The racist, anti-Islam “Reclaim Australia” rallies only managed to attract a few hundred people each on Easter Saturday—but they are a sign that months of Abbott’s official racism and dog-whistling is giving encouragement to racism and the far right.
While Abbott’s national security rhetoric has done little to boost the government’s popularity, it has encouraged racism against Muslims and Arabs in the community. Racist attacks have increased over the past six months, documented by groups like the Islamophobia Register.
As head of the Islamic Council of Victoria Ghaith Krayem pointed out, Abbott said nothing to condemn the racist protests, “The Commonwealth has been quick to call on our community and leaders to speak out against extremism and hate preaching, yet when these are directed at us they have remained silent.”
Labor leader Bill Shorten said fears of sharia law were “exaggerated”, but couldn’t bring himself to condemn the racism of Reclaim Australia.
The rallies have reinforced the climate of fear within the Muslim community. As the head of the Arab Council Randa Kattan told the media, even single incidents like these rallies create shock, “In terms of numbers they might be insignificant, but in terms of damage, it is significant.”
Reclaim Australia was clearly organised by the far right. They went to considerable lengths to show a softer face—saying they were not racist and they were not against all Muslims—only the extremists. But it was their extremism that was on display at the rallies. The protests openly targeted Islam, with official demands including banning the burqa, halal food and sharia law.
Sherman Burgess, who calls himself “the Great Aussie Patriot” was a speaker in Sydney, and his racist videos have been posted by the “Reclaim Australia” Facebook pages nationwide. Burgess is a member of the Australia Defence League and has links to a range of neo-Nazi groups.
Despite desperate appeals from the organisers to leave neo-Nazi regalia at home there were banners from the street-fighting English Defence League in Sydney, skinheads sporting Nazi tattoos in Melbourne, and a man with a Greek Golden Dawn t-shirt in Brisbane. Well-known Nazi Jim Saleam, self-styled leader of the Australian First Party, attended the Sydney protest. In Brisbane, Pauline Hanson addressed the rally.
The “Reclaim Australia” rallies were met by counter-demonstrations across the country—although it was only in Melbourne that they were clearly outnumbered, 800 to 500. In Canberra, there were 25 of them and 30 anti-racists, while in Sydney around 120 anti-racists to their 250, with similar figures in Brisbane. In Perth, 120 anti-racists confronted a protest of 400.
The anti-racist counter-rallies were important in exposing the far right that is behind Reclaim Australia and sending a signal that their attempts to mobilise on the streets will be resisted. We will need to be ready to organise larger numbers if they mobilise again.
The nationally co-ordinated rallies are the first time in recent years that the far right has drawn any substantial numbers to their demonstrations. Most of those present were not hard core Nazis. The far right in Australia remains marginal. It is attempting to draw a crowd of bigoted Islamophobes with the aim of breaking out of its isolation.
Mainstream Islamophobia, fuelled by Tony Abbott’s Islamophobic“Team Australia” push, scare-mongering about national security and efforts to blame and scapegoat the Muslim community, has laid the basis for racist ideas to become more acceptable. Abbott’s racism has already led to increased violent attacks on Muslims and mosques, as well as campaigns against mosques and Muslim community buildings in Bendigo, Penrith and now the Gold Coast.
In Germany counter-demonstrations that have outnumbered the Pegida anti-Muslim protests have thrown the racists into crisis. In Melbourne, where anti-racists outnumbered them and heckled everyone trying to get to their rally, the Reclaim Australia organisers have taken to Facebook to complain about their treatment.
But there also needs to be a wider campaign against the Islamophobia from Abbott that is encouraging racism.
Pauline Hanson and One Nation, a much larger right-wing threat, were beaten last time both by mobilising against their public meetings, as well as against the climate of racism and scapegoating created by John Howard.
If Reclaim Australia tries to call rallies again, we need bigger anti-racist protests supported by unions, Greens and Labor Party members. Now, that means keeping up the fight against Abbott’s Islamophobia and the terror scare-mongering, fighting his budget cuts, and campaigning to free the refugees and to stop his attacks on Aboriginal rights.
By James Supple