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It’s not a few bad apples, it is the whole damn tree

In 2010, in response to an ASIO security assessment, the Rudd/Gillard government released a White Paper that claimed Islamic extremism was the number one threat to Australia. Soon after, the government announced the creation of a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) unit within the Attorney General’s Department which would fund “targeted programs to reduce violent extremism in Australia.”

This notion of ‘Islamic extremism’ being the ‘number one threat to Australia’ has become a line commonly repeated by politicians and media since then, although it is rarely qualified or interrogated by them.

Others, however, have often pointed out that far more people in Australia die from domestic violence, or that you are more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to die from an Islamic terrorism attack in Australia.

A far more legitimate fear in Australia is the one many Muslim community members have of white Australian politicians, media, and community members as this is a daily reality with potentially life-threatening consequences.

So, what is government doing to ‘counter violent extremism’?

According to a 2017 page titled “Update on Australian Government measures to counter violent extremism: a quick guide” on the Australian Parliament House website, the Australian Government describes violent extremism as follows:

Violent extremism is the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. This includes terrorism and other forms of politically motivated and communal violence.

All forms of violent extremism seek change through fear and intimidation rather than through peaceful means.

If a person or group decides that fear, terror and violence are justified to achieve ideological, political or social change, and then acts accordingly, this is violent extremism

Under Australia’s CVE program there is a national framework, a federal program, and it claims there are funded projects within each state and territory.

There is a government website called ‘Living Safe Together – building community resilience to violent extremism’. Much of the language on this site does not identify a single group as its focus, but the imagery used on its homepage gives a fairly clear indication that the focus remains where it began in 2010.

The ‘Contact Us’ section of the website also include the National Security Hotline, Border Watch, and Crime Stoppers.

The websites Programs page claims it runs programs under three categories: Community programs, Intervention programs, and Rehabilitation programs.

While the Living Safer Together website uses language which does not specify or distinguish types of violent extremism, eg Islamic extremism or White extremism. The ‘quick guide’ document mentioned above, lists a number of organisations funded to run programs, many of whom include Arabic, multicultural or ethnic organisations and only one that can be readily identified as focusing exclusively on white extremism.

Many of these programs focus on social cohesion and prevention. The prevention often takes the form of training, mostly for those who work directly with youth, to help them identify signs of potential radicalisation. This is often just a one day training course.

An article published last year by Dr Susie Latham claims that parents of Muslim children, such as herself, “are increasingly fearful that their children’s words and actions will be scrutinised more carefully than those of others as Islamophobia is increasingly institutionalised, including through training to detect the radicalisation of young people to violent extremism”.

Dr Latham offers examples from the UK equivalent of Australia’s CVE approach, which found that there 3704 referrals made about ‘Islamist concerns’ in 2016-17 and that 95% of these were found to be ‘inappropriate’.

Much of the focus of these programs seems to be focussed on encouraging Muslims to better assimilate, without much consideration to the barriers put in front of those who try – regularly dealing with racism from politicians, from the media, and in turn from the general public.

This is a concept many other groups in Australia are far too familiar with, the idea that the racism and discrimination we encounter can be fixed if only we behave in a fashion more acceptable to white Australia.

As for the one program we were able to identify under this scheme aimed at white extremism, it was originally called ‘Exit White Power’ but is now known as the Community Action for Preventing Extremism (CAPE) project. This project is run by an organisation called All Together Now, and seems to consist of a website attempting to raise community awareness of white extremism, and a one-day training program available in NSW only which is targeted at people working directly with youth.

The CAPE website claims it “remains the only project of its kind in Australia.”

We contacted CAPE to clarify what that means, and they told us that “there are of course many programs out there that address racism and white supremacy more broadly and also some smaller exit programs, we are the only program to our knowledge that link both, i.e. that explicitly links far-right extremism to all forms of racism in Australia. Additionally, we do this while engaging with young people at risk of being recruited by far-right extremist groups, both directly and indirectly (e.g. by training frontline workers).”

Given the potential risks of white extremism, which should by now be abundantly clear to all and the millions of dollars put into CVE over the past nine years, it is greatly concerning that there appears to only be one program aimed exclusively at white extremism, which is limited to community awareness and a single state based one day training program.

We were able to identify other programs however, that do not have a focus on any one group, but work with individuals to help them to leave extremist groups, such as Exit Australia. Exit Australia is a self-funded not for profit, with teams made up from various professional backgrounds with lived experience including formers, psychologists, social workers, academics and connected not for profits

In desiring to promote a discourse of inclusion, or to focus on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment, it makes sense for government to outsource elements of this work to organisations which have the necessary capability and credibility within the wider community to promote this message. However, if government actively counters this messaging with a narrative of disgust and distrust, they place these organisations in a precarious position where they risk losing their own social capital by promoting a message of inclusivity funded by a government simultaneously promoting divisiveness.

