I’ve just finished reading John Safran‘s new book Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables (Penguin, 2017). Having been a resident in these parts for some time, I enjoyed tagging along with John as he romped through this ‘mad world of misfits’ in ‘the year the extreme became the mainstream’, and had some fun identifying (or trying to identify) the various characters in the book, frequently shielded by pseudonyms. While reactions among friends and comrades has been mixed, and I haven’t read too many reviews as yet, Simon McDonald reckons it’s an easy-reading but hard-hitting expose of political extremism in STRAYA, which I suppose is apt. So in lieu of a proper, y’know, literary review, I thought that, as an anarchist and someone who’s also paid close attention to the far right Down Under, I’d jot down a few notes.
Overall, few of the ‘extremists’ in the book, whether nominally anarchist or Muslim or patriotik, are depicted as being much more than laughable, even if — with the possible exception of the teenybopper who organised the pro-Trump rally in Melbourne in November last year — they’re not engaged in ‘politics’ for the #lulz, and even if for some, principally the Muslim radicals, their religiopolitical practice can entail some fairly serious repercussions (arrest and prosecution, imprisonment, even death). With regards the far right in particular, the cast of characters includes most if not all of the individuals I’ve previously referred to on the blog and who’ve assumed central roles in the far right’s most recent and spectacular excursions into public life: Shermon Burgess aka ‘The Great Aussie Patriot’ (Australian Defence League/Reclaim Australia/United Patriots Front), Ralph Cerminara (ADL), Blair Cottrell (Nationalist Alternative/UPF), Rosalie Crestani (Rise Up Australia Party), Neil Erikson (Reclaim Australia/UPF), Nick Folkes (Party for Freedom), Dennis Huts (UPF), Scott ‘Potty Mouth’ Moerland (RUAP/UPF), Danny Nalliah (RUAP/UPF), Debbie Robinson (Q Society/Australian Liberty Alliance), Dr Jim Saleam (Australia First Party), ‘Farma’ John Wilkinson (UPF), Avi Yemini — even geriatric neo-Nazi Ross ‘The Skull’ May makes a brief cameo.*
Perhaps the most coherent perspective, surprisingly enough, is provided by UPF fuehrer Blair Cottrell, who outlines a rational (if rather unlikely) pathway to state power for him and his mates, and for whom the hullabaloo over halals represents merely a convenient platform from which to practice his best Hitler impersonation. Notably, Der Uber Der confesses (p.152) to viewing his followers in much the same way as he views Jews: as divided into highborn and lowborn, order-givers and order-takers. (Of course, there are no prizes for guessing to which category Blair assigns himself.) The seeming absurdities and contradictions which plague the various deplorable characters in the book are remarked upon continually throughout the text: valour thief, serial pest and implacable opponent of Islam, Communism, ‘Third World’ immigration and multi-culturalism, Ralph Cerminara (pp.23–27), apparently has an Italian father, an Aboriginal mother, and a Vietnamese partner, while Dr Jim Saleam causes other white nationalists to snigger behind his back on account of his Lebanese ancestry. John is also keen to underline the fact that religion, especially Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism, plays a critical role in the worldview of a large segment of Deplorable Australians. Enter Danny Nalliah’s Catch The Fire Ministries/Rise Up Australia Party, that grouping which has done the most to add some, ah, colour, to the various events organised by Reclaim and the UPF. Speaking of Danny, Scott Moerland also stars as ‘Mr Normal’ (p.79). Well for a time at least, before eventually being revealed as being ‘some sort of doomsday Christian’ (p.84): a fact which helps explain why he ran as the RUAP candidate for Oxley at the 2013 federal election (Scott got 400 votes or 0.43% for his troubles).
