Geert by sea

The official launch of the Australian Liberty Alliance in Perth on Tuesday afternoon brings to a head a disturbing trend in Australian politics: the tendency of the anti-Muslim right to cast its ideology in what we might call ‘civic nationalist’ terms. Taking its cue from the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom was the inspiration for the ALA and who delivered the keynote address at its launch, the new party is determined, wherever possible, to use the language of liberty, rights and freedom, even to the extent of capitalising key concepts in the manner of an eighteenth-century moralist. ‘We are a secular movement with values based on Judaeo-Christian heritage and Humanism’, the foreword to its manifesto asserts, adding, ‘Whether we follow a religion or no religion at all, we acknowledge and respect this heritage, which has advanced Western civilisation, Liberty and Universal Human Rights more than any other.’

All of which sounds perfectly wonderful, not to say perfectly anodyne – the kind of thing Christopher Pyne might say between appearances on Kitchen Cabinet. But for the founders of the ALA these statements are far from platitudes; they are daring and heretical statements, barely audible above the clamour of political correctness. In their minds – if they may be so described – our sunburnt country girt by sea is being destabilised, slowly but steadily, from within. There is a dirty great fly in our Enlightenment ointment, and it’s wearing a robe and taqiyah.

That Islam is the organising fixation of the ALA is no secret, not even an open one. Of the three personalities who will take its message to the hustings in the next election, one, Bernard Gaynor, made his name by getting suspended from Katter’s Australian Party for saying that he didn’t want gays educating his children (he later left the party over its failure to oppose abortion), while the other two, Kirralie Smith and ALA president Debbie Robinson, are, respectively, an anti-halal campaigner and the president of the secretive Q Society, which welcomes visitors to its website with the information that Islam is not just a religion but ‘a political, legal, financial, social and military doctrine which extends to all facets of Muslim life, the cultural and legal landscape of where Muslims live and how to treat non-Muslims’ – an unambiguous sentiment, if an ill-carpentered one. Among the ALA’s proposals are a ban on Islamic face-coverings in public and a 10-year moratorium on resident visa applications by people from Islamic countries. It also proposes to remove Australia from the UN charter on refugees, which makes you wonder about that commitment to ‘Universal Human Rights’ and to ‘liberty’ more generally.

That last point was echoed by Greens senator Scott Ludlum, who asked, not unreasonably, ‘liberty for whom?’ The line of the ALA and its analogues is that free societies ‘cannot tolerate the intolerant’, but in reality we tolerate intolerance all the time, and not just, or even mainly, in its Islamic forms. Wilders has called for the Koran to be banned, falling back on the reasoning of the Dutch government, which makes it a crime to sell Mein Kampf on the grounds that it may encourage racial hatred. But in which universe does that count as liberty? (Not since John Milton spoiled the Areopagitica – that otherwise great paean to the principle of free expression – by declaring that it didn’t apply to Catholics has anyone so expertly shot themselves in the foot.) The whole relationship of the ALA to its capital-letter concepts is confused in this way, attempting as it does to reconcile the language of liberty and rights with an essentially reactionary program. At best it’s merely delusional; at worst the defence of the Paki-basher who wants to dress up his rancour as social concern.

In essence the ALA represents a new and especially nasty reconfiguration of the free society/strong state ideology that has dominated conservative politics for nearly half a century. The old configuration is now effectively defunct: market liberalism is such a dynamic force – such an uprooting, dislocating, renewing force – that Abbott-style conservatism (monarchy, church etc.) is bound to look merely reactionary. But this blend of liberty-speak and reaction may just prove attractive to the right. Wilders got only 12% of the vote in the last Dutch election, but his polling since has been consistently high. If a gifted Australian politician were to come forward offering to combine liberal self-congratulation with the anti-Muslim prejudice of Reclaim Australia … well, who knows.

Multiculturalism is not without its problems, and it is true that the confusions of the ALA have their analogues on the left of politics, where it is usual to defend, say, Islamic face-coverings on the basis that Muslim girls and women should be free to wear what the hell they like, as if patriarchy and compulsion never came into it. But to make these problems the organising concern of a political party is, frankly, unhinged. And therein lays the weakness, but also the danger, of the new kid on the political block.

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First published at The Monthly