My weekly Guardian column:
It was a pitiful sight. In Brisbane last Friday, the far-right Australia First party announced that it would rally on the streets in solidarity with Greece’s neo-Nazi aligned political organisation, Golden Dawn. In the end, less than 10 supporters arrived and faced off with around 200 unionists and members of the Antifa group shouting “immigrants are welcome, Nazis are not!”.
Before the rally, Australia First released a statement that called on the Greek government to “release from gaol the illegally imprisoned Golden Dawn members of parliament, including the leader of the Golden Dawn party, Nikolaos Michaloliakos.”
Golden Dawn are one of the most aggressive and successful fascist parties in Europe, surging into the Greek parliament and assaulting immigrants and minorities. They’re a sign of the times across Europe in the 21st century, with far-rightists becoming more mainstream as a reaction to the extreme austerity policies imposed by the European Union and global organisations in the wake of the financial crisis.
Not long ago, it was politically acceptable to blame Jewish people for economic uncertainty; today it’s migrants (often from a Muslim background) and asylum seekers. In Britain, the English Defence League (EDL) and some members of the popular UK Independence party (Ukip) are already manipulating public insecurity and targeting the vulnerable.
On the face of it, the paltry showing of far-right backers on Australian streets indicated that such views thankfully remain on the fringes of society. There’s no question that Australia has nothing like the formidable presence of a Golden Dawn or Ukip at the heart of its political system, but it’s worth noting the last years have seen a steady growth in disturbing far-right activity in Melbourne, Sydney and beyond (the anti-Islamic Australian Defence League, for example, is actively seeking to expand its membership). Although it remains on the edges, the broader movement is increasingly finding resonance with people who feel left out in our globalised world.
A key chronicler of these movements is Andy Fleming – he uses a pseudonym because he’s spent the last decade following extreme-right parties and groups on his blog, Slack Bastard. He describes himself as an “anarchist, blogger and writer with a particular interest in the far right.” I asked him if these groups are growing in Australia and he tells me that it remains marginal – but with a big potential for growth. He said:
“Both major parties have adopted exceptionally punitive measures with regards asylum seekers and refugees. These policies, and the politics which inform them, help to fuel the xenophobia which the far right feeds upon. In terms of growth, existing groups on the far right are struggling to capitalise upon this sentiment, both as a result of their own inadequacies but also because the audience they appeal to is often politically unengaged. The challenge for the far right is to develop the means to overcome this lack of political sophistication.”
The vast bulk of far-right activity occurs online. Golden Dawn has an office in Melbourne and an active presence there; its Facebook page explains the party’s public activities and online key supporters and fundraisers aren’t shy about their backing. Fleming argues that Golden Dawn has real potential to implant itself in the Greek Australian community, but that to do so, it will need to tone down its fascist image.
Fleming explains that the rhetoric by Golden Dawn and similar groups has shifted their target away from Judaism and towards Islam in recent decades for “pragmatic reasons”. But for others, he says, “antipathy towards Muslims is driven by genuine paranoia regarding Islam. In either case, both tendencies understand that Islamophobia sells: Muslims have been portrayed by important segments of the mass media and politics as a threat to Australian values and customs.”
One of the most prominent anti-Muslim organisations in the country is the Q Society. It hosted the prominent, Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders in 2013 and organised a conference this year in Melbourne with some of America’s leading Islamophobes. Its public face isn’t the crude racism so relished by other ideologically similar organisations, and yet some of its policies advocate Australia ending all Muslim immigration and removing the country from the UN Refugee Convention.
Debbie Robinson, president of the Q Society, tells me that her organisation opposes any groups that “espouse a racist or anti-Semitic element”, such as Golden Dawn and the Australia First party. So far so good, but then she explains that “we consider organisations propagating totalitarian ideologies like fascism, nationalism, communism and Islam as anti-democratic and often acting in violation of basic human rights.” It would then be fair to deduce that for the Q Society, Islam is akin to fascism.
Robinson says that her group’s strategy involves using citizen lobbyists to engage with politicians, schools and “other entities involved in the Islamisation process.”
If the Q Society isn’t flirting with violence, other far-right groups are. ABC TV’s 7.30 recently detailed the Australian Defence League (ADL) and its attacks on the Muslim community. There is growing evidence that Australians are most likely to be prejudiced against people of Middle Eastern background.
Sydney-based Muslim woman, Miran Hosny, writer and host of the weekly radio program The Y Factor, tells me that the intimidation of her community is worsening. She recalls a recent media story of a Sydney Muslim girl whose photo had been taken and posted on the ADL Facebook page without permission (Facebook eventually removed the image). “The ADL simply reacted by re-posting the photo onto Facebook along with a status asking its members to take photos of random Muslim women to humiliate them online”, she told me. “Hearing that definitely made me anxious. My commute home that day was very uncomfortable. I kept glancing around me, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be trying to snap a photo of me due to my hijab.”
Hosny argues that she’s noticed an increase in racist behaviour. “Previously, most Islamophobic encounters that my family and friends experienced took place in the CBD. But it feels like the ADL now has an increased presence in western Sydney, where many Muslims reside. Watching this right wing extremism take a grassroots grip on Sydney makes me even more frustrated about the proposed amendments to section 18C of the racial discrimination act.”
Fascism comes in various modern stripes and we can never be too vigilant against its insidious agenda.