In the wake of their controversial fundraising dinners, the Q Society explain their roots and their paranoid vision of Australia’s future. By Mike Seccombe.
Inside the sick, sad world of the Q Society and the Australian Liberty Alliance
In this story
A Melbourne council installs curtains at a pool so Muslim women can maintain their modesty. In Afghanistan, a Buddhist empire falls. A Sydney school allows Muslim boys to decline to shake hands with women. And Egypt is no longer a Coptic Christian country.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground establishes a Muslim prayer room. And Beirut is no longer the Paris of the Middle East.
Surely you see the connections?
If not, Debbie Robinson, president of both the secretive Q Society and its associated political party, the Australian Liberty Alliance, can explain it all quite simply.
“You can’t just have a little bit of Islam. It becomes all-encompassing,” she says. “It will destroy whatever host country and democracy it can take hold of.”
In Robinson’s view, the global problem of Islamic terrorism is not the result of poverty, or marginalisation, or a perversion of the faith by a relative few extremists. The problem is the religion itself.
“The hatred and the division stems from the Koran, the Hadith and Islamic teachings,” she says.
There is no moderate Islam, she says. Although some Muslims may not subscribe to “the hardcore part of Islam”, it is the terrorists who truly represent the religion.
“To say they are misinterpreting Islam is a nonsense because people… Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, has a PhD in Islamic theology. He understands the Koran – just the same as Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah – the Islamic teachings.”
Robinson sees Islam as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Something insidious. In Western countries such as Australia, she tells The Saturday Paper during a wild 30-minute ride of an interview that leaps unpredictably across time and continents, “it’s not all about cutting off heads or cutting off hands”. But she sees the apparent risk.
It starts, she says, with “a subtle push and demand for Islamic practices that is creeping into our society. As your Islamic population grows so do your demands for sharia-compliant practices. It changes a society. Islam and sharia are anathema to everything a Western democracy stands for.”
The Q Society last week received unwelcome attention when Fairfax newspapers published a report of one of its fundraisers, replete with outrageous quotes from the guest speakers, cartoonist Larry Pickering and Liberal politician turned political commentator Ross Cameron. A second dinner, featuring former Liberal now independent senator Cory Bernardi and Nationals MP George Christensen, held at Victoria University’s convention centre, attracted protesters.
It was about seven years ago, at a meeting of like minds in the affluent suburb of Kew in Melbourne – the phonetic for which gave the society its name – that the organisation was born to defend Australian democracy from the perceived threat of Islam.
A website was set up. Islam, it said, is not just a religion, “but a totalitarian ideology that does not separate its law from its religious entity”.
It continued: “Slowly but surely our Judeo-Christian values, ethics and customs are being replaced.”
And, it warned: “If we continue to tolerate Islam without understanding it, Australia as a free, secular democracy will be lost.”
That last sentence is particularly ironic, for the evidence of both the website and Robinson’s words betray a startling ignorance not only of Islam but of world history.
First, though, a little more about the activities of the Q Society.
“We were founded in 2010 to inform and educate the public about Islam and sharia law,” Robinson says. “We ran public events, we got figures from overseas. We worked to raise awareness. We lobbied politicians, we attended inquiries, with our concerns … about Islamisation and what it does to host countries…”
Sadly for them, no one paid much attention. They generated some controversy back in March 2013 when they imported the Dutch star of the European far right, Geert Wilders, to speak. They got some publicity a couple of years later by organising protests against the construction of a mosque in Bendigo. But community opinion ran against them and the mosque eventually got the go-ahead.
The usual shock jocks and right-wing columnists offered some support, but the Q Society never caught on big with the public. Robinson claims a mailing list of about 20,000 people, but admits the organisation did not have the impact its founders had hoped for.
“We felt what we were doing was falling on deaf ears and concluded a better way was to become political,” she says. “So we formed the Australian Liberty Alliance.”
The ALA was registered by the Australian Electoral Commission in August 2015. “It is not a one-issue party,” Robinson says. “We have 20 core policies.”
That’s half-true. A quick scan of the policies reveals a grab bag of vaguely described populist-right positions: defending the constitution, promoting smaller government, privatising SBS and parts of the ABC, cutting funding for renewable energy, lowering taxes, encouraging greater private provision for healthcare, advancing the “natural family”, and “restoring civil society”, among others.
But a number of nominally separate policies specifically relate to the core concern of the Q Society, Islam. One promises to enforce “integration over separation” by ending multiculturalism. Another promises to “stop the Islamisation of Australia”. The “Citizenship and Community Spirit” policy would end tax breaks for “associations formed around foreign nationalities”. There is also a core policy that would end dual citizenship, and yet another that would ban the taking of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The ALA’s education policy would change the curriculum to foster “appreciation of Western civilisation” and encourage “a broader range of opinions and freedom of speech”.
