In an atmosphere of Islamophobic hysteria, applications for building mosques in Australia have become a lightening rod for the far right. In Victoria it started in 2012, when the rabidly anti-Muslim, evangelical Christian Danny Nalliah railed against (but failed to prevent) a mosque being built next to his own Catch the Fire Ministries in Doveton on Melbourne’s outskirts. Nalliah claimed that mosques are breeding grounds for terrorists.
The demonising of Muslims is reminiscent of the 1950s McCarthy era. Then, it was reds under beds. Now, it’s terrorists in mosques. Either way, the persecution was and is pervasive and intense.
Bendigo to Narre Warren. Last year, in the Victorian rural City of Bendigo, a “Stop the Mosque” campaign — led by the likes of Bendigo Councillor Elise Chapman, now a One Nation candidate for Victoria in the upcoming federal election, and Monika Evers, a high-ranking functionary of Reclaim Australia — fought to block an application from the local Muslim community. The neo-Nazi United Patriots Front (UPF), looking for opportunities to recruit and set down roots, got involved. On this occasion, they met strong, unified resistance from anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigners, including local Muslims. The mosque won approval. But the fight against Islamophobia and the fascist menace is not over.
Now the battle has moved to Narre Warren in Melbourne’s southeast, where the Saarban Islamic Trust, representing the largely Urdu-speaking Muslim population, applied to build a Masjid (place of worship). Narre Warren is part of the City of Casey, home to around 14,000 Muslims. The nearest mosque has a capacity of 345 worshippers. None in the entire area speaks Urdu.
The mosque proposal promptly drew out the far right and fascists. Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia Party (RUAP) and the UPF began counter-organising. Casey Councillor, and now RUAP’s Senate candidate in the federal election, Rosalie Crestani, garnered objections to the application. Crestani had previously teamed up with then councillor, now Mayor of Casey, Sam Aziz, to work to stop an application for a new mosque in Doveton. Not coincidentally, the proposed site was next to the proposed site for Danny Nalliah’s new church. They failed.
In February, a new “Stop the Mosque in Narre Warren” group launched its facebook page. The following month, UPF rolled up at a community forum, at which its leader, Blair Cottrell, spoke. Cottrell, who believes Adolph Hitler’s picture should be in every kindergarten and school, sees UPF’s anti-Islam campaign as a first step toward tackling “the Jewish question.”
On April 26th, at a strictly controlled public meeting, Casey Council rejected the mosque application. Of the 1,000 objections submitted, most had come from elsewhere in Australia — some as far away as Northern Territory. Mayor Sam Aziz vowed to use all council resources necessary to defend the decision. You would think that if the issue were just about planning, the council would ask the Saarban Trust to work on their proposal and come back for a new appraisal. Not so for Mayor Aziz and his off-sider Crestani.
The links between the far right and government become murky here. Aziz’s political ties are unsavoury. Amongst his facebook friends are:
• Kim Vuga, who gained infamy as a diehard Islamophobe on SBS TV’s Go back to where you came from, about attitudes on immigration. She now leads a party called Love Australia or Leave, with slogans like “Say no to Islamic immigration.”
• Brian Woods, a candidate for the rightwing Palmer United Party in the last election, but better known for his recent Facebook post: “Domestic violence is solely a woman’s choice.”
Those supporting Mayor Aziz’s actions include UPF’s Chris Shortis, who ascribes to a Nazi-like white supremacist Christianity. Other backers recommend that Aziz run as a candidate for the far-right anti-Muslim Australian Liberty Alliance in this federal election.
Not just a local fight. This pattern of far-right and fascist groups campaigning to defeat mosque applications has been repeated around the country. They seize upon Islamophobia to build their numbers and visibility. I recently spoke with Ahmed from Islamophobia Watch, an organisation that monitors and reports acts of violence and discrimination against Muslims in Australia. He explains that the far right uses a template of racism for mosque applications, irrespective of the site. These events act like a beacon for mobilising. They’re also a bright green light for violence and vandalism, which are escalating — such as assaults on Muslim women, the desecration of a prayer room at Sydney University and the depositing of pigs’ heads in front of mosques. In Narre Warren there was, what appears to be, an arson attack on the proposed mosque site. The president and secretary of the Saarban Islamic Trust have received anonymous threatening phone calls.
United community fightback. Bendigoans, chiefly organised by the Bendigo Action Collective, called on Melburnians and other Victorians to counter the fascists in their city. Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women (RW) have been part of these large mobilisations. In Narre Warren, Casey Against Racism (CAR) formed from a meeting between Muslims and other anti-racist, anti-fascist campaigners from the local and wider Melbourne community.
On the night that Casey Council voted to reject the mosque application, hundreds rallied with the Muslim community. Entry into this public meeting was tightly restricted, and so a vocal majority outside held placards and chanted in support of local Muslims and their right to a place of worship. This powerful show of solidarity could become a formidable counterforce against the Islamophobic onslaught.
Victory through a united front. Fascists and the far right see these anti-mosque campaigns as fertile ground for growing a movement founded on white, male-supremacist nationalism. In a world being ransacked and wrecked by profit interests, they speak to the fears of people who are ready for scapegoats. Islamophobia is a ready-made answer, used for decades by governments to explain the endless wars abroad and assaults on jobs, security and rights at home. LGBTIQ people, immigrants, First Nations, women, unions and radicals are also vilified and blamed for the mounting economic and social distress.
Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) has counter-mobilised against this danger since Reclaim Australia appeared in Melbourne in April 2015. Formed by diverse groups including FSP and RW, unionists and social justice activists, CARF organises around an agreed set of principles. One is to defend people’s freedom of conscience, including the right to be Muslim, without discrimination or harassment. Another is to confront fascists and the far right to stop them from recruiting and growing. From Melbourne’s Federation Square to Richmond and Coburg, Bendigo and Melton to Narre Warren, CARF has been instrumental in pushing back an emerging neo-Nazi movement.
At a recent CAR meeting, I asked Inaz, a young Muslim woman, why she’s involved. She said, “I want to make sure that the future generations are a more cohesive and united community — it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your beliefs are — so that my children and everyone else’s children can grow up in a better community where everyone’s welcome.”
This community is possible. When all who are targeted unite as a cohesive front, we can overpower the fascist stormtroopers and far right bigots. We can repair the environment with our solidarity.
To get involved with the Narre Warren campaign, like Casey Against Racism on facebook. For CARF, like Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. For more details, contact Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women.