Behind Bendigo’s mosque conflict

Behind Bendigo’s mosque conflict

Thousands of anti-Islam protesters are expected to converge on the regional city of Bendigo tomorrow. Here I take a closer look at some of the conflict’s main players. 

“Whoa, this Bendigo rally is going to be massive. I have never seen so much support for the UPF like I have now. I have had almost every major newspaper in the country going nuts over it,” said Shermon Burgess, one of the many leaders of the far-right United Patriots Front.

On August 29th, 300 anti-Islam protesters hit the the regional city of Bendigo, protesting against a decision to build Bendigo’s first mosque.

Today, they are expected to return in the thousands, their outrage heightened by month’s fatal shooting of a police employee in Parramatta by teenager Farhad Jabar.

The rally has been organised as part of the so-called “Global Rally for Humanity,” a campaign led by US anti-Islam campaigner John Ritzheimer, which involves coordinated protest at local mosques.

Similar protests are planned in Perth, Canberra, and Hobart, and last night a few dozen anti-Islam protesters gathered at the Parramatta mosque. But the Bendigo rally is expected to be by far the largest.

A breakaway group from Reclaim Australia, the United Patriots Fornt was started by Mr Burgess following “attempts of political infiltrators trying to hijack Reclaim for their own agenda and a severe syndrome of too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

It promotes a view that Islam and terrorism are inseparable, that Muslims want to impose ISIS-style Sharia law on Australia, and that mosques are the first step in this plan.

The UPF’s involvement in Bendigo has dramatically escalated what was previously a small but active local campaign against the mosque.

The group refrains from direct threats of violence against Muslims, but its aggressive rhetoric leaves much open to interpretation.

Says Mr Burgess in a video promoting today’s rally: “We’re all sick of this Islamic terrorism shit spreading in Australia. We’ve got to get on top of it now, because it is like cancer. If you don’t get on top of cancer early, it spreads, and it kills you. We have to stamp it out, while we can, before it is too strong to stamp out.”

The Australian Defence League was more explicit, this week calling for lone wolf attacks on mosques and imams. The league’s leader, Ralph Cerminara, spoke at the first Bendigo rally. He also spoke to media at the Parramatta rally last night, and is expected to attend today’s rally. It is not known whether he faces any charges related to incitement of violence.

Dr Troy Whitford from Charles Sturt University, who has studied right-wing nationalist groups for many years, tells me that disenfranchisement is the main motivator for people to join these groups.

“People feel that society doesn’t reflect them anymore, they feel disenfranchised. They feel that they’ve lost jobs, university places. Then someone tells them that the reason your life sucks is immigration – the same way Hitler did with the Jews.”

These groups tend to be dominated by middle-aged white men, he says, who feel disentitled at the loss of their historical privilege.

“For decades before now, your white male has been the quintessential Australian. With the rise of multiculturalism and sectional politics, many white men feel alienated. There is no ‘white men’ group.”

He says the United Patriots Front differs little from the plethora of other far-right groups that come and go in Australia.

“The ideologies tend to remain the same but the people change,” said Dr Whitford.

“The groups don’t last because many of the leaders suffer from Fuehrer syndrome. They’re not very good at letting others have a say. They become very secretive. People come to these things because they want to feel connected. But then they get disaffected, and form their own group. It’ll have the same politics, but they’ll be leader.”

Dr Troy Whitford says right-wing groups have been underestimated by counter-terrorism authorities.

“De-radicalisation needs to be targeted at right-wing groups, too. It only takes one lone wolf to create a problem. It’s happened in the past.”

Right-wing violence was more prevalent in the 1980s, when the Australian Nationalist Movement launched a terror campaign that involved multiple firebombs, bashings and burglaries. In 1989, Jim Saleam, the founder of National Action, was convicted with organising a shotgun attack on Eddie Funde, the African National Congress representative in Australia.

But ASIO’s Annual Report in 1990 suggests that it had successfully dealt with the threat: “The only discernible domestic threat of politically motivated violence comes from the racist right. This has suffered serious setbacks in the past year with the arrest of a large number of leading members of the two most dangerous groups.”

