There have been two high-profile instances of anti-Islamic group activity in Australia in recent days. On Friday, April 1, the United Patriots Front (UPF) displayed a large banner during an AFL game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The banner – which declared “Go Pies! Stop the Mosques” – at once barracked for the Collingwood Magpies football club, and pushed a key UPF agenda of protesting mosque development in Australia. In the second incident, on Sunday, April 3, a group of supporters representing the Party For Freedom (PFF) – a Sydney-based right-wing political organisation – violently clashed with “anti-fascist” activists outside a Halal Expo at the Melbourne Showgrounds.
I have written at length about the recent rise in Australian anti-Islamic groups for the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal for Deradicalization, and the national security issues this form of political activity presents. In short, there has been tangible growth in anti-Islamic sentiment among Australians during the past two years, ranging from spiteful posts on social media, to public demonstrations against the Islamic “enemy” that is supposedly undermining Australian social values. This type of activity builds in large part on mistrust towards Muslims that followed the 9/11 attacks, and has been exacerbated more recently by atrocities committed by, or on behalf of, Islamic State.
In light of the March 2016 attacks by Islamic State operatives in Belgium, a sudden spike in overt anti-Muslim sentiment is not surprising – as a point in case, the UPF has latched onto social media hashtags like #RememberBrussels and #ProtectAustralia. Islamic State has recently suffered significant military and territorial losses in its heartland of Syria and Iraq, but by equal measure, the group has found success in striking soft western targets – San Bernadino, Paris, Parramatta – through direct or inspired operations. The public fear that this type of violence generates also manifests itself as anger and resentment in some sections of the non-Muslim population, with groups like the UPF and PFF expressing a particularly bellicose and nasty form of opposition towards Australia’s Islamic community.
The two incidents in Melbourne over the weekend were hardly a compelling display of potency by these anti-Islamic groups. The UPF banner was an amateurish effort, hand-painted onto a piece of cloth, and was pulled down by security, its owners evicted from the AFL match. The PFF protest at the Halal Expo, meanwhile, only attracted a few dozen supporters, and the sole casualty from the violence that ensued was an anti-Islamic adherent, hospitalised for cuts and bruises. Even so, the incidents both received a high volume of media coverage, providing a national soapbox for these groups to disseminate their agenda; this was amplified further when AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan directly addressed and condemned the UPF’s actions.
These incidents are, of course, perfectly legitimate news items – setting aside the audience appeal factor of social conflict and tension, the activities of anti-Islamic groups is the type of information that Australians are entitled to, and ought to be informed about. Yet media coverage of these groups is also something of a double-edged sword. It provides the anti-Islamic movement with exposure, perhaps to unaffiliated or undecided Australians who may harbour some bitterness towards Islam, thus serving to help the movement gain new supporters. Indeed, the UPF claims on Facebook that “We have had over 2000 new supporters since our ‘Stop the Mosques’ banner at the MCG,” a declaration that, as of April 4, received close to 600 ‘Likes’.
By the same token, a high degree of media coverage also helps groups like the UPF promote their “us vs them” narrative. Islam is deemed the primary antagonist, but complicit parties such as the media industry, left-wing/socialist groups, and multicultural government policymakers, are facilitating the religion’s hostile takeover of the western world. As UPF leader Blair Cottrell declared on Facebook, “When they [Muslims] want to make a statement, they blow up a city, terrorise and torture our people. When we want to make a statement we take a banner to a footy match. But if you believe the media, we are the problem.”
This type of defiance in the face of a supposed Islamic conspiracy is a recurrent reference point for the UPF and similar groups. They view themselves as being locked into a conflict with the supporters of Islam, including left-wing groups like the “antifa” counter-demonstrators outside the Halal Expo. To that end, provocative and confrontational actions by the “antifa” are just as counterproductive as the racism and bigotry of the groups they oppose. Such behaviour only stands to incense the anti-Islamic movement, and harden its resolve, feeding into its “clash of civilisations” narrative. And of course, these displays of anti-Islamic sentiment will, in turn, only serve to marginalise – and potentially radicalise – Australia’s Muslim population.