A Call for a Flourishing of Conversations | Interview with Professor Joseph A. Camilleri
In September 2022, SGI Australia’s magazine Indigo interviewed Professor Joseph Camilleri, founder of the La Trobe Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.
Professor Camilleri has authored or edited over 30 books. His research has centred on five key areas: conflict and security studies, international political economy, the role of culture and religion in international relations, the foreign policies of the great powers, and the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region. He is author of The End of Sovereignty? (1992) and Worlds in Transition: Evolving Governance Across a Stressed Planet (2009), both coauthored with Jim Falk.
Please give us a broad overview of your background and the nature of your work.
I was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of a Maltese father and a Greek mother. Alexandria at the time, was probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world, by far. That’s where you really had not just multiculturalism, but rich intercultural relations.
My first twelve years were spent in a place where most people spoke at least five languages; where different cultures, different faiths, different belief systems were able to mix fairly comfortably. Of course, there was a problem, because in Egypt at that time the European settlers – and our family was part of this – were dominant. The local Arab population, by and large, were not in control of the economy, and therefore, did not generally enjoy the same standard of living as the Europeans. So, I became conscious of this, something that has stayed with me for the rest of my life. And then came the Suez Crisis of 1956, and as we were British subjects, we had to leave. My parents decided to migrate to Australia. So, multiculturalism and the international experience have been with me right from my childhood.
Did that influence your interest in the field of international relations?
Yes, I was very interested in politics because Egypt, then as now, was a critical player in the Middle East – a part of the world, which as you know, has been a constant flashpoint in international relations. Because of the conflict between Britain and France on the one hand and the new nationalist government in Egypt on the other, President Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal.
The period leading up to these events in 1956 was a time of great tension, which is what sparked my interest. From the age of nine, I would be reading the newspaper in detail, following as closely as I could what was happening in different parts of the world. That, too, has stayed with me ever since. The fact that I went to a French school – French is my first written language and Greek my first spoken language – meant that this was part of the experience in my early years that stayed with me when we moved to Australia. The international has been a constant in my life.
Could you tell us about your engagement with SGI?
SGI has a number of affiliated institutions in different parts of the world, one of which is the Toda Peace Institute. It has been a significant institution and I was involved probably from the very first year of its existence. It was established by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda in 1996 in honor of his mentor Josei Toda. I have since remained involved to a greater or lesser extent with the various events and publications of the Toda Institute.
What does dialogue mean to you? For example, how do you truly engage with people through dialogue?
Well, at the most basic level dialogue is a personal thing, people communicating with others. It can be one-to-one, or in groups. Basically, the way to think about it is as a communication or relationship between the self and the other. The self can be just one person. It can be a group, it can be a country, it can be a culture. It can be a religion, even a civilization. So, you can be in a dialogue representing one of these entities, a particular belief system, a country and so on. But the key to dialogue, regardless of who is involved in it, is that one respects the other – respects not in the sense of tolerating the other, not in the sense of putting up with the other, nor in the sense of coexisting with the other, but rather valuing the other, celebrating the other.
In dialogue we are keen to listen to the other because we know the other has a great deal to contribute that’s valuable to us. And therefore, if we’re going to be enriched, we have to understand a lot more about who the other is, what they think, what they value, what their aspirations and hopes for the future are, what their histories have been. And importantly, if they feel that we have done wrong to them, we need to listen to what they have to say.
So, for example, in the Australian context, if it is a case of a non-Indigenous Australian and an Indigenous Australian, where the former has to listen to what the Indigenous Australian feels are the wrongs that have been done, and in response in dialogue, we who are non-Indigenous have to be prepared to fix the wrong we have done in the past. So, it’s a multifaceted relationship. It doesn’t happen automatically or suddenly, it needs to be worked upon. It is an ongoing process.
Can you share how you would initiate a two-way dialogue based on mutual respect?
It is respect, but a lot more than just respect. It’s valuing and cherishing and celebrating the other. We have to think of the context in which dialogue occurs, so it can be personal, it can be dialogue with a member of your own family. It can be dialogue with a friend. It can be a dialogue with a neighbor.