After some discussion with individuals who have worked in this space in different capacities, it seems plausible to suggest that some in government enable these community approaches not solely because they believe in improving social cohesion, but because they hope it will increase reporting for border control and national security.

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A far more legitimate fear in Australia is the one many Muslim community members have of white Australian politicians, media, and community members as this is a daily reality with potentially life threatening consequences.

So, what is government doing to incite extremism in Australia?

Let’s revisit the description of violent extremism put forward by government, “Violent extremism is the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. This includes terrorism and other forms of politically motivated and communal violence. All forms of violent extremism seek change through fear and intimidation rather than through peaceful means. If a person or group decides that fear, terror and violence are justified to achieve ideological, political or social change, and then acts accordingly, this is violent extremism.

Using the government’s own definition, it is arguable to say that the recent examples of politicians and media outlets known to perpetuate the government’s spin on policy creating community fear and terror at the perceived issues with Muslims, refugees, immigration and African gangs would constitute violent extremism. Particularly where it concerns seeking ‘change through fear and intimidation rather than through peaceful means’ given the rhetoric around Australia being flooded with rapists, murderers and paedophiles should refugees offshore be allowed to access medical treatment in Australia. This recent example is demonstrable of fear being perpetuated for political and ideological gain.

Rhetoric aside, actions also are incredibly powerful tools in communicating to the public who the government sees as a ‘threat’ that they neutralise by dehumanising. From the violence committed against refugees in detention, the violence enacted against Aboriginal prisoners in adult and juvenile detention.

However, we can safely assume that when the government talks about, or invests in, efforts to counter violent extremism, they are not talking about their own violent extremism. They are referring to ‘other.’

The ‘other’ referred to throughout Australian history has been different groups over time, however, since the 9/11 attacks in America – the word ‘terrorism’ has become synonymous with Islam. In the years since, we would only ever see the word used in the specific context of Islamic ‘terrorists’ but any other form of terror attack would see creative avoidance of that term. If a white person committed atrocities – we often see media outlets take creative license in this avoidance.

There has been countless efforts to highlight this, and indeed some media and politicians have begun to label terrorist acts committed by white people against members of other races or religions as exactly that, terrorist acts.

At the same time though, large numbers within media and politics in Australia have been actively involved, or at the very least complicit in, the ongoing rhetoric which fuels and emboldens white supremacists.

However, we can safely assume that when the government talks about, or invests in, efforts to counter violent extremism, they are not talking about their own violent extremism. They are referring to ‘other.’

So, where do we go from here?

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”

That quote seems entirely apt for Australia to reflect upon right now in regards to the many ways in which Australia normalises, endorses and makes respectable, white supremacy.

More than this though, Australia itself is founded on the principles of white supremacy.

Beginning with the invasion, dispossession and regulation of Indigenous peoples, continuing with the White Australia Policy, and remaining with us today, often under the guise of ‘protecting our way of life’, promoting ‘Australian values’, ‘stopping the boats’, and celebrating ‘Western civilisation’.

If we can’t recognise the white supremacist beliefs and actions inherit in those who stole this country and enacted countless atrocities against Indigenous people, then I do not have much faith in our capacity to identify the white supremacy so clearly being emboldened in our society today.

Even though there are countless examples of overt comments made against Muslims by our political leaders. More subtle shifts in language are significant as well.

For the past few decades Australia has referred to itself as a multicultural country, often going as far as to proclaim itself ‘the most successful multicultural country on Earth’. Some of you will have noticed that the Liberal party has abandoned this line in favour of ‘the most successful migrant country on Earth’. Given the Liberal parties long opposition to the ideals of multiculturalism, it seems they feel they have finally created enough social change, largely through a campaign of fear, to finally remove this terminology from Australia’s political lexicon. This signifies that the ideal means for achieving social cohesion is not to be done through tackling racism and respecting other cultures, as multiculturalism implies, but by promoting a clear expectation of complete assimilation.  Even though we know that racism is not prevented by non-white people attempting to behave in a way that appears more palatable to the demands of racists. “We wouldn’t be racist against you if you just…” is an ever shifting benchmark, and an obvious exercise in blaming victims and validating and excusing racists.

For politicians, playing to white supremacy often has political ends as its primary focus, as we heard when it was alleged that Scott Morrison (as then opposition immigration spokesperson) recommended his party stoke community fear and hatred against Muslims as an election strategy, citing issues of ‘Muslim immigration’ and the ‘inability’ of Muslims to integrate into Australian society.