Its latest annual report says: “Established far right-wing groups in Australia typically do not advocate violence to advance their nationalist or white supremacist cause, with acts of violence being rare. However, nationalist and ethnic tensions, violence overseas and activists involved in right-wing groups could have a bearing on Australia’s security environment in the future.”

Some right-wing groups have distanced themselves from today’s rally. Mike Holt, CEO of Queensland-based anti-Islam group Restore Australia, which helped fund the local anti-mosque group’s legal battle against the mosque, says the United Patriots Front are a “bunch of thugs”.

“They are right-wing Nazis. They went down to Melbourne specifically to confront the socialists.”

Anti-semitism is not part of United Patriots Front’s platform, but it has endorsed Greek neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn, and its leaders also have associations with neo-Nazism: one, Neil Erikson, has been convicted of harassing a rabbi and another, Blair Cottrell, has left a long trail of since-deleted anti-Semitic comments in internet caches.

Mr Holt is not the only group that has sought to distance itself from today’s protest in Bendigo. Anti-Islam group the Q-society, which previously held a anti-mosque meeting in Bendigo, sent an email warning its members away from the rally, stating that “rallies like these are known for attracting bullies and ‘activists’ looking for confrontation.”

The United Patriots Front has another enemy: the left. Counter-protesters showed up roughly equal numbers at the first rally to show its disagreement with the anti-mosque movement. Blair Cottrell, one of the group’s leaders, spent much of his speech railing against the left, barely mentioning Islam.

“They’re not even Australian!” Mr Cottrell shouted, punching his arms in the air.

“They’re just some sort of new deluded youth. A new youth, which does not even understand what creates a community, what creates a nation. Which is not do as you feel, which is not anarchy, and socialism! It’s self-sacrifice, dedication, loyalty and honour.” He could be referring to the Anzac legend.

In the lead up to today’s rally, the United Patriots Front is preparing for a fight with counter-protesters. Its leaders say that anti-Islam protesters won’t start violence, but will defend themselves if necessary. Through a string of Facebook posts, it has conveyed a message that patriots can expect violence from counter-protesters, and they should be prepared for self-defence.

“The left-wing Antifa have been putting up posters in Bendigo that say F** Australia and a picture of the Aussie flag on fire. They are directly insulted our ANZAC’s [sic]. I think Bendigo is going to be WAR and they will be outnumbered by Patriots. May the God’s [sic] have mercy on their Souls when they step off that train on 10/10/15,” says one post.

In this antagonistic mindset, a minor skirmish could escalate quickly. I experienced this myself at the first rally, being seriously physically intimidated by anti-Islam protesters, despite telling them I was a freelance writer and not aligned with the counter-protesters.

In response to the first rally, a new group, Believe in Bendigo, a local coalition of businesses, churches, politicians and community groups, formed to promote Bendigo’s diversity.

Anthony Radford, a spokesperson for the group, told me that Believe in Bendigo is working in a positive, peaceful way, by educating the community and celebrating Bendigo’s diversity. Last weekend, it hosted a barbecue attended by around 2000 people.

Mr Radford, a journalist, was editor of the Bendigo Advertiser when the mosque story broke.

“I had a young journo at the time, and I said to her this is a good story, we’ve got this as an exclusive, we’ll run it on the front. She said, why will you run it on the front? It’s not that big a deal. I said, just watch.”

“Bendigo has a history of being a little bit parochial, which is in a lot of sense a good thing. But at the same time, over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve had a significant increase in immigrants and people from different cultures. Bendigo’s changing, and changing for the better.”

“Whatever you thought of the mosque, what we saw on the streets on August 29th is not Bendigo. Bendigo was being portrayed as some kind of right-wing, redneck backwater. We’ve got to try and take the oxygen away and show Bendigo for what it really is. It’s a community that’s had a multicultural element since the 1850s, and that’s growing to this day. It’s a place where people can bring their families and be safe.”

When the anti-mosque campaign started, Mr Radford thought it was just growing pains, and could be dealt with by council as a planning issue.

“When the local opponents started agitating, council thought it was just the old Bendigo vs the new Bendigo: the traditionalist versus the ones who want to encourage growth at all costs.”

