A Discussion with Anna Halafoff, Deakin University

With: Anna Halafoff

September 22, 2016

Background: As part of the International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, in September 2016 Harshita Nadimpalli conducted an interview with Anna Halafoff, who is a senior lecturer at Deakin University in Australia. Halafoff discusses her efforts to improve the ways religious literacy training is incorporated into school curricula in Australia.
Please tell us about your current work/role, and in what capacity it influences/incorporates interfaith efforts?

I am a senior lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. I’m a sociologist of religion and have been conducting research on interfaith relations for 10 years now, so I’m a scholar-practitioner, or “scholar-activist,” as someone recently called me. I’m also a practicing Buddhist and have been involved in interfaith activities and networks since the mid-1990s.

How do you define interfaith service, and what are the essential components of interfaith service work?

In my own research I’ve focused on the multi-faith movement more broadly with service as a component of that—I put forth a four-point framework of what I thought the multi-faith movement is committed to. The first point is developing an understanding of diverse faiths and of the human condition. The second is challenging exclusivity and normalizing pluralism. The third is that multifaith activities address global risks and injustices. And lastly, the fourth point is the creation of multi-actor peacebuilding networks for common security. What we’re seeing here, for example, at this International Higher Education Interfaith Leadership Forum, is very much an example of all of those things, with people getting to know each other, and about diverse faith traditions, and how we can contribute to addressing really important social issues. This isn’t just with diverse religious actors, but also those with no faith, the media, state actors, and others who can collectively form networks focused on peacebuilding.

The service component has always been present in interfaith movements; interfaith movements are concerned with global issues and want to contribute to justice and equality and human rights. But the emphasis on action and service alongside dialogue is very important. It’s something that Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) have promoted among young people, in particular, in more recent years.

Can you share a story about your personal background to illustrate how it inspired you to engage in interfaith service efforts?

I am a typical Generation X person, and when I was doing my undergraduate studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I became really engaged with environmental issues, critiques of capitalism, and looking for alternatives that helped me make sense of my own experience and what I saw as global injustices and pressures within contemporary society that were unsustainable. That led me to go on my own spiritual and activist path, and having looked at many different wisdom traditions, I found Buddhism most suited to where I was at.

I really appreciated the wisdom in these diverse religious and spiritual frameworks, and I think this is something we currently somewhat overlook in interfaith work. Clearly, those frameworks are what inspire many young and old people to get involved, but we don’t spend a lot of time exploring this aspect of interfaith engagement, which is very important. When we look particularly at environmental risks facing the world, the extreme pressures that capitalism puts on the world, and the growing inequalities within Western and non-Western societies, it’s clear we do need alternative frames for understanding who we are and how to live peacefully with one another.

Can you share some highlights from your academic and professional background? In your opinion, what is some of the most important work you have done in terms of interreligious studies or efforts?

We conduct “applied sociology,” so I have seen over the course of my academic career that the findings and recommendations of studies I’ve conducted personally and with my colleagues at Monash University and Deakin University have had an impact on Victorian government policy and curriculum development. I’ve worked with two UNESCO Chairs, so within that network, I’ve also seen the research have an impact on UNESCO reports and recommendations.

The last five years my research has focused largely on education about diverse worldviews and religions. This research has drawn on international best practices in this field. We’ve drawn a lot from Professor Bob Jackson’s work at Warwick University, and also other major European studies. For the first time last year, the Victorian government introduced learning about worldviews and religions in their iteration of the Australian national curriculum. When we talk about impact, I have seen our research have a real-world effect, and that’s something we’re really happy about. Hopefully it’s just the beginning of development of better educational resources and best practices to increase interreligious understanding.

To what extent should higher education institutions play an active role in interfaith service work and projects?

Traditionally, universities are places of higher learning and knowledge, and where many people get exposed to a whole range of ideas that they may not have been exposed to in their schools or local communities. Universities are increasingly places of diversity; there are so many students from different countries and with different orientations, so it’s a natural place for reflexivity, deeper understanding, and learning about diverse religions and perspectives.

I teach a class I developed called Religion and Social Change. My students want to learn about religion. The media is saturated with stories about religion, often misinformed. Religion is not off-limits for younger people, as it used to be. People encounter it in everyday life and want to learn about it. I also teach about the rise of New Atheism and critiques of religion. I think what we are seeing is a critique of religion among young people, and it’s important to understand where that’s coming from. I think universities provide that critical space for important conversations, not just about peacebuilding aspects of religion, but how religions can also contribute to direct and structural violence and how religious peacebuilders can combat that.