In terms of mobilising opposition to Reclaim Australia, the UPF, et. al., the book concentrates on one project: No Room For Racism (NRFR) in Melbourne, for which Mel Gregson is deemed the ‘matriarch’ (p.92). For those of you coming in late, NRFR was established in early 2015 in order to promote opposition to the first (April 4, 2015) Reclaim rally in Melbourne. (Other anti-fascist and anti-racist groups and projects emerged in other towns and cities at the same time.) After April 4, another campaigning group was established in Melbourne called Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), but its activities play no part in John’s account. In any case, given that both NRFR and CARF are capable of making their own assessments, in the remainder of this post I’m gonna concentrate on a coupla Muslim figures portrayed in the book, before concluding with an assessment of John’s portrayal of my comrades, Les Anarchistes.
The ‘extreme’ Muslims featured in the book are Musa Cerantonio, some bloke called ‘Hamza’ and some other fella named ‘Youssef’. Also making a special guest appearance is ‘Ahmet the Turk’, and in ‘The Sufi in the garden’ (pp.40-44), John meets a Sufi; someone who might function as a ‘counterpoint’ to two other Muslims (Musa and Hamza) he talks to about Islam and politics. While the ‘Sufi’ is, like other characters in the book, unnamed, it wasn’t too difficult for me to work out to whom John might be referring. For what it’s worth, they have a very different recollection of their conversation to John’s. Later in the book (p.224), John makes reference to a ‘famous-enough Muslim’, and pays particular attention to something the Islamic semi-idol posted on their Facebook page. Again, it wasn’t too difficult for me to discover who this person is, and I thought it would be worthwhile examining the incident a little more closely, both because of what it reveals about the writing process, but also because it helps shape what eventually becomes one of the key themes of the text: anti-Semitism and its (ab)uses. John writes:
‘We, French-Muslims, are ready to assume our responsibilities.’ Dozens of celebrities and academics have written a letter to a Paris newspaper. The signatories say that local Muslim communities must work harder to stop the extremists in their midst, and to honour those killed the letter lists all the recent terrorist attacks in France.
The one at the kosher deli.
‘You are ready to assume your responsibilities’, writes a French Jewish leader in reply, ‘but you are off to a bad start. You need to understand that these anti-Semitic attacks were committed against Jews, who were targetted for being Jewish. In any case we’ll always be here to remind you.’
Those signatories aren’t the only Muslims who believe in Jewish exceptionalism. From France to my hometown …
In which context, a few things:
• The terrorist attack on the kosher deli/the Porte de Vincennes siege (January 2015) involved a man who’d pledged allegiance to Daesh/Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, killing four Jewish shoppers and holding others hostage before being shot dead by French police.
• The statement by some French Muslims was published in Le Journal du Dimanche on July 31, 2016 (see : “Nous, Français et musulmans, sommes prêts à assumer nos responsabilités”). The letter makes explicit reference to five terrorist attacks: at Charlie Hebdo (January 2015); at Bataclan theatre (November 2015); at Magnanville (June 2016); at Bastille Day celebrations in Nice and at a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray (July 2016). The list is not exhaustive. Thus the letter fails to reference the Toulouse and Montauban shootings of March 2012 (in which a French rabbi, among others, was shot dead), the La Défense attack (May 2013), the Tours police station stabbing (December 2014), the February 2015 stabbing of three French soldiers on patrol outside a Jewish community centre in Nice, an attack upon churches in Villejuif in April 2015, the Saint-Quentin-Fallavier attack of June 2015, the Thalys train attack of August 2015, a man who drove his car into soldiers protecting a mosque in Valence in January 2016, an attack upon a police station in Paris later that month and, finally, an attack upon a family at a holiday resort in Garda-Colombe in July 2016.
• The French Jewish leader is Robert J. Ejnes, Executive Director at the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF)/Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions. He posted a comment in response to the statement on his Facebook account on July 31, 2016 [https://www.facebook.com/robert.ejnes/posts/10155122557237942]; the CRIF later posted a modified version of this comment on August 1, 2016. See : Jewish Leader Slams French Muslims for Omitting anti-Semitic Violence From Anti-jihad Petition, Haaretz, August 1, 2016.
