited to this mortal life and that all people have a great craving for eternity, democracy could reach the peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity. Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help it do just this.”

According to Professor Alexander, the survival and future of “civil Islam” in Turkey and other Muslim majority societies will depend on a “re-evaluation of the role of the state in post-colonial social renewal and reform; as well as the depth of popular commitment to an intersectional approach to building strong civil societies.”

The event ended with gifts presented to the two speakers and facilitators as well as a Vote of Thanks from Mr Ahmet Polat, Executive Director of Affinity Intercultural Foundation.

ACU Associate Professor Salih Yucel presenting a gift to Associate Professor Cristina Rocha.

Professor Scott Alexander’s second presentation was on Tuesday 8 August with a Lunchtime Lecture at Affinity Intercultural Foundation’s offices in Sudney City on the topic of Difference in Dialogue: Promise or Peril?

The talk included a response from Professor Neil Ormerod, Professor of Theology at the Australian Catholic University.  The conversation was moderated by retired ABC radio journalist, John Cleary.

Special guests in attendance included Leo Oaeke, Papua New Guinea Consul, Karl Hartleb, Austrian Consul-General and Anthony Long, Chief Inspector Commander of the Engagement and Intervention Unit, Anti-Terrorism and Security Group and Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics Command from the NSW Police Force.

Professor Alexander prefaced his talk with a positive affirmation. “Coming together for the fellowship of ideas is a sacred act…intercultural dialogue is like stepping into someone’s garden. You don’t know where the seeds are planted” he said.

In his talk, Professor Alexander interrogated what he refers to as the ‘sameness platitude’ and asks what inter-religious and other forms of dialogue would be like if they were founded on the alternative premise that we are often more different than we are alike.

“Gatherings like this one—gatherings which are intentional about celebrating difference—oftentimes are not celebrating difference at all, but rather attempting to lasso it, reign it in, domesticate it. We almost instinctively see the peril of difference and have a hard time perceiving its promise,” he said.

Affinity advisory board member Clive Pearson presenting a gift to Professor Scott Alexander.

“How many times have you heard what I like to call the “sameness platitude”? That pragmatic and well-intentioned phrase: “We are all more alike than we are different from one another”? But are we really?

“As creatures who are relatively low on instinct and relatively high on cultural programming, one of the characteristics we homo sapiens have most in common with one another as a species is precisely the capacity to be so radically different from one another. One need only think of the stunning pluriformity of language and the elemental role language plays in continually shaping and giving life to culture to see his point.”

He proceeded to quote verse 13 from the Surat al-Hujurat from the Quran to highlight that human beings were created in and for difference, and that “human difference is not an accident of history, but instead an outcome of divine providence and design.”

According to Professor Alexander, our difference has been “primarily intended, not as some kind of sadistic obstacle course to make our lives more difficult, but rather as an opportunity for growth…a growth in knowledge and awareness of one another, self, and ultimately God through the process of relational encounter in difference.”

He questioned why in the present day, society is still afraid of difference. He offered that one reason is because we have “become so attached to the necessary but limited  sense of security we get from homogeneity and the familiar, that we erect it as a false idol and lose the capacity to see the inherent beauty and transformative power of the heterogeneous and the strange.”

He proposed that dialogue and education be viewed as “sources of hope” to counteract hostile views of difference.

“When executed with dedication, integrity and authenticity— [dialogue and education] do not attempt to paper over the differences that make us who we are and in which we root our dignity. Instead, dialogue and education give us the ability to understand our differences on a level deep enough that we can begin to see the ways in which they complement each other.

Professor Alexander concluded his talk with a hopeful message about looking inwards and self-reflecting to realise our potential and begin to take positive action in our daily lives.

“Oftentimes we find ourselves spending a great deal of time waiting for governments and the powerful to act in the face of injustice. We also spend a great deal of time asking how to activate the “grass roots” never pausing to realise that we are all part of the grass-roots. If we can turn our foci from waiting to doing, from the expectation that it is for others who are more powerful to act, we will never open ourselves to the miraculous ways in which God can act in and through us.” he said.

Overall, it was a wonderful event as many in the audience remarked on the well-delivered and thought-provoking presentation and discussion.