It does not take much decoding to understand what that means. By freedom of speech, they mean freedom to malign those of other faiths. Like many others on the conservative side of Australian politics, including a substantial number in the Liberal and National parties, Robinson’s organisations are exercised about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to act in such a way as to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.
Robinson says 18C is a particularly glaring example of the prevailing “political correctness” that limits groups such as hers from telling it like they see it. The Australian Liberty Alliance campaigned hard for its abolition when they ran candidates for the first time in last year’s election. The party also promised to ban full-face coverings in public, to put a 10-year moratorium on resident visa applications by people from 57 Muslim countries, and to remove Australia from the United Nations Refugee Convention.
Once again, no one took much notice. The Australian Liberty Alliance had brought Wilders back to Australia for the big campaign launch in Perth on October 20, 2015, but there was little cut-through. It’s not that their anti-Islam, free speech message didn’t have appeal to a certain political demographic – it’s that the party lacked product differentiation. The far right of Australian politics is a crowded market these days, with established brands such as Jacqui Lambie and the Christian Democrats et al. And there was another product out there in election 2016, a “category killer” as they call it in marketing. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation had a lock on the anti-Muslim vote.
The ALA recorded just 0.66 per cent of the senate vote in New South Wales and Victoria, 0.42 per cent in South Australia, 0.33 in Tasmania, 1.08 in Queensland and 1.11 in Western Australia. Hanson, by contrast, got four senators elected.
It was a dreadful result, considering Robinson’s high hopes. But they had amassed a substantial war chest for the election. Electoral commission returns show the ALA received some $1.5 million in donations in 2015-16, only $60,000, or 4 per cent, of which were identified by donor.
When asked about the money, Robinson said: “I am not prepared to talk about where that comes from.”
Nor would she comment on whether the dismal 2016 senate result had ended the electoral aspirations of the Q Society/ALA. “Our focus at the moment is a court case.”
The case she refers to is a defamation action brought by Mohamed El-Mouelhy, the head of the Halal Certification Authority, who is making a claim against two Q Society videos featuring Kirralie Smith, an ALA senate candidate for NSW. It is part of what is putting the Q Society in headlines at the moment, alongside the controversial dinner functions conducted to raise money for Smith’s defence.
The videos included claims oft-repeated by the anti-Islam movement that the halal certification industry in Australia is part of the push towards Islamisation of the country, is corrupt and provides support to terrorists. But where such claims are usually generalised, the Smith videos identified El-Mouelhy by name, and showed his company logo.
Reportedly, the videos were viewed more than 60,000 times before they were taken down. If you try to find them now, you get a black screen with a concerned-looking emoji-like face on it and a message: “This content is not available on this country domain due to a defamation complaint. Sorry about that.”
The case is yet to be heard, but it would appear Smith and the Q Society are in a fair degree of trouble and up for considerable legal expense whatever the outcome.
The bigger question, though, is why the Q Society – and so many others on the anti-Islam right of politics – gets so agitated about sharia law and halal certification.
Halal certification of food simply means that it is guaranteed suitable for consumption by Muslims, just as kosher certification does for Jews. In practical terms, for the Australian consumer, there is no difference between food that has been certified halal and that which has not. It is nutritionally identical, it tastes no different, it is produced according to the same standards of hygiene and animal welfare.
It’s just one of those religious things that seem strange to those who do not adhere to the particular religion, like the sacramental wine Catholics sip in church. Absent the religious element, it’s just wine. And absent the religious element, halal is just food.
But certification is important to many Muslims and also to the Australian food industry, for which halal exports are worth billions of dollars.
Of course, there would be cause for concern if there were evidence that, as the Q Society and others have repeatedly claimed, the scheme was providing money to fund terrorism. But the relevant intelligence agencies assured an inquiry into food certification by the senate economics references committee a little over a year ago that there was no evidence of that. Nor was there evidence of money being siphoned off to any other improper ends. Nor do the big food industry lobby groups express any serious concern about the way the certification regime works.
So, again, why the concern from the Q Society and others on the political far right?
Josh Roose, the director of the Institute for Religion, Politics and Society at the Australian Catholic University, puts it down to “paranoia”. This paranoia has strange expressions.
In 2011, the Liberal member for Cowan, Western Australia, Luke Simpkins, presented a petition in federal parliament on behalf of constituents concerned that unlabelled halal food was so common in Australian supermarkets that “you cannot purchase the meat for your Aussie barbecue without the influence of this minority religion”.