• Given that my French-language skills are as advanced as my admiration for Carlton FC, it’s a little difficult to follow the story of the statement, but it’s worth noting that, in response to the criticisms leveled at it of ‘Jewish exceptionalism’, on August 1, 2016, one of the signatories, Socialist Party politician Bariza Khia, published a statement on Facebook [https://www.facebook.com/bariza.khiari/posts/10154298138245900] — later added to the statement published in Le Journal du Dimanche and endorsed by all signatories — in which the signatories claim that the omissions were not deliberate, that they wished to avoid unnecessary controversy, and that ‘Jewish students in Toulouse or clients of the Hyper-Kosher murdered because they were Jews, a Catholic priest martyred in his church, a soldier or a Muslim policeman slaughtered in service … the list of victims is terribly long and so diverse, our nation in all its components, that we must face adversity together’ [machinetranslation]. I suppose it would also be worth adding that it was a Muslim immigrant from Mali who saved the lives of other Jewish shoppers at the supermarket, an action which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised (even if Robert Ejnes did not). See : Malian Muslim hailed for saving lives at Paris market, France24, January 12, 2015.
To return to Almost Famous, John writes that:
… I see today that he’s busy on Facebook, tormenting a family of Israeli immigrants (so, to be clear, Australians) who run the cafe around the corner from my flat. A Muslim friend of his wandered in for a snack a few hours ago and spotted an item on the menu: ‘Israeli breakfast’. Finding out that the family running the cafe are Israeli, she lashed out at them, freaking out everyone in the cafe, and now the famous-enough Muslim is lashing out too, ‘exposing’ this family for being Israeli …
… His Facebook fans pile on: Jews are stingy, so no doubt this Israeli breakfast is the stingiest breakfast ever. That sort of thing.
Again, for what it’s worth:
• While John implies that the discussion takes place sometime in late 2016, in reality the Facebook post is over three years old (May 2013).
• The friend is not described as being ‘Muslim’ but rather ‘Palestinian’.
• According to the account relayed by Famous-Enough Funny-Man: the Palestinian woman cancelled her order because she found out it was an Israeli business; when the owner demanded to know why, she said ‘Because Israel occupies my land’. Allegedly, the owner then followed the Palestinian woman down the street, abused her, and told her to never come near his café again.
• While the post has some caustic commentary, nobody accuses Jews of being ‘stingy’. [EDIT (May 21, 2017) : Somebody did comment to that effect but at some point b/w now + then it was deleted.]
• While I’ve got no idea what happened, and either account could be true, in John’s retelling the Palestinian has become a Muslim, and even if one believes that it’s wrongful for a Palestinian to boycott an Israeli business on account of Israel’s colonial status, a national conflict has become a religiously-motivated one. (Surely there are better examples of anti-Semitic actions on the part of local Muslims than the above?)
Anyways, back to John (p.229):
But hey, maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I should drop in on Mrs Sneer and Mr Snort at the Melbourne Anarchist Club and they can explain to me how spreading avocado over soft-toasted challah is in fact structural violence.
Which would seem as good a time as any to examine how ratbag anarchists are portrayed in the book.
Mrs Sneer & Mr Snort
As part of his journalisms, John joins the UPF as they party after their second rally in Bendigo in October 2015. (A detour finds him at the wrogn pub, one at which members of ‘Nationalist Alternative’ — ‘They’re like the UPF except they don’t sugarcoat their views on Jews’ — are drinking. Not mentioned in the book is the fact that Blair Cottrell, along with Neil Erikson, is a former member of the tiny groupuscule.) Partying with the UPF includes being filmed doing shots of tequila with them. This is later shared by the UPF on their Facebook page, where they jokingly claim that John is now an official member of the gang. John notes that the reception by some on the left to this example of fraternising with teh enimy is frosty. According to John (p.92), ‘The Melbourne Anarchist Club — those guys who turn up to the rallies with their faces wrapped in bandannas — seem particularly miffed’. This is incorrect, and in this instance John seems to have mixed-up the MAC with ‘Melbourne Antifascist Info’, who did indeed ‘hope there’s a good explanation for why John Safran went out for drinks with the United Patriots Front last night’.