What kind of support have you receivedfrom your government, friends and family, institutions, organizationsin pursuing interfaith service related work?

My university is very supportive at the moment of building a program that we call “Studies of Religions,” plural. It’s a multidisciplinary approach, and I’ve received a lot of support to be able to develop new units on Religion and Social Change and Religion, Rights, and Governance. I’ve also received support for my research related to interfaith relations and education. We have an Australian Research Council grant that is investigating Young Australians' Perceptions on Religions and Non-religious Worldviews, and that’s worth almost half a million dollars. It’s a collaboration between the Australian National University, Monash, Deakin, and Warwick universities.

In terms of interfaith networks, the Australian states have quite different approaches to religion and governance. In Victoria, we have the Faith Community Council of Victoria (FCCV), which includes the Muslim Council, Hindu Council, Buddhist Council, etc. The FCCV is the umbrella organization that coordinates conferences and different activities and has a website, and it receives state government support. Now most local councils in Victoria also have interfaith networks. Interfaith engagement is really a part of the everyday fabric of life in Victoria. This is not necessarily the same throughout the rest of the country. I think there is a lot of community, institutional, and government support for interfaith engagement in the state of Victoria.

What have been your greatest challenges regarding peacebuilding and interfaith/intercultural dialogue and cooperation?

What came up as the greatest challenge for communities working on the ground in my research was resources. That’s an ongoing problem, because a lot of support is project-based. If you’re setting up an interfaith organization, or even as a scholar, researching this field, it is very much project-based, instead of long-term support.

With the issue of education about diverse religions in Australian schools, there has been opposition from conservative groups who are threatened by the reality of the rising religious diversity in Australia. The fact that we have secular education policies has also made the education system resistant to tackling anything to do with religion until recently.

On the more positive side of things, I’ve seen a greater acknowledgement, even by more conservative groups and state actors, that religion plays a role in so many people’s everyday lives, and also has an increasingly public role in the media. Most agree that we definitely need greater understanding and awareness of religious diversity for peacebuilding. Gradually we’ve seen people become more supportive of these types of initiatives. Unfortunately, we’re seeing now that the clash isn’t between civilizations, as Huntington said, but within civilizations, among pluralists and anti-pluralists, cosmopolitans and anti-cosmopolitans. While there are leaders advancing respect for diversity, there seem to be those who are very threatened by diversity as well. I think that’s the long-term challenge. And education is the key.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

The people. Building relationships and meeting people of diverse faith backgrounds has been without a doubt the most enjoyable and meaningful part of this journey. Not only is it critical for interfaith relations, but on a personal level it allows people to have deep conversations and encounters and to build lifelong friendships with sisters and brothers all around the world of diverse faith traditions. Also, similarly, from the academic side, I like building a community of scholars. The university is so subject to the pressures of neoliberalism that we are pushed so hard to compete and produce. We often overlook and need to build up a more supportive academic community, of colleagues and higher degree research students, to encourage one another in doing important work.

What is one thing you would like to see change in your community in terms of interreligious relations and understanding?

We need to conduct more research and do more work at the school level, and it’s important to learn from what has happened beforehand. There’s a long history of interfaith engagement, and now there’s some really excellent research out there, so for people who are new to the movement, it’s important to better understand its origins and prior achievements and to learn from the elders in the community. It’s important to not just focus on youth interfaith work, but also to be working with children and families so that we’re doing interfaith peacebuilding from kindergarten to the end of life.

What are some best practices you have seen or heard of for interfaith work that you would like to share with others in your field?

The IFYC has been very inspiring and played a big role in the President’s Challenge, and we’re fortunate that two of the IFYC’s leaders came to Melbourne in 2009 to train a bunch of young people who went on to form Interaction, am interfaith youth network in Australia that is still active today. There are examples of interfaith education programs that have been run by interfaith networks that we can draw on. We’re assisting in developing curriculum and resources for schools, which is premised on providing opportunities for contact and questioning, real and virtual visits to sites of worship, and panels of leaders, faith or non-faith, which discuss these bigger questions of life. I think there’s a lot we can learn from interfaith networks in terms of building educational materials on diverse worldviews.

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