He used the occasion to show off his knowledge of Islam, quoting Mohammed: “The nonbelievers will become Muslims when, amongst other things, they eat the meat that we have slaughtered.”
Simpkins emphasised the point. “This is one of the key aspects to converting nonbelievers to Islam,” he said. “By having Australians unwittingly eating halal food we are all one step down the path towards the conversion…”
Whether Simpkins – who lost his seat in 2016 to Labor’s Anne Aly, a Muslim academic specialising in deradicalisation – actually believed what he was saying about conversion by ingestion is unknowable. Roose notes, though, that in recent years the right of politics has increasingly “come to see religion as something to be manipulated”.
No claim is too implausible and no hypocrisy too great to be called to their political ends.
“So you have this irony of them expressing pseudo concern for things like women’s rights and the treatment of homosexuals under Islam,” Roose says, “from a group of people that traditionally have not been at the forefront of advocating for such things. Indeed, who have been at the forefront of persecuting homosexuals.”
Examples aren’t hard to find. Fairfax’s Jacqueline Maley gave us a fly-on-the-wall account of the first of the Q Society fundraisers last week, featuring Larry Pickering and Ross Cameron.
Cameron’s speech featured various gay slurs, directed at Maley’s employer, The Sydney Morning Herald, at the NSW Liberal Party, which he derided as “basically a gay club”, and, for no clear reason, at some ancient Romans.
Let’s focus on Pickering, though, who said he could not stand Muslims, but that “they are not all bad – they do chuck pillow-biters off buildings”.
Maley reported that he “donated for auction one of his own works depicting the rape of a woman in a niqab by her son-in-law”. It fetched $600, to go towards the legal defence in Kirralie Smith’s defamation case.
Pointless vulgarity has long been Pickering’s metier, and rape is a recurring motif. Crikey’s Bernard Keane described one Pickering work of about five years ago: “Retired right-wing cartoonist Larry Pickering has portrayed Julia Gillard as a dildo-wielding rapist in a cartoon on his website.” Keane elaborated on the image, noting the man she was preparing to anally penetrate was “strapped face down to a surgical table” while Gillard, aided by Wayne Swan and Greg Combet, suggested “it will help cool the planet”.
There is much more that could be said about Pickering, his dodgy business dealings and his colourful private life. But the point is made: he would not seem the ideal choice to be guest speaker for an organisation dedicated to upholding traditional Australian Judeo-Christian values. Surely he could only harm the cause.
When I put this to Debbie Robinson, she demurs.
“People have worked themselves into a lather and missed the point,” she says. “Larry Pickering attended a fundraiser for freedom of speech. The whole point is to be free to speak.”
Furthermore, she says, he is not a Q Society member, nor a spokesman for it. The real problem is a media that “thrives on sensationalism”. That, she says, and political correctness.
“You don’t give offence, you take offence. What offends one person may not offend another person.”
One person – such as Robinson, perhaps – might be offended by the installation of curtains at a swimming pool to protect the modesty of Islamic women bathers. Another person might take offence at the depiction of a Muslim woman being raped by a family member.
People have different standards, and apparently Q Society members have no objection to violent images or hate speech directed at Muslims. And if they did, we probably wouldn’t know about it anyway – the society makes members sign non-disclosure agreements. Back in June 2014, the Murdoch papers got hold of one and published it.
The agreement prohibited members of the free-speech-defending organisation from revealing any information relating to the “personal details of fellow members, supporters, associates such as names, addresses, telephone numbers and other contact details as well as operational manuals, methods, computer software, works of art, drafts and designs, financial data, places of meetings, secrets and other proprietary information related to the past, current, future and proposed activities of the Society, and any other information which is privileged, proprietary and confidential”.
Secretive is an understatement. Apart from its couple of spokespeople, its senate candidates and a few high-profile conservative political figures – notably Cory Bernardi and George Christensen – we know very little about the membership of the Q Society.
So any assessment has to be observational. Dr Benjamin T. Jones, ARC fellow of the school of history at Australian National University, says he went “undercover” to a Q Society event in March 2013, when Geert Wilders was here.
Security was very tight. Before being allowed into the conference room, people had to produce their receipt of payment and photo identification, pass through a metal detector and be subject to a bag search. While waiting, he chatted to George Christensen. The Reverend Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party was ushered to the front of the line.
“It was a very white crowd,” Jones says.
But the first speaker was not. That was Sam Solomon, a former Muslim. The Q Society, says Jones, is very sensitive to the charge of racism, and its leadership makes a point of citing non-white critics of Islam. What they don’t tend to do, however, is cite atheist critics of Islam.