After recounting the UPF’s trip to the Melbourne Anarchist Club (MAC) and radio station 3CR (the expedition consisted of Blair Cottrell, Chris Shortis, Neil Erikson, Andrew Wallis and Linden Watson), John attends the Open Day the MAC organised in response: ‘There are more hot anarchists than I expected here. Don’t get me wrong, there are also flabby radicals who wouldn’t be able to throw a Molotov cocktail without breaking into a wheeze, but still’ (p.157). LOL. It’s at this point that Mrs Sneer and Mr Snort enter the story.
After criticising John for his (inadvertent) appearance in the UPF’s promotional stunt, Mr Snort registers his displeasure with John’s article on the Golden Dawn and AFP rally in Brisbane in 2014. It’s at this point that the distinction between ‘structural’ and ‘non-structural’ violence is introduced: Mr Snort says far-right violence is a form of ‘structural violence’ (that is, part of State, corporate and systemic violence), and left-wing violence isn’t. And furthermore, my ‘comedic story’ contributed to this ‘structural violence’ by equating the two. For John, this distinction, and its flaws, comes to encapsulate what he considers a worrying trend, both on the left and among some Muslims (the Sufi’s view on the Charlie Hebdo attack), one which tries and fails to escape the ethical dimensions of discussions on the uses of violence and which, in the end, dismisses various examples of anti-Semitism as being trivial and unworthy of a serious response. Thus Mrs Sneer claims that [t]here’s not meaningful anti-Semitism these days … in the way there’s meaningful Islamophobia, and in practice, this distinction merely becomes a way of separating worth from unworthy victims, the Naughty from the Nice.
Mrs Sneer and Mr Snort are then unfavourably compared to the arguably more nuanced approach of ‘Ahmet the Turk’, who attended the open day to express solidarity with the MAC. Beefy and bald, he says he’s new to politics but when he saw ‘these people getting attacked for essentially defending Muslims? I thought, You know what? We’ve got to show them some solidarity. We need to tell them, “You are not alone.” Just like how they’ve told us that we’re not alone.’ Ahmet and the Seven Turks then rock up to the Reclaim/UPF/True Blue Crew rally in Melton (pp.169–180), where inter alia they’re photographed with Senator Lee Rhiannon (or at least, that’s what Ralph Cerminara reckoned LOL) but otherwise try and keep the peace. (As an aside, John writes that the reason the rally was held in Melton was in order to protest the fact that the local council had approved the building of a mosque. This is incorrect. Rather, protesters were angry and upset because they claimed, falsely, that Melton Specialist School had planned to re-locate from Coburns Road to the former site of Victoria University’s Melton campus in Rees Road, Melton South, but was forced to abandon the site to make way for the Al Iman College. See : Anti-Muslim rally reveals a racism both shocking and commonplace, Crikey, November 23, 2015.)
The other anarchist featured in the book is referred to as ‘The CEO’ (p.186): ‘At the rallies he points his finger here and there, muttering into ears, and the little ninjas scuttle off on the mission’. Again, The CEO was not difficult to identify and again, their recollection of their conversations differs from John’s. In any case, insofar as The CEO’s role is understood to be reflective of actual anti-fascist action, organisation and planning, it immediately reminded me of a white nationalist’s account of the TBC rally in Coburg in 2016, in which at one point in the day’s proceedings ‘advance ANTIFA scouts relayed some order via their weird coded street language of whistles and the mob took off at a dead run’. In other words, there are few if any secrets revealed about ‘ANTIFA’ in John’s book.
