It’s a measure of how deeply anti-Muslim hate speech has saturated Australian public discourse that the foaming-at-the-mouth rants of the Reclaim Australia rally did not sound particularly out of the ordinary.
Of course, if I had been wearing any visible signifiers of my Muslim identity -- a headscarf, most obviously -- when attending yesterday's rally in outer western Melbourne it would have been a lot more alarming to find myself surrounded on all sides by a mob of flag-brandishing patriots screaming “MUSLIMS OUT!”. But the impact of Reclaim’s Islamophobia was also diluted by its familiarity. There wasn’t much that they could say about Muslims that we haven’t heard before -- that we don’t hear every day, in fact.
If the message was familiar, the audience was out of the ordinary. The visual impact of the rally was like falling through a crack in the time-space continuum and finding yourself in the alternative reality of Fascist Australia.
The density of Australian flags was no higher than you would have seen at the average Tony Abbott press conference. Alongside the usual banners about gender equality and halal certification were signs proclaiming a commitment to disability rights (“No 2 Islam, yes 2 special needs kids”).
According to Reclaim, the site that Al Iman Islamic School is seeking to lease in the area ought instead to be provided to Melton Specialist School, despite the school itself having stated that it has no interest in relocating. If Reclaim Australia has appropriated mainstream issues like gender equality and support for disabled kiddies, then some supposedly mainstream politicians have appropriated far-right issues like halal certification and the dangers of “Muslim enclaves” in Australian suburbs.
By comparison to Reclaim’s April rally in Federation Square, yesterday’s rally in Melton struck me as less middle-Australian, more hardcore white supremacist. The longer commute plus the police warnings of violence must have deterred some of the suburban mum-and-dad types who had attended the Fed Square rally. Also absent were most of the visibly “Asian” demonstrators, whose presence in Federation Square was loudly cited by the other Reclaim supporters as evidence that they were not racist.
Instead, there was a higher proportion of muscle-bound men displaying bikie and/or white supremacist insignia and shouting slogans to match. “HITLER WAS A FUCKING JEW!” one of them yelled. “Well, he was! They changed his name!”
A good number of the men and some of the women at the rally had their faces concealed by either hockey masks or by Australian flag bandanas. I asked a trio of Reclaim supporters whose faces were covered in Australian flag bandanas whether they thought that Muslim face veils ought to be banned.
“That’s the point we’re making. Do they find this intimidating? Of course they do. So we get asked to take ours off. They don’t.”
Except that the purpose of the niqab is modesty rather than intimidation -- a point that I did not make to them because, well, they were intimidating.
As were the skinhead males wearing Australian flag T-shits emblazoned with the logo “ROYAL AUSTRALIAN INFIDEL -- TRY BURNING THIS ONE”. Not to mention the T-shirts proclaiming membership of the United Patriots Front, an organisation usually described as being further to the far-right than the already far-right Reclaim Australia. Magistrate Jonathan Klestadt had dismissed this distinction as irrelevant when told that the man who pleaded guilty to possession of five Tasers and a quantity of mercury was a member of Reclaim Australia rather than the UPF: “Whether it’s the People’s Front of Judea or the Judean People’s Front, it’s all the same.”
“It’s all the same” was also the response of the imposingly large male in the UPF T-shirt to my question about hasn’t the UPF broken away from Reclaim Australia, sir? (Call me a lickspittle, but I always say “sir” when questioning men who are twice my height and body weight and loudly shouting hate speech against my ethno-religious identity.) “What’s the difference? So long as we’re all Australian patriots, it doesn’t matter.”
In her role as MC, City of Casey councillor and Rise Up Australia member Rosalie Crestani also proclaimed that “it didn’t matter” what organisation the rally’s supporters belonged to, so long as they were true Australian patriots. Speakers included “a former ex-Muslim” and a “genuine Aboriginal indigenous elder”, so accusations of racism were completely unfounded. The first speaker, “solicitor and barrister” John Bolton (who I privately dubbed "the Suit") had a record in child protection and indigenous rights, as well as “preventing the Islamisation of Australia”. And Bolton remembered to make the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim argument, noting that Muslims had lived peacefully in Australia for “almost as long as we have”, before warning that “step by step, year by year, new mosque by new mosque, they are taking over”. However, the next speaker, “Farmer John”, deviated from the approved script by telling the crowd at his anger with “dirty Arabs” who think they’re entitled to get priority over our disabled children. “Do we want an Islamic school? NO! Stick it up your arse!”
Crestani moved hastily to cover up that faux pas once she took back the microphone. “I do know a few Arabs and there’s a few good ones out there, so I just thought I’d clear that one up. This isn’t about ethnicity.”
Yeah, right. Some of your best friends are Arabs. Stick it up your arse, as Farmer John would say.
I sought out Bolton to ask whether, as a solicitor, he was concerned that Farmer John’s speech might have breached the Racial Discrimination Act.
“You have an opinion which you are trying to push. You are looking for someone who is going to support that and I am not going to do that.”
“But since you were introduced as having a history of standing up for marginalised people, I thought--"
“Who’s being marginalised?”
If Bolton was the Suit, his sidekick was the Muscle -- a beefy-looking man accompanying Bolton -- and the Muscle took over the conversation at this point: “This is what’s wrong with the media! They take one slip of the tongue which was immediately corrected and blow it out of all proportion! You should go and write about Muslims abusing women. About women’s rights. And fathers' rights.”
“A slip of the tongue, immediately corrected” is presumably how the Muscle would have described Farmer John’s proclamation that he would “love to tell you all to go out and burn down a mosque, but I can’t do that because I’d go to jail”.
And if not for “slips of the tongue” such as those uttered by Farmer John, most of what was said at the rally was the type of par-for-the-course anti-Muslim hate speech that has become perfectly acceptable when uttered by politicians from the major political parties, never mind the nation’s highest-rating shock jocks.