“Secular thinkers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens all criticised Islam without racism or bigotry. However, that was in a larger framework of questioning the logic and value of all religion. With a strong Christian base, the Q Society is reluctant to draw heavily on atheist academics as the way they criticise Islam tends to be applicable to Christianity also.”
Another feature that distinguishes the Q Society, apart from its secrecy and strong fundamentalist Christian base, say those who have observed the party, is the social class of its leadership.
“These are not One Nation bogans,” says one.
Suresh Rajan, a former head of the Ethnic Communities Council of Western Australia who has effectively lobbied local mayors, hoteliers and others to deny venues for Q Society and ALA functions, says the same thing, more diplomatically.
“In this state at least, they are professional people, comfortably off, living in the flash suburbs,” he says of Q Society leaders. “The national president, Robinson, is married to a medical specialist. The party’s other WA senate candidate is a senior academic at the University of Western Australia.”
The ALA’s candidate profiles suggest the same is true elsewhere. They are medical professionals, teachers, small business operators, former intelligence and military people. Kirralie Smith claims an associate diploma in applied sciences, a diploma of ministry, and a bachelor of theology. On paper, they look like the Liberal Party.
The same is not necessarily true of their followers. The 2013 meeting Jones attended drew “a very eclectic crowd”, he says – everything from respectable-looking businessmen to skinheads who conspicuously did not join in the applause at the mention of Israel’s struggle against Islam. The audience members, he says, were “united only in their extreme dislike of Islam”.
Let’s return to Robinson’s articulation of that extremism.
The thing that distinguishes Islam from Christianity, Judaism and other religions, she says, is that the latter have been through a reformation.
“They have, in fact, changed,” she says. “There is no changing with Islam. They are emulating a prophet who by today’s standards was a paedophile, he was a warlord. This what the followers of Islam hold up as being true.”
She rattles off her irritations with Islam: the curtained swimming pool, the boys who won’t shake hands, the fact that she once went to hear an Islamic speaker and found the audience was segregated by sex.
“Do you not see things happening around you?” she says. “We now have Islamic prayer rooms at the MCG. That is part of the push for all things Islamic.”
But why, I ask, is it a problem if facilities for Muslim worship are being installed at sporting venues?
And suddenly she is off through time and space.
“Take for example a country like Lebanon, which was once the Paris of the Middle East,” she says. “It was multifaith, a Christian country. And now the demand for Islamic practice – it’s no longer that country. The same with Afghanistan, which was once a Buddhist country. Just take a look at Egypt, which was once a Coptic Christian country.”
Some of this is true, if you take a very long view. But the Mauryan Buddhist empire in Afghanistan fell about 200 years before Christ, let alone Mohammed. And there were other invaders, such as Genghis Khan, who was no kinder to Muslims than he was to Buddhists.
The Copts of Egypt came into conflict with the Romans – who practised a different brand of Christianity – long before the Muslims took over. And are we really still holding that against Islam 1400 years later? What about other expansionist religions of the past couple of millennia, such as Christianity?
As for Lebanon, it is still a multifaith country, and its constitution and political system attempt to balance the various faiths, says Raihan Ismail, lecturer in the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU and a specialist in Islamic law and jurisprudence.
“In Lebanon, the president of the country must be a Christian,” she says. “The speaker of the house must be a Shiite and the prime minister a Sunni.”
There is sharia law for personal status matters, such as divorces, custody cases, inheritances, but there are similar religious courts for Christians, too.
What the critics of Islam don’t realise is that sharia is practised to different degrees in different circumstances and in different countries, Ismail says.
At the most basic level, it dictates purely personal acts.
“So its about how you pray, how you fast, how you deal with your neighbours, and relations with God,” she says.
“The second category is civil matters, business dealings. In South-East Asia in particular, and in some parts of the Middle East, it’s a big issue, particularly when it comes to banking.
“The third can be controversial – that is the personal status issue. In most Muslim societies, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt, they have sharia courts dealing with those things.”
But the fourth category, criminal law – the sharia that Islamophobes associate with mediaeval punishments – is practised in only a couple of countries: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“The overwhelming majority of Muslim countries apply secular legal systems, often inherited from the British, French, Dutch or other colonial powers,” Ismail says.
In most of the Muslim world, she says, “the liberal activists, women’s advocates, the progressive NGOs have won the debate” about the future direction of the faith.
You won’t persuade the likes of the Q Society of that, though.
“I don’t see that it will ever be reformed,” says Debbie Robinson. “I think Donald Trump is right. We’ve got to draw a line in the sand.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2017 as "Inside Q Society’s sick, sad world".
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