Finally, the concluding chapters of the book examine Trump’s victory in the US, Pauline Hanson’s return to the Australian Parliament, and the failure of the UPF (as the stillborn ‘Fortitude’ party), the Australian Liberty Alliance and Rise Up Australia Party to make a dent at the 2016 federal election. In the meantime, Musa Cerantonio has been arrested and charged with terrorisms, as has Phill Galea, while Avi Yemini’s attempt to introduce Pauline Hanson and Malcolm ‘Jew World Order’ Roberts to the Jews of Melbourne not unexpectedly fell in a heap. Cory Bernardi has split from the Coalition to form the Conservatives, swallowing Family First and recruiting former ALA candidate Kirralie Smith. Most recently, Bernardi’s neo-reactionary comrade-at-arms George Christensen, having undergone radical weight-loss surgery in Muslim-majority Malaysia, and having previously been a guest speaker at a Reclaim Australia rally and starred on a local neo-Nazi podcast, has now demanded that their New York comrade Mike Peinovich (‘Mike Enoch’) be prevented from entering the country — in order to attend a conference organised by the same crew of nipsters. Neil Erikson has denounced ‘Nazism’ while Shermon Burgess has embraced it. Having been kicked off Facebook, the UPF circus rolls into court again next week (May 23) while the boys in the True Blue Crew have taken some time out from assaulting their partners in order to wave some flags in the CBD on June 25.
La Lucha Continua!
See/hear also : John Safran: going rogue with Australian extremists, Conversations with Richard Fidler, ABC Radio National, April 26, 2017 | John, Fascists, Islamophobes and Jews, Mazel Tov Cocktail, May 11, 2017 | EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Safran, Author of Depends What You Mean By Extremist, collage, May 17, 2017.
* ‘The Skull’ appears as a foil for the UPF in Sydney, which is credited with kicking him off the bus the boys organised to take a small crew of patriotik volk to Melbourne for the joint July 18 Reclaim Australia/UPF rally. At the time, ‘The Skull’ had been adopted as the elderly mascot of a short-lived neo-Nazi groupuscule called ‘Squadron 88’. While the incident is claimed as being proof that the UPF didn’t tolerate the participation of neo-Nazis in its activities, leaving aside the fact that its leadership is (or was) neo-Nazi, in reality ‘The Skull’ was not the only neo-Nazi on the bus, as John Lyons and Martin McKenzie-Murray reported at the time.
Lyons (Far-right fringe raises profile by reclaiming immigration debate, The Australian, August 8, 2015):
A bus trip from Sydney to Melbourne highlighted the way neo-Nazi elements are trying to infiltrate the Reclaim Australia movement. Just after 9pm on Friday, July 17, a mixed group of activists — including four neo-Nazis — turned up at Sydney’s Central station to board a bus organised by UPF. But police were waiting for them. They sought out [John] Oliver, the man who had tried to reveal the identity of Fleming, who was carrying a gun. Oliver tells Inquirer he had notified the police firearms registry that he was transporting the gun to Melbourne but, nonetheless, police did not want the gun on that bus.
Oliver says he was taking the gun to Melbourne so over that weekend he could combine sports shooting and the rally. “Maybe I made an error of judgment to think that I could do the two things on the one weekend,” he concedes.
But he insists that those in Reclaim Australia are mainstream Australians opposing extremism. He says he was concerned there were four neo-Nazis on the bus. “The first thing I saw when I sat down was the guy in front of me draw a swastika on the mist on the window,” he says. “Two of the neo-Nazis were kicked off in Yass and two made it to Melbourne.”
One of those forced off the bus was Ross “The Skull” May, who has become the figurehead of Squadron 88, Australia’s newest neo-Nazi group …
McKenzie-Murray (Inside the strange dynamic of Reclaim Australia’s rallies, The Saturday Paper, July 25, 2017):
For the few men who comprise the anti-immigration Australia First Party and the neo-Nazi Squadron 88, the numerals referring to “HH” or “Heil Hitler”, it was an opportunity to augment the United Patriots Front’s rally in Melbourne, itself a supplement to the Reclaim Australia rally organised for the foot of the Victorian parliament. A road trip was planned, a bus rented. The journey would be a merry drive from Sydney to Melbourne, a city they deemed a leftist “stronghold”. They packed a gun but Sydney police – aware of the groups – searched them before they departed and it was confiscated …
So the Sydney group were happy to help storm the fortress of Melbourne. They’d take a coach bus into battle. Nine hours of ribald camaraderie before they smashed some commies. It’d be fun. A real weekend.
