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Exploring arts and cultural activities to foster social harmony.

Deakin Business School (DBS) has drawn on the power of arts and culture in an innovative project to prevent extremism in Bangladesh.

With funding from the Australian Government’s prestigious Australia Awards, DBS recently led a program that brought Bangladeshi public and private sector officials to Australia to exchange ideas, skills and expertise on how arts and culture can work as a soft strategic approach to prevent extremism and foster social harmony.

Program leader and Australian Awards alumni Dr Fara Azmat says the program was based on a critical need to find new approaches to prevent extremism.

‘Like many other countries, Bangladesh is seeing an increase in religious extremism, particularly with socially excluded young adults who are easy targets for extremist groups,’ Dr Azmat explains.

‘While law enforcement agencies employ hard measures to combat terrorism, research has shown that soft approaches such as engagement with arts and culture can also play a significant role in fostering social harmony.’

In the first-time partnership with the Bangladesh public sector and private sectors, DBS provided expertise in arts, community resilience, counter radicalisation and extremism, which also included two weeks of training in Australia and follow-up activities in Bangladesh.

The 13 participants were representatives from government ministries, high schools, private universities, media and NGOs.

Visiting a range of arts and cultural organisations, they were provided with examples of how to co-create value to empower, include and engage young people and build their confidence, resilience and self-esteem.

Parisa Shakur, a senior economics lecturer who is also an outreach coordinator at Bangladesh’s North South University, says the program provided a ‘perfect mix’ of theory and practice.

‘The experience of visiting, and being visited by, multiple organisations (which are working to bring social cohesion across Melbourne and Sydney) was instrumental to enhancing my understanding. A highlight for me was a visit to the Islamic Museum of Australia where I learnt about creative ways of communicating about a faith to non-Muslims and non-believers that leads to a deeper understanding and respect among all.’

Parisa says she now plans to use this insight in her role at the university.

‘I wish to address the lack of purpose and sense of belonging among youth through refocused counselling programs and a “Speaker's Forum”, similar to the one run by Melbourne’s Jesuit Social Services, that appoints community survivor success stories to motivate and inspire disengaged youth in schools and universities.’

She would also like to start a hip-hop dance group, similar to Melbourne’s Outer Urban Project, to help channel negative energies, like anxiety and frustration, by using the arts.

‘I was very happy to be part of the fellowship and Deakin’s interest and investment in soft approaches to combat extremism in general - and choosing Bangladesh in particular. The exposure and experience has been great for those of us who were able to attend. I hope more can benefit from such initiatives and give back in bigger forms to the society.’

Monjurul Hafiz, Deputy Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh and personal secretary to the Minister of State, said utilising arts and culture was a novel approach to addressing the problem of radicalism.

‘Arts and culture are part of human life but I think using this as an instrument to address extremism is almost a new concept [so there is] a shortage of experienced faculties, books and research.’

He said that visiting the Immigration and Islamic museums and other cultural institutions enabled the participants to observe a different dimension to arts and culture.

‘We understood how it can be used as a soft strategic approach to prevent extremism and foster social exclusion.’

Since returning, Monjurul has had discussions with senior management in the ministry and plans are now underway for a feedback seminar.

‘All the participants will present share their experience with all of the officers of our ministry in the presence of the minister. Following that, I will send a proposal to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs for projects where arts and culture can be used as a tool to address extremism in Bangladesh,’ he says.

Quoting a Chinese philosopher who said that ‘a journey of thousand miles begins with one step’, Dr Azmat says the program is a small but important contribution towards the problem of rising radicalisation and social exclusion.

‘Our project is one such small step but we are confident that it will have rippling and far reaching effects in our fight against the evils and will contribute in making the world a peaceful place, a place free of discrimination and a place where everyone is valued.’

Pending DFAT funding, the DBS team – Dr Fara Azmat, Dr Ahmed Ferdous, Prof. Ingrid Nielsen and Ms Emma Winston – hopes to expand the program to include members from law enforcement agencies and sporting institutions to maximise outcomes.

Australia Awards Fellowships

Australia Awards are prestigious international scholarships and fellowships funded by the Australian Government.

Australia Awards Fellowships build capacity and strengthen partnerships between Australian organisations and partner organisations in eligible developing countries in support of key development and foreign affairs priorities.

By providing short-term study, research and professional development opportunities in Australia, mid-career professionals and emerging leaders can tap into Australian expertise, gaining valuable skills and knowledge.