Reclaim Australia protests threaten more division
Scott Moerland’s army mate was in the mess tent reading an English translation of the Koran. It was 2003 or 2004, and the Australian soldiers were stationed at the United States-run Camp Victory, a series of complexes fixed around Baghdad airport. His buddy waved the book. “You gotta read this mate; it’s fucked up.”
“Nah, I’m not interested in that shit,” Moerland replied.
But Moerland became interested. After he left the Australian Army in 2006, Moerland fixated on Islam. His interest was compounded by the stories of persecution told to him by his brother-in-law, an Iraqi Christian who fled to Australia. “I couldn’t understand why there are so many nice Muslims but also some really bad ones,” Moerland told me this week. “Compounding my confusion was what we were getting told by the media, the politicians and everyday ignorant do-gooders who have no knowledge whatsoever of Islam after every terrorist atrocity. That is that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’, or this: ‘terrorists have hijacked this peaceful religion’. This sparked a decade-long obsession to find the truth.”
This obsession culminated last week when Moerland, as one of the principal organisers of the Reclaim protests, gave a long speech in Brisbane. He took the microphone and stood on the same stage Pauline Hanson had earlier occupied. It was a speech punctuated by angry denunciations of the anti-Reclaim protesters standing nearby. The word “traitor” was bitterly reserved for them, and it was rarely deployed without the effect of it being spat. “We’re not going to roll over like a scared, politically correct little dog and take it,” he said before a cheering crowd. “We’re gonna give radical Islam the biggest bitch slap it’s ever felt … The Islamic agenda is very clear: Islam’s intention is to take over every society it infiltrates … Now, when I served overseas I had to wear Kevlar everywhere we went. Now down in Sydney right now, the speakers doing what we’re doing have to wear bulletproof vests. I never thought I’d see the day where someone has to wear a bulletproof vest just for speaking out about a friggin’ religion.”
Reclaim’s intention, it says, is to combat the Islamisation of Australian society. But the organisation is philosophically inchoate – riven by contradictions and conspiracies. Halal certification is feared as a laundering device for terror funds. Islam is feared broadly as a pathology, bent on a stealth takeover of Australia. One rupture in the group is the simultaneous rejection and adoption of identity politics. Some marchers, for instance, earnestly sought Aboriginal endorsement and sympathy, at the same time arguing about the presumed historical tendency of Muslims to demand special status as victims. Shakira Hussein, a Muslim academic, attended the protests in Melbourne last week and wrote about some of her experiences for Crikey. I asked her about these contradictions.
“[It’s] partly because of the odd mix of people who attended: Rise Up Australia Christians, atheists who were opposed to religion in general but Islam in particular, white supremacists, and members of other immigrant communities,” Hussein said.
“It also reflects a shift in focus from biological to cultural racism. I was surprised to see that the deployment of Indigenous identity was such a strong factor in the rally. That weirded me out more than anything, really. It’s about ‘authenticity’ – in terms of Australian identity – plus an alibi against the charge of racism.”
Alongside this grab bag of concerned citizens was a contingent of neo-Nazis, especially at the Melbourne protests. This week, on white supremacist chat forums and blogs, video footage of violence was boastfully shared. Clips of thugs with swastika tattoos were uploaded under titles such as “Patriots versus Filth” and soundtracked by Angry Anderson’s “Bound For Glory”. “Reminds me of [The Battle of] Thermopylae,” one excited forum member wrote.
When I asked Moerland about this Nazi presence, he said there was none at the Brisbane march. “I’m ex-army, mate,” he told me. “I fucking hate ’em. If there were any neo-Nazis at Brisbane they would’ve been quickly told to fuck off. But our opponents cling to it because they have no other arguments.”
This I’ve heard a lot – the Nazi presence is either fabricated or exaggerated, adopted as a smearing technique by “traitors” and “enemies”. When I told Moerland there were neo-Nazis at the Melbourne march, he said that it’s disappointing but they would number a minority. Then he made another suggestion: “We have a secret comms page,” he told me. “And we’ve been discussing theories that socialists set this up. That the Nazis were planted to discredit the movement. Now, I have no proof of this at the moment. I need to make that clear. But there is an investigative journalist looking into it.”
