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Reclaiming Australia? Liberalism’s role in Islamophobia

Reclaim Australia supporters at the April rallies displayed a mix of liberal and anti-Muslim slogans. Irfan Ahmad, Author provided

With Reclaim Australia planning a fresh round of rallies in cities and towns around the country this weekend, July 18-19, what does the group actually stand for?

I attended a rally in Reclaim Australia’s last nationwide mobilisation in April and interviewed their supporters and opponents. Seldom did any media – which readily would embrace the label of liberal – describe the group’s religious inspiration and those of its partisans. The same liberal media mostly sees religion only when it reports on Muslims.

Contrary to widely held assumptions that Islamophobia is a negation of liberalism, liberalism enables Islamophobia. The two have historically been intertwined.

Liberalism and Islamophobia

While many Reclaim Australia supporters carried anti-Muslim placards, some featured recognisably liberal sentiments: “reclaim equality at law”, “our women are equal”, “reclaim free speech”, “we vote, listen to us” and so on. How do such liberal slogans co-exist with Islamophobic ones?

One may say that such anti-Muslim slogans and rallies are contrary to liberalism. However, Harvard academic John Trumpbour, has observed:

Alas, liberalism is a child of the Enlightenment shot through with Islamophobia.

To Frederick the Great, Voltaire, representing “the apogee of Enlightenment reason and tolerance”, said:

You may still have the pleasure of seeing Muslims chased out of Europe.

And to Catherine the Great, Voltaire expressed his desire as follows:

I wish I had at least been able to help you kill a few Turks. It does not suffice to humiliate them. They [Muslims] should be destroyed.

A key premise of liberalism is its advocacy for the individual, his rights and legal equality (which women and others secured only recently). However, much of contemporary liberal thought, certainly in the media, rarely treats Muslims as individuals. Acts of violence associated with Muslims are not individual; rather, they reflect traditions, culture, community; in short, “religion”.

In contrast, acts of violence by non-Muslims are always individual. In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 71 people in Norway. Across the Atlantic, media initially blamed it on Muslims. When it turned out that the killer was Christian, Breivik became a psychopath: just an individual.

Doesn’t this mean that Muslims have no psychological problem because they are not individuals in the first place and thereby lack liberal impulse? If so, intimacy between liberalism and Islamophobia stands exposed.

Reclaiming Australia for what?

The media did cover the April rallies. On April 4, in Melbourne’s Federation Square, two rallies took place: the Reclaim Australia rally and a counter-protest by diverse groups and individuals – socialists, Aboriginal activists, students, union members, faith groups and others – opposed to racism.

However, the media didn’t adequately tell us about the context and actors in these events. The coverage focused on the sensationalising visuals of fights between Reclaim Australia supporters and opponents.

So, what brought thousands of people to these rallies? The Reclaim Australia website describes its mission, with biblical citation (from Matthew 6:24), to help guide Australians:

… to follow the higher laws of Yhwh, our Heavenly Father, to live the way our heavenly father wanted his children to live, to reclaim their country from the parasites and predators of the Abdicated Corporate Government of Babylon and Caesar’s world of Satan.

Decrying state control of churches, the mission considers them “not a true Ecclesia”.

Another Reclaim Australia website announced the rally would be for:

… patriotic Australians of all nationalities & beliefs standing united against radical extremism.

Reclaim Australia listed the following demands:

  1. prevent “enforcing of Sharia law in Australia”;

  2. retain “our traditional values”: Christmas, Australia Day, Anzac Day and other beliefs;

  3. keep “our rights and freedom of speech”;

  4. make “Halal certification illegal” so that it “isn’t a moneymaking scheme for Islam”;

  5. “introduce pride in the Australian flag and anthem” in schooling;

  6. “ban the teaching of Islam in government schools”;

  7. “ban the burqa or any variant thereof”;

  8. “ban FGM [female genital mutilation]”; and

  9. “stop Centrelink [a government welfare agency] recognising polygamy”.

Except for demands two, three and five, all are phrased negatively and relate to Islam – not as its community construes Islam, but as Reclaim Australia and media imagine it.

