Dec 1, 2018

Backstory: Australia's foremost religion journalist Rachael Kohn on why faith still matters

YOUTUBE: The Spirit of Things: Rachael Kohn interviews the Dalai Lama during a visit to Chenrezig in Queensland in 2011.

Rachael Kohn
ABC News`
December 1, 2018

It was 1993 and I was in Chicago to cover the Parliament of the World's Religions, where 8,000 people from every imaginable religion and country pledged to live in harmony.

It was exactly 100 years since the original Parliament was held at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair when swamis, gurus and spiritual leaders came to America for the first time.

It was my first overseas assignment and I was alone.

The BBC team outnumbered me by three, but I had an advantage.

Being an academic in religious studies, I knew the works and reputations of many of the speakers, and with unbridled confidence I invited a litany of them to my hotel suite for interviews.

From Hans Kung, who drafted the Parliament's key document, to Richard Rubinstein, the "death of God" theologian who had controversially defended Sun Myung Moon — convicted leader of South Korea's controversial Unification Church (known as the 'Moonies') — I interviewed over 20 participants with my bulky cassette recorder.

But not everyone was welcome at the world's largest religion jamboree.

Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the black nationalist group Nation of Islam, who was known for his racist and anti-Semitic statements, gate-crashed the event.

He held his own media conference at the Palmer House Hotel, where the conference was based.

Farrakhan's bouncers tried to keep me out, perhaps because my name clearly identified me as Jewish.

But I persisted and when I asked him about his targeting of Jews, he exploded.

The other journalists were stunned to see his charming demeanour abruptly turn to ferocious attack.

But the message of Hans Kung, that "there will be no peace among nations until there is peace among religions", won the day.

At the closing event, the Dalai Lama's address on the importance of demonstrating personal compassion drew upwards of 20,000 attendees.

I returned to Australia with a profound understanding of what I needed to do.
Dangerous cults and disgraced sheiks

My programs on religion would provide an unparalleled opportunity to hear the best and the brightest people articulate their religious traditions in a way that might foster the peace that Kung and others dreamt of.

But the 1990s were anything but peaceful.

Terrorism fuelled by Islamist extremism had already taken a toll at the World Trade Centre in 1993, resulting in over 1,000 injuries and six deaths.

It would continue around the world.

The 9/11 disaster killed almost 3,000 American civilians, and the Bali bombing, in 2002, killed 202 people — 88 of them Australians.

A rising fear of the Muslim community needed to be addressed, and the programs that I created — such as Religion Today (1994-1997), with producer Stephen Godley, and The Spirit of Things, with producer Geoff Wood (1997-present) — regularly addressed interfaith relations with a specific focus on Islam.

But who was to speak on behalf of the ethnically and religiously divided Muslim community?

The Egyptian-born, Lakemba-based Grand Mufti Sheik Taj el-Din Al-Hilaly was a go-to authority.

That was until he aroused controversy in 1998 with a speech, in Arabic, at a public function at the University of Sydney.

In it, he accused Jews of using sex and deviancy to control the world.

Sheik Al-Hilaly's standing worsened in 2006, when he responded to the conviction of rape by Muslim men of non-Muslim women by comparing the victims to "uncovered meat".

I was relieved that in the week of the rape story, an urbane visiting Imam from Brighton, UK, talked to me about his extensive interfaith work.

He revealed his "bible" was To Heal a Fractured World, by Chief Rabbi of the UK, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

In fact, interfaith initiatives in Australia between the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities gathered pace.

But no-one was addressing the trouble makers, like the self-appointed sheik, Man Haron Monis.

He claimed to be a refugee from Iran, and was becoming radicalised.

He had sent me, and others in the media, a DVD with a woman dressed in a burka recruiting fighters for jihad.

It prompted me to write an article for The Drum in 2009 in which I warned that if the renegade sheik was not reigned in, then he would be a danger to both the wider community and the Muslim community.

Then, on December 15, 2014, Man Haron Monis walked into the Lindt Cafe armed with an assault rifle and took hostages.

Two of the detainees were killed during the 17-hour ordeal.

The desire to preserve the peace should never mean turning a blind eye to the dark side of religion.

That lesson was forever etched in my mind 40 years ago when Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, led his largely African-American flock to the jungles of Guyana.

More than 900 followers, including 304 children, died in a mass murder-suicide pact.

It was the worst cult disaster in modern American history.

Having specialised in cults as an academic, I was familiar with their destructive practices, which hit an all-time high in the 1990s.

The Solar Temple, in Switzerland and Quebec, Heaven's Gate in California, and the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas, collectively left 200 dead and many seriously injured.

Meanwhile, the Buddhist doomsday cult, Aum Shin Rikyo, killed 13 and injured thousands in poisonous sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo Metro of Japan.

The leader, Shoko Asahara, and his minions, were executed in July this year.

Survivors and stories of rebirth

In 26 years at the ABC, I have interviewed many survivors and leaders of cults (sometimes termed "new religious movements").

They range from the second-in-command at Waco, Marc Breault, to the jailed Australian exile and follower of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, Jane Stork, who was part of a plot to murder a doctor and a judge (you may know her from the Netflix series, Wild, Wild Country).

Then there was the high-level member of Peoples Temple, Deborah Layton, who described herself as a true believer and a victim of Jim Jones; and Nan Sook Hong, the daughter-in-law of Sun Myung Moon (from the aforementioned "Moonies") who told me how she escaped the high-security compound in New York State.

There were plenty of home-grown cults that made the news, too, including William Kamm, known as "The Little Pebble", in Nowra, New South Wales.

He acquired underage wives, called Queens and Princesses, in order to produce a master race.

In a similar cult fantasy, Anne Hamilton-Byrne claimed to be the reborn Christ.

Her Victorian group, known as "The Family", adopted babies from unsuspecting mothers and turned them into drug-induced identical children with the help of peroxide and bowl haircuts.

That story is soon to be an ABC documentary.

Dire stories make good copy and even better drama, but the immensely positive role that religion plays in the lives of individuals, in communities, and in society has been the mainstay of The Spirit of Things.

It is more than the social welfare ethos that religious communities consistently demonstrate and the spiritual practices, like yoga and meditation, that benefit one's body and mind.

It is the profoundly transformative effect of faith in people's lives that is deeply impressive.

These stories of lives redeemed, like the former drug dealer and gang leader, Tony Hoang, who turned his life around and now encourages high school students to do the same, is the real business of religion.

In fact, when people ask me who are the most impressive people I've interviewed in my career as a religion journalist, it is rarely the highly esteemed religious leaders.

On the contrary, it is the ordinary people whose lives were headed for ruin and were turned around by their faith.

It is this record of religion as a positive force for good that journalists also need to cover if a fair and accurate understanding is to be had.

Toward that end, in 2009, I was invited, along with 100 journalists from around the world, to establish the (non-profit) International Association of Religion Journalists.

It is a global network of journalists promoting "accurate, balanced and ethical religion coverage", which is what I've strived for above all in my work at the ABC.

Achieving that has also meant that I have enabled discussions, rather than dominated them with my own opinions.

But I just might get a chance to air a few of them on my last Spirit of Things episode on December 23, when religion journalist for The Age, Barney Zwartz, will turn the tables and interview me.

Listen to The Spirit of Things on RN on Sundays at 6pm or via the ABC Listen app.

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