“And then the UPF got involved. There was a mob called the Australian Patriots League who were on board at the very start. We had a photo the night of June 18 when council voted for the mosque, some locals standing next to these young men with – clichéd – skinheads, Patriots Defence League tshirts on, white with the Southern Cross symbol on, and I just thought….oh shit.”

“These cases are always open for hijacking, and in this case, there’s no doubt they have been. The local mosque opponents have almost been taken advantage of, and the UPF saw this as an opportunity – as all right and left wing groups do, when they’re at those extremes – to come in and mould, and take over, and make it into a bigger cause that it actually is, makes people feel important, that their cause is on the national stage.”

Believe in Bendigo has also quietly asked counter-demonstrators to stay away from the next protest, as it believes they simply embolden right-wing demonstrators by creating a common enemy.

“A lot of the argument that was being said on the stage [by the anti-mosque protesters] was just hypocritical, talking in slogans. But when the left started ranting and raving, it was always going to end in tears,” said Radford.

“To me they’re just as much to blame for the bad coverage as the UPF. I really do believe that if the UPF held a rally and the left weren’t there, they wouldn’t come again. Now they’ve got an enemy, someone they can directly engage with.”

This represents a disagreement in tactics with another local group, Bendigo Action Coalition, which is organising a counter protest in Bendigo to meet the anti-Islam protesters.

“Some people feel like we should ignore the UPF or we’re adding fuel to the fire, but the fire has already started and it’s already causing losses to our community,” said Lyndon Morley, the group’s spokesperson.

“We’re taking a stand now before these racist marches become a permanent part of our town.”

Anti-facist groups have argued that exposing far-right groups to public scrutiny, through various forms of resistance, is essential to expose violence and prevent their supporters growing.

Local pro-diversity groups are not the only ones having tactical disagreements.  Julie Hoskin, the leader of local-anti mosque group Rights for Bendigo Residents, has split with Monika Evers, the leader of the No Mosque in Bendigo group and a member of Restore Australia.

“They’ve gone down a different road than us. My involvement has been to do with planning and environment issues. They’ve gone more down the Muslim/Islam thing,” says Ms Hoskin, who is warm and pleasant in person.

Rights for Bendigo Residents have been involved in a protracted legal battle against the mosque. After an unsuccessful case at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, their application to appeal to the Supreme Court will be heard on November 6th.

I am with Ms Hoskin at Bendigo’s Shamrock Hotel, which was used as a base and drinking hole by anti-mosque protesters at the first rally.

Ms Hoskin claims corruption by council, and a lack of due process.

While she says the mosque issue started as a planning matter, she admits that she has become more concerned by Islam over time.

“It wasn’t an issue, but it’s become an issue.”

She is insistent on knowing what I think.

“Give me one example of any place, anywhere in history, where the introduction of Islam has benefited a society?”

I hesitate, taking notes on what I assume to be a rhetorical question, and she interjects.

“I’m asking you a question.”

I decide to give her an honest answer.

“When I was 21, I travelled extensively throughout the Middle-East, and that I met ordinary people, they were very kind to me. I have a theory that human problems are caused by power, and human nature, and religion is just one manifestation of that. I don’t love Islam or anything – it’s just a religion like any other religion.”

She is frustrated at this diplomatic non-answer, and her tone becomes more urgent.

“OK, I’m going to ask you the question again, tell me one instance where the introduction of Islam into Western society has led to good long-term outcomes.”

I pause. “I guess I’m stuck on the question. Islam doesn’t get introduced to the society and become the main religion; it’s just one of many. You could ask me the same question about whether Buddhism has impacted society.”

“No, but the issues we are seeing from Islam are not present in Buddhism. If any place is to be named the most tolerant place in the world, as far as religion goes, it’s Bendigo. You look at it: we’ve got the biggest Gothic cathedral, the biggest Buddhist stupa, the biggest Chinese dragon, we’ve got no problems with that: we are very tolerant with people. But Islam is different.”

“I guess the way I would answer the question is that it doesn’t matter. There are social problems everywhere. Like anyone else, a few Islamic people have social problems and most of them don’t.”