Anti-Reclaim protesters were mobilised in each city, with varying levels of success. The most dramatic images emerged from Melbourne, and it provided footage of such intensity and colour that it likely extended the story’s life by a week. One journalist described the scenes as trench warfare, which is hyperbolic, but it was periodically dangerous. Punches were thrown, blood was drawn. There was spitting and screaming. Lined up against each other, the Reclaimers would chant “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oi, Oi, Oi” to which the anti-racist protesters responded with variations on “Fuck off, racists.” Police on horses ringed them all.
The footage asked the question: how best to respond to Reclaim? The anti-Reclaim protesters organised themselves with guerilla tactics and spoke in similarly militaristic terms as their opponents. For them, Federation Square was not a place to be symbolically reclaimed but physically. They spoke of repelling forces. Their stated intention was bald: to “disrupt” the Reclaim march. There were no niceties here. Brad Chilcott, an Adelaide church pastor and national director of Welcome to Australia, spent a long time consulting Muslim leaders in the weeks preceding the protests. They workshopped strategies, focusing upon “subtle and symbolic” opposition. In the end, because of safety concerns, they shelved their ideas, among them a mass picnic, pluralistic and peaceful, to be established in one of Adelaide’s parks. Regardless, he felt the provocative anti-protests were ill conceived.
“Look, I think your audience is not the racists you’re shouting at, but the people at home,” Chilcott told me. “These anti-Reclaim protesters say their intention is to disrupt the rally and they achieved it, but I say, ‘Can’t we be more expansive in the goals?’ These protesters tell me, ‘Would you prefer that we stay silent?’, and I’m not saying that at all. But those watching at home, they couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad. Then politicians have to condemn the violence on both sides, rather than an undiluted message condemning bigotry. And this is what happened.”
Federal Labor MP Tim Watts agrees. Watts was a prominent opponent of Reclaim this week, as he engaged countless protest supporters on Facebook. The MP patiently refuted conspiracies and parried abuse. He directly echoed Chilcott on the matter
“As an anti-racism protester, your audience are the bystanders,” Watts told me. “The ones watching from home on the news bulletin. It’s about convincing audiences. And the way to convince people at home is not by burning flags, screaming and spitting. It’s about minimising and isolating. These people are a minority. I’m convinced of that.”
The pseudonymous Andy Fleming, the cyber Nazi hunter I profiled last year, disagrees. Fleming – who has attracted the ire of chief Reclaim organiser Shermon Burgess – attended the anti-Reclaim protests, and argues that you cannot allow bigotry to go unchecked. “I think ignoring RA [Reclaim Australia] is a mistake,” Fleming told me, “based on the assumption that such ideas and movements that RA represents – racism, xenophobia and right-wing ultra-nationalism – will gain legitimacy and grow if left unchallenged. With regards to being inflammatory, I think an examination of the political rhetoric employed by Reclaimers confirms that Islamophobia is already a blazing fire.”
I wondered if such dramatic, physical confrontation didn’t validate the sense of persecution felt by Reclaimers, and also serve as a flattering reinforcement of an “us versus them” mentality. Such a view helps recruit others and solders bonds in a way that being ignored or mocked does not. Fleming replied: “The actions of those rallying to oppose RA could serve to reinforce the notion that there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, but I believe this to be a worthwhile risk and, to some extent, reflects an underlying political reality.”
Scott Moerland told me that because of his views he had lost friends, “but I’ve found many more”. For years, he says, he toiled in silence, frustrated by his friends “who wouldn’t listen to facts”. He would grow weary, but revive his passions by watching footage of “Islamic atrocities” online. These days he thinks that the tide is turning. People are listening. “It’s starting to happen. We’ll have another rally and it’ll be bigger than ever. Maybe in August or September, but it’s not set in stone.”
Moerland believes he occupies a very different Australia to the one Tim Watts lives in. “We’ve got a great thing going here,” Watts told me. “We do immigration better than Europe. But these people watch atrocities from overseas, then extrapolate out from a vanishingly small minority in Australia. My biggest concern is for my Muslim constituents. They’re Australians, and they can’t be excluded. To the Reclaim people, I say come down to my electorate and actually meet and talk to my Muslim constituents. You’ll see that they’re proud to be Australian. That they want to talk about footy. Like [Richmond AFL player] Bachar Houli – they’re so proud of him … I’m confident in the robustness of this country.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2015 as "Testing claims". Subscribe here.