Except news got out that one of the boys on the bus was Ross “The Skull” May, one of Australia’s more notorious neo-Nazis, and his presence was suddenly considered detrimental.
It is hard to satirise May. As accords his nickname, he looks like a desiccated corpse re-animated by the dark voodoo of Nazism. In reality he’s a semi-coherent octogenarian with few teeth and a sunken face, who in earlier years wore Nazi uniforms and intimidated political opponents.
According to sources, May was told a short way into the road trip to abandon the crusade and he disembarked just outside Canberra. The departure of one man wasn’t insignificant, given there were only about 30 aboard – about 10 to 20 per cent of the eventual anti-Islam congregation in Melbourne.
Finally, and for what it’s worth, on the evening that the bus departed Sydney I took note of the fact that ‘The Skull’, along with members of S88 and AFP, were on board, as did media. I think that this, rather than the UPF’s putative opposition to ‘Nazism’, is what really explains why poor old Ross was told to get off.
Good review of the book. I read the book in one sitting. I found it to be anti left, in many ways. If John knew the TBC, UPF, and Reclaim Australia moved the rally from the city to Melton, he should have informed the left asap. He needed to be persuaded to do so. His description of left activists are offensive. He is way too soft on Avi Yemini. I am of a Jewish background and was offended when he implied a right winger, like Yemeni, would be fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto. Yemini is far right and is despised by many in the Jewish community.
I feel the book makes out that our side is no better than the fash. It is like Yemini is some sort of savior for John. I could be wrong but that is my view.
While I don’t think he has much sympathy for the views of a number of the Deplorables he profiles in the book, as far as I can tell John’s more of a satirist than he is a leftist. In any case, his account is not intended to be A Leftist Critique of Australian Patriotism: it more closely resembles something from the school of gonzo. Re Avi: yeah, maybe. But again, I think in order to produce his work it makes sense for John to, in a sense, suspend judgement. Further, when John quotes his friend George on Avi (p.249), it may be kinda funny but it’s also fairly apt.
Anything about Jewish extremism in the book, oh I guess not huh?
That Depends On What You Mean By Extremist. Avi Y gets a guernsey, and I suppose he might be described as an ‘extremist’? He’s extremely silly in any case.
So who is the famous-enough Muslim? Am I not reading well enough between the lines?
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How does it change anything to note that the racist was Palestinian?
I’m pretty sure the whole point of that part of the book was to show how a self-described “anti-racist” can be capable of such a vicious racism that it actually makes sense in his head to start calling out a local shopkeeper on his ancestry.
Surely in this instance it’s the racist’s behaviour that’s at issue, rather than his parentage.
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You answered your own question with the opening line. The method of attack for unwavering supporters of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land has been to accuse all critics of Israeli government policy as being anti-Semites, as being racist.
You simply assume and label a person a ‘racist’ from the beginning. Although, it does not matter whether the person was a Palestinian or not, the context provides information to us on whether a particular action is racially or politically-motivated. A political action or movement such as the BDS, for example, if it brings attention, some measure of peace, justice or resolution to the occupied terroritories is a good thing–or is a thing that can be discussed on its own merits. No labels or accusations are required.
Let’s turn it around, why do you object to the person being called a Palestinian, if it is true? Because, of course, yours is simply the rhetoric of calling those who oppose, especially those who would take any action, of any sort, Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza racist, anti-Semitic.
Racism, religion, jihad and hijabs go under the microscope
July 1, 2017
I have sat through academic conferences that have provided less insight into the politics and sociology of violent extremism than I’ve gained from a viewing of Four Lions, Chris Morris’s dark satire about four bumbling suicide bombers.
Morris’s 2010 movie is based on three years of research and was made in response to the 2005 London bombings in which 56 people, including four attackers, died. It remains relevant for those struggling to understand the mindsets of the British (and Australian) born Muslims who are prepared to kill and die in support of organisations such as al-Qa’ida and Islamic State.
