Q&A served up the Pauline Hanson show, complete with supporting cast of open-mouthed fellow senators and Muslim audience members seeking to get a straight answer out of her.

Hanson did not disappoint, in the TV ratings sense of the word. There was, as always, much in her performance to marvel over, but I was left with a feeling that something rather more sinister had happened among the usual festival of outrageous slurs.

I found what was sitting uncomfortably under my skin while reading One Nation’s policy on “Islam” in an attempt to understand what Hanson means when she calls for a royal commission into it.

During Q&A, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari had been telling his personal story, the short version being that his family immigrated to Australia from Iran when he was five. He directly asked Hanson whether, given One Nation’s policy on banning all Muslim immigration to Australia, she would have prevented “five-year old Sam Dastyari” from coming “because somewhere in Tehran there’s a document that says beside my name the word ‘Muslim’ because of where I was born?” The conversation went on:

Hanson: Are you a Muslim? Really?
Dastyari: Yeah, and I have never hidden away. No, no, no.
Hanson: So were you sworn in under the Koran?
Dastyari: I was born in an Islamic nation and by being born …
Hanson: So you’re a Muslim.
Dastyari: … in an Islamic nation, I was born — and under Iranian law, under Islamic law, under places like Iran and my parents fled to be able to come to this country.
Hanson: And are you a practising Muslim?  This is quite interesting.  Are you a practising Muslim?

This was some pretty raw television. Dastyari accused Hanson of making a joke of a serious matter, but she wasn’t joking. She seemed genuinely intrigued. The suddenness of her interest and her unexpected shift to short, complete sentences stood out starkly from her otherwise normal rambling non-sequitur approach to the debate.

I was reminded of something — I’ve seen such a change in demeanour many times in court, when a witness under cross-examination drops their guard and says something unrehearsed. In that moment, an attentive barrister’s body language shifts sharply as they sniff blood. Then they go in the for the kill. The good ones do it with an unthreatening smile.

I wondered why Hanson wanted to know whether Dastyari had been sworn in under the Koran; it seemed an oddly specific detail. The answer is near the end of the list of One Nation’s specific policies on Islam:

“Muslims will not be allowed to be sworn in to Parliament under the Qur’an.”

Hanson assured Dastyari that he was welcome to remain in Australia, saying it was ridiculous to discuss the past when all of our problems with Muslims are happening now. I don’t know whether Dastyari detected the threat that had just been levelled at him under the cover of Hanson’s embracing handshake. One Nation’s policy says this:

“Islam has no place in Australia if we are to live in a cohesive society. We have seen the destruction it is having around the world. If we do not make the necessary changes now to stop the advancement of Islam in Australia, there will be no hope in the future.”

Other statements include that “[Islam’s] religious aspect is fraud; it is rather a totalitarian political system”, and “Islam is proving to be seditious against every nation and government on earth. Islam demands that all Muslims work to overthrow all nations, governments and non-sharia laws.”

In the context of these clearly stated convictions, it’s easy to understand why Hanson is calling for a royal commission to establish that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology; why she wants to stop all further Muslim immigration; why she insists that no more mosques be built and why the existing ones must be placed under surveillance.

[‘Lure of a car crash’: why producers kept Hanson’s name in lights]

Once you accept the inane premise that Islam is a fraud — a play for global political domination under the guise of a system of religious faith — then it follows necessarily that all 1.6 billion adherents of Islam around the world, including the half a million Australian Muslims, are a source of risk. Hanson doesn’t really need to go so far as comparing them to pit bull dogs in justifying the bans; she could accept that they’re human, albeit mostly unwitting participants in a global conspiracy.

The logic is a bit wonky, but the central theme is very pointed. Islam is illegitimate; Muslims can call on no legitimate rights by virtue of their adherence to it. It doesn’t matter how many well-mannered and well-spoken Muslims politely ask Hanson why she hates them or invite her to join them for a non-halal meal; she has already concluded that they are a clear and present danger, so their very reasonableness may just as well be a honey-coated trap for the unwary truth-finder. Another memory is jogged: scenes from The Crucible.

For Dastyari, and any other Muslim members of Parliament, shit just got real. Hanson’s innocent interrogation sought to elicit information that, to her party, is of critical importance. One Nation’s policy of preventing MPs from giving their oath of office under the Koran carries the implicit assumption that such an oath has no legitimacy; so much is obvious from the denial that Islam is a religion at all. They might as well have sworn on the Communist Manifesto or Hanson’s autobiography, for all the validity Hanson would allow them.

Hanson’s policy and logic says that Dastyari, if he did swear on the Koran, was not properly sworn. It will be interesting to see whether she follows this train of thought into the Senate chamber. Dastyari’s personal story, the revelation of his religion of birth, is not a joking matter to Hanson. He just exposed himself to the chief inquisitor.

A bit of The Crucible (act III) to close and remind us where we’re heading:

Rev Hale: I may only fear the Lord, sir, but there is fear in the country nevertheless.
Judge Danforth: Reproach me not with the fear in the country; there is fear in the country because there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country!
Hale: But it does not follow that everyone accused is part of it.
Danforth: No uncorrupted man may fear this court, Mr Hale! None!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey