Now, where have we heard this before — a party has to change tack on a racially charged issue for fear of losing votes “in winnable Western Sydney seats”? But it’s OK; it’s not the bogans of Lindsay making a noise this time but the Muslims, warning Tony Abbott that he needs to condemn Cory Bernardi for his support of Dutch extremist leader Geert Wilders.

For those who missed it, it was revealed this week that Bernardi, who is Abbott’s parliamentary secretary, had lunch with Wilders in the Netherlands in May and “extended an invitation to assist him with his schedule or arranging appropriate meetings” when he visited Australia.

Wilders heads the Party for Freedom, the third-largest party in the Netherlands. But he is no ordinary centre-right politician: his fanatical hatred of Islam — which he describes as a Nazi-like ideology rather than a religion — has made him a pariah in much of Europe. But he is idolised by many on the far right, and clearly shares common ground with the likes of Bernardi.

Now the discovery that Bernardi is way out on the political fringe and that Abbott’s Liberal Party provides a safe haven for right-wing extremists is hardly news. But it provides an interesting study in the different ways we treat extremist rhetoric depending on which side it’s coming from.

Demonisation of Muslims has become a dominant theme in far-right discourse over the past 10 years. People such as Wilders, Melanie Phillips, Daniel Pipes and many others, including our own Janet Albrechtsen and Andrew Bolt, form a loose network who regularly quote one another’s work and propagate fear of Islam, urging extreme measures to counter the perceived threat.

In doing so, they have created almost a mirror image of the radical Islamic discourse that rails against the poison of the West and provides moral support for the terrorists of al-Qaeda and similar groups.

The difference of course is that the latter has been subject to a raft of measures to combat the “incitement” or “encouragement” of terrorism, and has been pushed to the very margins of public debate. The extreme right, however, remains on centre stage, with high ratings, billions in advertiser dollars and the patronage of civil and political leaders.

Yet it’s only a month and a half since 69 people were killed by terrorist Anders Breivik, inspired by the same racial, religious and political demons shared by Wilders and his like. We can no longer claim that right-wing terrorism is an imaginary threat.

It’s true that al-Qaeda is an actual terrorist organisation, with no real anti-Islamic counterpart. But in the months after 9/11, the fight against al-Qaeda morphed into a campaign against the enablers of Islamic terrorism in general, targeting many whose crimes were in words, not deeds.

Yet on the other side, Alan Jones, for example, can be officially found to have presented programs “likely to encourage violence or brutality” and “to vilify people of Middle-Eastern background on the basis of ethnicity” without anyone seriously suggesting that he should be prosecuted under the sedition laws, despite the fact they had been recently crafted to penalise just such “encouragement”.

My point is not that these extremists should be silenced by the law; on the contrary, I have repeatedly defended the free-speech rights even of racists, bigots and charlatans. Nor will regular readers, I hope, accuse me of being sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism. I think all religious fundamentalism is a malign influence that we should be on guard against.

But the double standard behind our anti-terrorism laws needs to be brought out into the open and examined. And if we take from 9/11 the message that one religion is uniquely harmful and dangerous, then we have learnt the wrong lesson.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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