There is good reason, then, to hope Australian comedians John Safran and Pakistan-born Sami Shah may be able to provide similar insights (not to mention entertainment) in their new books. This is particularly the case since, unlike Morris, Safran and Shah bring relevant life experience to the topics of religious extremism and racism: Safran as the self-styled “Jew detective” and former host of John Safran vs God and Shah as a journalist who has witnessed the devastating aftermath of suicide attacks in Pakistan.
Palestinian-Australian journalist and screenwriter Amal Awad also draws on her personal background in Beyond Veiled Cliches, an engaging blend of memoir, travelogue and interviews exploring the lives of Arab women in Australia and the Middle East.
Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables opens with a scene at a 2015 Reclaim Australia rally in Melbourne. Having been motivated to attend by photographs of white skinheads at a previous such event, Safran is taken aback to discover there are brown-skinned immigrants among the Reclaim supporters. He concludes that for the members of Sri Lankan-born pastor Danny Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia, “religion trumps skin colour”, something white progressives fail to understand because Australian intellectuals “just don’t get religion”.
It’s true that Safran’s Jewish upbringing should provide him with a head start in this regard. Jewish scholars, writers and activists have provided penetrating insights into the intimate ways in which racial and religious identity are entwined.
Racism against Jews mutated from hatred directed at their theology to hatred based on their bloodline. And Pauline Hanson’s career illustrates a similar mutation from a hatred of Asians based on their race to a hatred of Muslims based on their religious identity.
But Safran fails to grasp the shapeshifting, amorphous quality of racism, instead attributing anything that doesn’t look like familiar old-school biological racism to religious faith.
The fact immigrants find a way to slot their own pre-existing prejudices into those of their new homeland is hardly news. Reporting on Reclaim and other far-right events for online news site Crikey, I was struck not so much by the prominently showcased non-white participants but by the way their presence was cited as an alibi against racism.
Aboriginal flags were flown and claims of “part-Aboriginal supporters” were cited as a means of establishing a claim to an authentic Australian identity that needed to be protected against Muslim invaders. Rather than unravel these claims, Safran takes them at face value. Also troubling is Safran’s description of a Facebook post by an unnamed “famous-enough Muslim” (whatever that means) and campaigner against racism.
In Safran’s telling, this unnamed Muslim “torments” the Israeli owners of a cafe near his home in Melbourne’s St Kilda after his Muslim friend notices it offers an “Israeli breakfast”. She responds by “lashing out”, frightening the cafe’s customers, and the “famous-enough Muslim” then follows up by lashing out on Facebook.
However, having seen what Safran confirmed to me is the Facebook post in question, it differs from his retelling in significant ways. To begin with, the outraged customer is described as Palestinian rather than Muslim. Rather than “lashing out”, she is described as cancelling her order “because Israel occupies my land”. The cafe owner is then alleged to have followed her down the street, threatening and harassing her.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the boycott and divestment campaign against Israel (or the entire Israel-Palestinian conflict, come to that), this is a political argument about land and occupation rather than the act of religiously driven hatred that Safran describes. As anyone who has ordered Turkish delight in a Greek coffee shop would know, nationhood is at least as powerful a force as religion when it comes to producing strong emotions around the naming of food.
Describing the woman concerned by her (presumed) religious rather than ethno-national identity reinforces Safran’s overall thesis about religion as the driving force behind contemporary conflicts in Australia by depriving the reader of crucial information.
Having arrived in Australia relatively recently in 2012, Melbourne-based Shah is still learning about the topic of his book and knows it. The Islamic Republic of Australia provides an “inside” view of Australia’s Muslim communities from a writer who is still navigating what it means to be a “Muslim-y”-looking person who has embraced atheism ahead of belief.
His handbook to Islam in Australia notes there are many different ways of being Muslim and emphasises that he does not wish his loss of faith to be appropriated by hatemongers as a weapon against his former co-religionists. As he realises when his daughter returns from her Catholic school talking about Jesus and Mary, he may not be a believer but he will always be a “cultural Muslim”.