It can be a one-to-one. It can be a dialogue with a colleague. And then there are dialogues in which groups are involved. So maybe two groups, two groups representing two different religions, two different cultural backgrounds, two different communities in the same country, or two different countries even. So, there are different ways of handling the dialogue, depending on the context, depending on how well you know the person, depending on what you see as the purpose of the dialogue. But the key is to try and learn more about the other, to understand what makes the other tick. And that means listening. That’s why in dialogue, listening is probably more important than speaking. In fact, you could go so far as to say that you speak in order that listening may become possible. You don’t speak because you want to score points. You don’t speak because you want to win a debate. You speak in order that the other may be able to listen and understand better where you are coming from.
You took part in a Parliamentary inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia in 2013. Could you tell us about that?
In this case, I wrote about how I understand multiculturalism and what are the steps ahead that Australia should take to become a much more effective and richer multicultural society than it is now.
The key point I was making is that it’s not enough to have many cultures and many faiths represented in our society. That’s just to say what exists. The question is what we do with it, and what we need to do is to engage in a dialogue where each community, each ethnic community, each religious community comes to understand the others, to value the others, to relate with others, to engage with others, collaborate in joint projects with others.
We need to discuss important issues of common interest. So various groups, communities, faiths, people of different ethnic backgrounds can come together and deal with environmental issues, for example, or issues of war and peace, or issues of homelessness and so on. Multiculturalism becomes intercultural through the mixing, the engaging, the interactions between different cultures, religious communities, that make up the society.
In my submission, I was making the point that we in Australia have a long way to go.
You’ve also touched on this in the seven-week Navigating Life at the Crossroads Program. Several youth members including myself from SGI Australia participated in your program. Can you tell us about the conversations throughout this event and its relevance to today’s issues?
This is part of Conversation at the Crossroads, an initiative that has been going just two years. It started small, it’s growing. And we’re trying to involve people from different parts of the country and outside of the country.
Why this particular event? Because we thought they were important issues that are of concern to a place like Australia and to the world at large, issues that are not going away and are not producing the kinds of informed, thoughtful, respectful conversation we need to have. The series that you mention was meant to provide a little bit of help, stimulate some thinking, and encourage people to have these kinds of useful conversations around the range of issues that we discussed during the seven weeks as well as other issues. We dealt with many of the challenges we currently face in Australia, including Indigenous rights, racism, rising inequality, democracy. But we also considered international issues, including conflict and war in different parts of the world, Australia’s part or place in the world, and, of course, climate change. These are challenges that are going to be with us for a long time. We must get into the habit of having all kinds of conversations at all levels, all age groups, and all cultural backgrounds.
Can we hear your views on the role that religion plays in Australia to create peaceful dialogue? For SGI Australia, as a religious organization, we’re quite keen to understand what role an organization like ours can play in the future of Australia.
In the census, the number that now identify as having no religion is around 30% give or take. And the other side of that equation is that the Christian denominations, the Christian churches are rapidly declining in membership. It’s a steep decline, if we remember that just a few decades ago Australia was still an overwhelmingly Christian country, with high levels of church attendance.
But those who have a religious affiliation are certainly declining in number and the trend is going to continue. On the other hand, the minority religions are growing and growing fast. Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism – these are the three main ones. So, we have a mixed picture, at least in terms of numbers.
Christianity has declined, the three minority religions are growing. And so are those who say, “I have no religious affiliation.” In the midst of these diverse belief systems, we need dialogue, not least between those who are of religious persuasion, but also between them and those who have a more secular outlook on the world, or a non-religious world view or attitudes to life.
We can say that dialogue is important within any religion, between religions, and between them and those who say they have no religion. It’s a big challenge. Not enough is being done. We need to do an awful lot.
What does peace and security mean to you?
Well, there are two main perspectives on peace. There’s the old perspective, which thinks of peace as the absence of war, the silencing of guns. And that’s very important. There is too much killing going on, too much destruction going on in different parts of the world.
There are, however, two other important aspects to peace. Violence can be structural, that is, social. This is the violence we associate with injustice, with abject poverty, with people being marginalized, ostracized, humiliated, harassed, and demonized. There might not be any physical killing or destruction involved, but their lives are made as miserable as if they were the subject of physical attack. So, we can’t be really interested in peace unless we’re interested in addressing both physical violence and structural or social violence. And then there’s a third component, which has become more and more important in the 20th century and now in our century. And that is ecological violence, the destruction we are inflicting on the planet. For peace to prevail, it has to be both just and ecologically sustainable.
