John Safran has spent more than two decades flourishing in the weird fringes of Australian pop culture, often going to darkly comic extremes in the process. So who better to plumb the strange, contradictory depths of Australia’s far right and anti-fascist left than the man who once commissioned a fatwa on Rove McManus?
As the mainstream debate over Islamophobia and immigration swirls in cycles between episodes of Q&A, cartoons in The Australian or inflammatory Pauline Hanson remarks, Safran’s new book Depends What You Mean by Extremist takes a ground-level approach, meeting the kind of folk you would find jostling on either side of the police line at a Reclaim Australia rally. He sticks around, pushing past anti-Semitic jibes from the right and ‘stay in your lane, white man’ comments from the left to uncover the often-veiled motivations that drive these people.
“Early on I realised there was a lot going on in Melbourne, which was really interesting to me because it’s meant to be a multicultural hub,” Safran explains. “Usually for these adventures into race and the fringes I have to get on a plane and go to an exorcism in Oklahoma.”
The turning point was a mid-2015 Reclaim Australia rally, where instead of the stereotypical Southern Cross tattoos and testosterone one might expect from a post-Cronulla anti-Islam movement a curious Safran encountered a surprisingly eclectic bunch. “That rally was the entrance to the rabbit hole,” he says. “There was this realisation that maybe for once in my goddamn career I’ve stumbled upon something [with] an easy entry point for a broad range of people. [Usually] I always have to pitch something like ‘hey, I know this is about my weird childhood at Yeshivah College with Hasidic Jews, but trust me, it tells a bigger story that you’re going to be interested in’,” he says. “But this was just direct – Australian flags and quote unquote bogans.”
What he discovered was a battle for some primo cultural real estate: true blue, everyday middle Australian identity – or at least the appearance of it. “Whatever was playing out in the mainstream, they’d try to leverage to their advantage – on all sides,” Safran explains of characters found among the ranks of the United Patriots Front, Q Society and No Room for Racism. “I found it interesting how much everyone’s game plan was to present themselves as ‘normal’. Some groups will say ‘we’re radical and want a radical change’, but generally everyone was really hopeful that they can present themselves as normal.
“I’ve noticed there’s this thing which I call ‘Today Tonight Anti-Islam’,” he explains. “[It’s] this real palatable-to-the-mainstream, some-journo-chasing-a-dodgy-sheik-up-the-street-because-he’s-embezzling thing that you’d see on the normal news. Then you’d have all these radical leaders who are just so out there, like they believe in white nationalism and eugenics, people who would totally be rejected even by Pauline Hanson supporters. They look at this mainstream, Today Tonight Anti-Islam and pretend that’s where they’re coming from.
“It’s the same with Pastor Daniel,” he says of the Sri Lankan-born minister he met at that first rally, whose Rise Up Australia party is one of several groups jostling for a market share of local anti-Islamic sentiment. “[He’s] a huge evangelical Christian and he thinks the Messiah is about to come, that Islam is a spiritual danger and we’ve got to fight a spiritual war. If you said that to your average Aussie, they’d be like ‘That is weird.’ So he again sort of repositions himself and pretends that “oh, my concern about Islam is this sheik who’s embezzled money, I’m just a normal person’.
“Everyone was trying to pretend they were normal, but clearly they weren’t.”
Over a year Safran dives ever deeper, with many of his subjects well-versed in his work and unafraid of using his celebrity to their own advantage. “I’m usually thinking ‘what’s going to wreck the book or improve the book?’,” he says of his occasional real-time cameos in right wing Facebook posts. “So when for instance the far right would put up something that made them seem like my buddies or something, my main thought was ‘Jesus, other people aren’t going to want to meet with me!’
“But having said that, in the real world they were really stressful moments in my life,” he says soberly. “It was humiliating in a way, but then when I was writing the book all those things… thank god for them!”
As the story unfolds many of the smaller players Safran encounters achieve greater notoriety, such as Musa Cerantonio, the Monty Python-loving white Muslim convert who is arrested midway through the book on suspicion of planning to join the Islamic State. “What turned out well for the book was that there were all these things like the Q Society or Australian Liberty Alliance that now have a bit more of a presence, but when I was there at the time they were all strange and really fringe,” he says. Such moments, Safran sheepishly ponders, were “bad for the world, but good for the book”.
“What I was really excited about when I started writing this was, ‘oh my god I don’t have to fly to Mississippi!’,” he jokes again. “Pastor Daniel’s church in semi-industrial Victoria is just as wild, and following him on his journey through Mildura was as vivid and strange, and with as much meat in it as anything anywhere.”
It’s a side of Australia that perhaps few of us would embrace, but one worth thinking about next time we click on a Guardian story about Trump’s America, smug in the knowledge that things are different over here.
Depends What You Mean by Extremist is out now
Hear John Safran speak at Adelaide City Library and Stirling’s Coventry Library on Wednesday May 24, details and booking via johnsafran.com