He also sets out to explain the reasons so many Muslims seethe with anger against the US and its allies, reasons that have little or nothing to do with religious belief. These are all more or less familiar concerns: the legacies of colonialism, the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the racist backlash against Muslims and “Muslim-y”-looking people. However, it is useful to hear them narrated in a “Muslim-y” voice by someone who is so strongly critical of the religion itself.
Shah at times veers into prejudice against Muslims rather than criticism of Islam, not because of his atheism but because of his failure to discard his own class and ethnic prejudices.
Immigrants of South Asian background (my own paternal ancestry is Pakistani) managed until recently to maintain a relatively low profile in Australian racist discourse owing to their (our) relatively small numbers and high socio-economic status. Many Pakistani Muslims living in Australia responded to post-9/11 anti-Muslim racism with assurances that the problem lay with the troublesome Lebanese community, not with the “good” Muslims from the subcontinent.
And Shah is still enough of a Muslim to play this good-Muslim, bad-Muslim game. In his conclusion, he reassures “mainstream” Australia that Islamophobia isn’t particularly severe. However, Muslims growing up in “entrenched suburbs like Sydney’s Lakemba” (read: Lebanese Muslims) develop a “victim mentality” after being taught they will never be accepted in Australian society.
Never mind the sound empirical evidence showing Muslim communities in Australia feature a troubling combination of high educational achievement with low levels of employment or the fact Australian society is prepared to tolerate the incarceration of “mainly-Muslim asylum-seekers” in offshore concentration camps. Shah is here to reassure you that Muslims and Muslim-looking people less well-resourced than he is in terms of class, education and English language fluency should “just shrug [Islamophobia] off or call it out” (at which point he will presumably accuse them of overstating the problem).
In Beyond Veiled Cliches, Awad undertakes a reverse version of Shah’s journey: from her upbringing in a Palestinian family in Sydney to travelling throughout the Middle East to interview Arab women and better understand her own identity. The fact her focus is on Arab rather than Muslim women allows her to produce insights into the overlap between culture and religion that are lacking in Safran and Shah’s books.
Her interview subjects in Australia and the Middle East range from Muslim to Christian to atheist, from artists to activists to social workers to housewives, from religiously conservative to queer. Shah complains that “no one is calling Muslims to task for their more egregious missteps” such as deeply homophobic remarks by senior community leaders. Awad’s book introduces us to some of the many Muslim women who are doing exactly that.
Of course, “the veil” in all its myriad forms is the most pervasive of the stereotypes associated with Arab and Muslim women. Awad describes her own on and off (and now decisively “off”) relationship with wearing hijab but also the myriad ways in which other women relate to veiling.
Her relationship with feminism is similarly complex. Her statement that, like many of her interviewees, “I don’t call myself a feminist although I am one in thought, deed and action” is an interesting addition to debates in the West over who is (and isn’t) permitted to describe themselves as feminist. Outside the bubble of middle-class white feminism, there are many women such as Awad who refuse to name themselves as feminist while living according to what can only be described as strong feminist values.
Like Shah, some of Awad’s interviewees identify as “cultural Muslims” who identify with the religion but no longer practice it. As for Awal herself, after years of coffee meetings with potential husbands in her family’s living-room, she eventually married a man from outside her ethno-religious community and is strongly critical of the ethos that prohibits sex outside marriage as well as same-sex relationships. She rejects what she regards as the fear-based religion of her childhood but describes herself as spiritual rather than atheist.
Safran, too, tells us at one point that he is often wrongly assumed to belong to the “Richard Dawkins brigade” when in fact he is no atheist. However, there is never any sense that Safran’s Jewish identity would be any less strong if he had signed up to the Dawkins mindset.
And to go by Awad and Shah’s books, Muslim (and ex-Muslim) identity is following a similar taken-for-granted trajectory.
Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables
By John Safran
Hamish Hamilton, 287pp, $34.99
The Islamic Republic of Australia: Muslims Down Under, From Hijabs to Jihad and Everything in Between
By Sami Shah
ABC Books, 274pp, $32.99
Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women
By Amal Awad
Vintage, 289pp, $34.99
Shakira Hussein is an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne and author of From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women since 9/11.