Therefore, our goal must now clearly be a just and ecologically sustainable peace. And on that, unfortunately, many countries, or at least governments acting on behalf of their countries, are not doing well at all. Australia is one of them, unfortunately. So people of faith and for whom therefore peace is an important part of their religious convictions and moral, ethical positions, have no option but to be fully engaged in the task of promoting a just and ecologically sustainable peace.
And on questions of ecology and climate change, the sad fact is that Australia is one of the countries that has done the most harm to its environment. Not just the Great Barrier Reef, but so many other parts of Australia are struggling as a result of the pollution that we’ve created in different parts of the country, and agricultural practices that are not suitable for this land, carbon emissions and all the rest.
On this score, we have a great deal to learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters who have looked after this place for perhaps 60,000 years, and doing it so much better than we have managed to do in the last 200 years. The current situation requires a wide-ranging dialogue. We non-Indigenous Australians have to learn from them: “How did you do it? What were the guiding principles? How can they be applied now in rather different circumstances?” It is the Indigenous people who have found the secret to maintaining the integrity of this country, of this continent. We now have to do it in the same spirit and quickly learn the lessons.
This is why I believe that, when it comes to Indigenous Australians, we have a very important obligation to right the wrongs of the past, give them a voice, and dramatically improve their life circumstances.
But just as important is the need to acknowledge that we have a lot to learn from them and we better start listening. This will take effort and courage, but it’s one of the crucial challenges now confronting Australia.
How can we respond to all of these transitions, the inequities caused by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and threats posed by climate change? Of course we need change at the policymaking level. As members of the community what more can we do apart from that deep listening that you’ve spoken about?
There needs to be a wide-ranging, intense public conversation. This requires all of us to be engaged in conversation with our neighbors, friends, colleagues, family members and the groups to which we belong, including religious groups. There’s got to be a buzz arising out of thousands of little conversations all over the country and then some bigger ones, including a national conversation on the pressing issues of our time.
That’s critical because it is that kind of conversation on a large scale, involving many people, but in small groups, sometimes one to one, which creates the context and the atmosphere in which those who are in positions of authority have no option but to listen. If they think the people are asleep, well they can afford to ignore these questions. If, on the other hand, they have reason to think that the people are awake, are speaking, are listening, are conversing, and that there is a real buzz in the country, then that will compel their attention. This is terribly important and, of course, we have to be in the business of networking. It’s not just conversation or simply an exchange of words. By the way, conversation needn’t be just through words, the spoken word, the written word, important as they are.
We also need conversation through art, music, spiritual reflection, meditation, all of these things. Conversation at home and at work. And then, of course, we need networking. National but also international networking. That’s why I think SGI is very well placed. It has an international network, just like the Christian churches and Islamic community. They all have international networks, but they’re not making sufficient use of them.
There needs to be much more connection and interaction across borders; Australians need to be much more aware of what’s happening in different parts of Asia, in the Pacific Islands, different parts of the world. We need to network. And now with the latest technology we can do it very easily, at least technically it is easy to do.
Of course, you need the will, you need the capacity, you need the organizing. So, I see that as absolutely crucial so that we can get a conversation going that is local, national, but also international, because some of the questions we’re facing cannot be solved by a single country. Australia can’t solve the world’s climate change problem on its own.
Australia can’t fix the Ukraine problem. Australia can’t fix the worldwide problems of development and economic inequality on its own. Which is why we need to have a conversation. Nor is it enough to ask; what can we do about this or that issue? We’ve got to go deeper. If we’re going to do something about it, we have to ask: are there roadblocks along the way? We have to become systematic and rigorous in our conversations. It’s easy to say “we would like to fix the climate change problem; we want to do away with carbon emissions.” That’s fine, but is there a problem getting there? Of course. Not one, but many problems. Many obstacles. How do we get around the obstacles? And, if we are to get around the obstacles, we have to be practical.
We have to think through who needs to do what, when, how, with what resources. These are the questions we must put on the table. Only then can we have a meaningful conversation to see what answers might be available, and whether a consensus can emerge. This takes a lot of time, energy and effort, but we have no option. We have to do it.