Even as recently as last November Scott Morrison engaged in another readily identifiable straw man strategy of criticising ‘Muslim leaders for not criticising Muslim extremism enough’.

It would be easy to say that this was more about votes than it was about promoting white supremacy and Muslim inferiority and incompatibility, but it is hard to imagine a human being so willing to demonise another group if it didn’t already align with his personal beliefs.

It is difficult to imagine that those who engage in these tactics do not clearly understand that they are inciting right wing extremists.

When thinking about inciting right wing extremists I doubt people like Scott Morrison in previous years imagined they would be opening the door for people like Fraser Anning to become a colleague. Although given the rise and resurgence of One Nation I don’t know how this can be seen as anything other than an inevitability.

It’s worth pointing out here that the two head figures of One Nation today, Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham, began their careers within the ranks of Liberal and Labor respectively.

Similarly, we have Australian media to thank for making people like Blair Cottrell a household name, and for offering a compassionate and humanising lens to the racist beliefs and actions of racist politicians, commentators, groups, and individuals alike.

Seeing Kochie this week take Pauline Hanson to task for inciting Islamophobia when his program directly gave her a paid platform to attract supporters for these same views was clear example of this kind of hypocrisy and complicity.

Just as Waleed Aly expressed his lacked of shock at the terror attacks committed in New Zealand over the weekend, there similarly should be little or no shock that we now have Senators who blatantly support Australian neo-Nazis, or dress up in a burqa as a political stunt in the Senate, or who regularly posts racist memes on Twitter and Facebook, and engage in the most hate filled dialogue and conspiracy theories.

It should be no surprise that our governing party voted in favour of a white supremacist slogan.

Just as Pauline Hanson was once considered a joke for her over the top racist comments  she was quickly realised to be a threat, appealing to more overtly racist sections of white Australia. It seems after years of dogwhistling from mainstream politics and media, plenty of people are now ready to swap to dogwhistle for a bullhorn.

Mainstream parties don’t want to see these people out of government because they find their views so repellent, but because there is a legitimate concern that the more overt racists will be ones to capitalise on the years of more subtle, more ‘respectable’, racism that has been cultivated.

This is a national issue that strikes at the very core of Australia’s self-identity. It impacts on every facet or our society, its norms, and its institutions.

The push in recent years to enforce ‘Australian values’, to blindly promote Australian patriotism, to replace the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with Harmony Day, to focus on assimilation and reject anti-racism, to deny basic rights to refugees, to expel ‘undesirables’ from our country, and countless other examples are all moves designed to move us further away from this issue. They are moves designed, with knowledge of forethought, to strengthen and protect Australia’s white supremacist roots, and to capitalise on the fruit it bears.

We know that these white supremacist roots will always promote growth along many different branches of our society, in politics, in media, in our institutions, in our communities and within each of these branches, white extremist fruit with continue to grow.

This is why we cannot look at white supremacist extremism as an issue of ‘a few bad apples’. It is systemic and embedded into the fibre of our society and the institutions that underpin it.

What other kind of fruit do you expect to grow from a white supremacy tree?

As Lao Tzu suggests, if we do not change direction, we may end up exactly where we are heading. In truth, when talking about white supremacy in Australia it is not just where we are headed, it is where we have been all along.

The question now is, can we reimagine an Australia with its white supremacist roots ripped out?

Can we allow new seeds of inclusivity and respect to grow and take their place?

Has the pendulum swung far back towards white supremacy in Australia that we will realise we did not do a good enough job at erasing from our society in the past?

The civil rights era, the end of the White Australia Policy, the overturning of Terra Nullius. These were all important steps away from white supremacy, they chipped away at the top of the iceberg, but they never got near its core. Somewhere along the line Australia convinced itself that not only was the work of eliminating racism finished, but that it had actually gone too far.

Australia convinced itself that it was no longer at risk from white supremacy, but instead was at risk from political correctness, reverse racism, affirmative action, cultural Marxism, and before we knew it these coded dogwhistles led us straight back into the overt white supremacist rhetoric that had never really left the national psyche to begin with.

That is where we are right now.

As could be expected, our government are doubling down, Sky news and friends are doubling down, Fraser Anning is doubling down.

So, we must double down too.

We must oppose racism in all forms, not just the more overt and extreme. We must not let the respectable racists express their respectable sorrows while washing their hands of any culpability or complicity in allowing these tragedies to occur.

We must make space for those who are directly affected, and we must use our own sphere of influence, whatever it may be, to demand better.

We cannot fall into the trap of saying ‘This is not Australia’.

It is.

This is Australia today and yesterday.

A nation built on and committed to white supremacy.

But it doesn’t have to be Australia tomorrow.

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