For example, many scholars of religion such as Tariq Ramadan and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad have already made it clear that female genital mutilation has nothing to do with Islam. It is a local custom also practised by Christians in some places.

In the current context, even these three demands can be read as Islam-related. At the April 4 rallies, various placards read: “Islam is an enemy of the West”, “The Koran promotes terrorism” and “You keep your burqa, I will keep my clitoris”.

Describing himself as “neutral”, a middle-aged man at the Melbourne rally told me that Reclaim Australia supporters came from both Liberal and Labor parties. Sensing my surprise, he clarified that Labor too opposed immigrants. He held that Muslims would take over Australia.

When I asked him the basis of his claim, he replied:

Mate, don’t you read newspapers and watch TV?

A self-described ‘infidel’ and ‘kafir’ at the Federation Square rally. Irfan Ahmed, Author provided

I asked the same question of a young man in a blue T-shirt with “infidel” (I and L depicted as guns) and “kafir” in Arabic written below. He supported the Rise-Up Australia Party, formed in 2010 by a pastor of Sri Lankan origin, Danny Nalliah. Nalliah formed it “with pro-Christian policy platforms to limit Muslim immigration”.

On his party website, Nalliah acknowledged his support for the Reclaim Australia rally. He hailed it as a “grassroots movement” of blue- and white-collar workers, mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers.

The self-embrace of the term “kafir” misreads the term kafir. Semantically, it means an “ungrateful” person because they hide that there exists a God. As a supporter of Nalliah, himself devoutly Christian, he was probably not an atheist.

Importantly, in one key reading, it is a punishable offence for a Muslim to tell the Christian or Jew that they are unbelievers. Other scholars have extended this provision to people of other faiths, including Hindus. Moving beyond theology, it was actually the British and other Europeans who pejoratively used “Kafir” to refer to black Africans.

The violence of love

The opposing protesters held placards describing Reclaim Australia supporters as “Fascists”, “Neo-Nazis”, “racists”, “Islamophobes” and so on. In a speech, a woman whose family had suffered the Nazi terror said that what Jews were to Hitler Muslims were to “these Neo-Nazis”.

Reclaim Australia denied charges of racism. One of its placards said: “We are not racists, we are concerned”. The man in the blue T-shirt laughed at the racism charge: “We support Danny Nalliah; is he white?”

The same “infidel” passionately argued over sharia with a tiny group of people, visibly Muslims. When one of them said that sharia was already part of Australia, he angrily asked how. Centrelink is an Islamic idea, came the reply, because Islam mandates that government takes care of vulnerable people. The youth in T-shirt laughed, shouting “taqiyyah”.

A little later I asked him what taqiyyah meant. In his view, Muslims lied in public to conceal their intent to impose sharia over Australia. An Indian youth who had joined our conversation opined that Muslims in India did the same as by increasing their population they wanted to rule over India.

For Reclaim Australia supporters, fear of Islam and love for Australia were simultaneous. It was hard to distinguish which of the constituents of love was religious, secular, national, liberal or cricket-related. A lady’s T-shirt with an Australian flag read: “If you don’t love it, leave”. Before replying to my hello, she asked: “Do you love Australia?”

When disrupted and outnumbered by his opponents, a young Reclaim Australia leader stopped his speech with a Happy Easter greeting and shouted over the microphone: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”. On Facebook, the group urged supporters to bring Australian cricket caps and flags. That if anyone should reclaim Australia it would be the country’s Aboriginal inhabitants was beyond its thought-frame.

Too often we take love and nation as virtue. However, the philosopher Cicero warned long ago:

Of all the emotions there is none more violent than love.

As for nation and nationalism, their history is soaked in blood.

It is not just Australians who proclaim “If you don’t love it, leave”; similar voices have been raised in France, Sri Lanka, India, the US and elsewhere.

In terms of demands, slogans and political positioning, will the forthcoming rallies be any different? Most likely “no”. And we can expect the same media blindness to Reclaim Australia’s self-proclaimed Christian and liberal inspirations.

Irfan will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 1:30 and 2:30pm AEST on Friday, July 17. Post your questions in the comments section below.

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