I ask Ms Hoskin if she has attempted to engage with Bendigo’s Muslim’s community.

“People need to stop asking if we have we spoken to them! They haven’t attempted to speak to us. We are quite happy to talk to them.”

(Heri Febriyanto, a spokesperson for the local Muslim community, tells me later that he is happy to talk to the anti-mosque movement if they have “reasonable questions”).

Ms Hoskin says she has only met one Muslim; a man from Bali who was opposed to his own religion.

When I ask her whether she is still adamant about attending tomorrow’s rally, as she has said previously, she appears equivocal.

“That’s the case at the moment, I have no intention of being involved.”

“So there’s a chance you might be involved?” I ask.

She smiles uncomfortably and winces.

“I have no intention of being involved. Who knows what’ll happen between then and now?”

Ms Hoskin claims that local opposition to the mosque is underestimated and that the “community don’t want it”. This issue – of how many Bendigo residents support the mosque, and how many of the protesters are actually from Bendigo – is hotly contested and without a proper survey, impossible to get to the bottom of.

Of the twelve or so locals I spoke to while in Bendigo, most started by saying is “I don’t know much about the mosque.” Ten were in favour of the mosque or apathetic, and two were against it. Overall, a strong sense of uncertainty pervaded most of the responses.

“Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said a local woman wearing a spaghetti strap singlet, who did not wish to give her name.

“Does it really matter?” I ask. “Won’t it just be like another church? You don’t have to go there.”

“Well sometimes I do go into the church, to look at the beautiful glass and that,” she says. “But I can’t go into a mosque wearing this.”

Mayor Peter Cox, who has personally come under fire by the United Patriots Front for supporting the mosque, says: “There’s no doubt more people are feeling apprehensive about the mosque than they did a few months ago. But it’s the misinformation: for example, we’re working to expand our airport for economic development reasons, and it’s near the mosque, so they turn it around and say we’re going to fly all the Muslims into our new airport.”

Anthony Radford says he believes the majority of people in Bendigo either support the mosque or are apathetic. He believes anecdotally that many of those opposing the mosque are elderly.

“I got friends who own a pub, and it’s in a rough area of town. I said, what are they saying about the mosque? They said, it’s mostly the oldies. My friend said she had to stop her parents from going to the rally. She asked them why they wanted to go. And they listed all the things that were being said on Facebook by the anti-mosque people. All of them were wrong, not one of them was based on fact. It’s bullshit.”

I speak to another anti-mosque protester involved in Rights for Bendigo Residents, who says she isn’t going to the rally on Saturday. The woman, who was elderly and from Heathcote, half an hour’s drive away from Bendigo, says she didn’t feel comfortable giving her name.

“Muslims don’t have a religion, they have an ideology, that’s all – one angry man’s view on life. Yet they go and smile nicely at the councils and the government who says, well aren’t they cute. Your children could well be forced to Female Genital Mutilation, they will have to convert to Islam, and if burqas are still the mode of the day, then we will have to do that as well. Muslims are not a religion. They are, actually a death cult.”

She is echoing words used by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has consistently referred to ISIS, or “Daesh”, as a “death cult”, saying that “they are coming after us.” Under Tony Abbott, Troy Whitford argues in a piece in the Conversation, fear of Islamic terrorism became mainstream, which helped to feed support for groups such as the United Patriots Front. The government even affiliated itself with the far-right, with nationals MP George Christensen allowed to speak at an anti-Islam Reclaim Australia rally in July.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appears to be taking a slightly different approach, refraining from alarmist language around terrorism, and criticising the actions of the anti-Islam movement as “contrary to our national interest.”

“This far left prick is going to turn our country upside down,” said Burgess on hearing of Turnbull’s appointment.

But will they maintain momentum after the the heady excitement of tomorrow’s rally dies down?

I ask a Bendigo taxi driver what he thinks of the whole thing.

“Couldn’t care less. The people stirring it up are not from Bendigo. They’re just racists. It reflects badly on Bendigo.”

“I just reckon live and let live. The Muslims just gonna blend in like everyone else. Just like the Italians.”

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