A lot of people generally find that it’s easier to put our head in the sand because it feels too overwhelming. How do you still maintain hope in the midst of all of that?
When you’re confronted with major problems, look at what’s happening in Pakistan. You look at the photos, the pictures on your screen. Probably thousands will die as a result of the floods. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands will become seriously ill and maybe millions will be reduced to abject poverty. Now, you can watch this and say, well, that’s it, that’s the way things are, I can’t do anything about it. This is what I call the attitude of despair. I call it intellectual, emotional, even spiritual suicide. It may not be physical suicide, but you’re killing the emotions. You’re killing the mind, and you’re killing the spirit. That’s despair, total despair.
Hope lies in engagement. Hope lies in saying, I can do at least a little something to help the situation in Pakistan. I can acknowledge that what the people in Pakistan are currently going through, their suffering is in part the result of what we’ve been doing in Australia, releasing carbon emissions on a massive scale which contributes to the climate change problem.
We are partly responsible. We have things to do. To encourage people to get things done gives you a sense of engaging, and the sense of engagement leads to hope. Now, let me say two more things.
Where does hope lie? Where does a fruitful rich life come from? It comes from having a certain view of what being human is all about. It depends on your estimation of the human being, of humanity. Do you put it low down or do you put it high on your scale of things? Low down is despair and mediocrity. High is hope and engagement. It’s excellence.
I happen to have a high opinion of what humanity is capable of, not necessarily what it is doing at any one time, but what it could do given certain circumstances. I have maintained this view all through my life. In spite of everything that’s going wrong, in spite of all adversity, humanity is called to great and noble deeds.
And there are enough examples to sustain the hope of moving in that direction. You never quite get there, but the hope lies not in the destination, but in the journey. Hope lies in being part of the journey, not in being tied to some spot. The fact is that at different times in our history, world history and local history, great things have been achieved.
In the early to mid-1980s, the world was in the grip of a brutal Cold War. Three years later, and we’ve heard a lot about this with the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War had ended and we had reached the first major nuclear disarmament agreement in history in the post-1945 period. This was the time when, on my count, there were 25 million people engaged actively on a weekly, if not daily basis, in works of peace, closely interconnected.
We haven’t had that since, but there is nothing to stop us having it again and hopefully with similarly fruitful results. Consider apartheid; at one time you had a brutal system that seemed as if nothing could budge it, and then within a relatively short period of time, it fell and was dismantled with enormous international engagement as well as the people of South Africa of course. So, dramatic things can happen and can happen very quickly, provided there are enough people who have this high view of what humanity’s capable of and organize their lives to help make it happen.
And what could be more uplifting than that? You retain the hope and you engage to make the hope a reality.
Thank you so much for sharing that. I think that’s a wonderful thought and a wonderful note for us to conclude our dialogue. Do you have a final message for our readers?
I think what we’ve been discussing is more crucial and relevant now than it has ever been, because we are facing a series of existential threats. We have reached a tipping point in the evolution of the human species. And if we’re not careful, we could inflict irreversible destruction, not just on the human species, but on the planet, through any one of several different routes.
One might be climate change. And some scientists, as you know, are telling us we are very close to the tipping point, and we could go past it in any moment unless we take remedial action. Similarly with the nuclear issue. When visiting Hiroshima to commemorate the events of August 1945, the UN Secretary General said to us on Hiroshima Day: “We are only one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” That’s where we’re at now. One miscalculation could mean the end, and there’s the possibility of major pandemics, much more serious than the COVID one we’ve now seen, to which we would be vulnerable now, today, perhaps more tomorrow, but within five to ten to fifteen years, one or a series of pandemics.
So we are faced with these enormous threats, but also enormous possibility. The world is now one interdependent entity, as it has never been before. There is no option but to respond as one to the challenges we face in common. So, yes, whether we like it or not, we are confronting risk, incredible risk, but also incredible opportunity.
That’s the moment in history in which we find ourselves – young and old, from different religious backgrounds. Different cultural backgrounds, different nationalities all have to come to the party, address the risks, and seize the opportunities.
This article contains excerpts of an interview with Professor Camilleri published in the November 2022 issue of SGI Australia’s Indigo magazine.
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