Anti-Islam group seeks to expand

There's a perception that anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in Australia. But is it? Ron Sutton reports.

The killing of a British soldier in London last month prompted fiery demonstrations from anti-Islamic groups.

In late May, 25 year old Lee Rigby was stabbed to death outside a London army barracks, allegedly by two people believed to be Muslim converts.

At the centre of the demonstrations that followed was a group called the English Defence League, believed to have grown out of the so-called football hooligan firms of the 1970s.

In Australia now, the anti-Islamic Australian Defence League is trying to expand its support base, particularly through social media.

"A group against Islam and Islamic immigration. We are against those who worship a so-called Prophet (who) in his own words, raped, murdered, enslaved people and worse. He was a coward and a paedophile."

That is how the Australian Defence League describes itself on its Facebook page.

The League goes on to say it is motivated by what it calls a love of country, promoting democracy and the rule of law, which it says it does by opposing sharia law.

And it says a central part of its mission is to ensure the public gets a balanced picture of Islam, claiming the political and media establishment offers a sanitised and inaccurate view.

Almost by default, because its name stems from the better-known English Defence League that has led anti-Islam rallies in Britain, the Australian Defence League is the face of Australian ultranationalism.

But is the Australian Defence League merely a Facebook presence?

Or is it a body that, like the English Defence League, could mount a presence on the streets?

Professor Greg Barton, from Monash University's Global Terrorism Research Centre, suggests the answer lies somewhere in between.

"They're not a large group. They don't have a high profile. My interpretation is it's because they're really failing to attract a large support base. You get the sense, with groups like the Australian Defence League, of individuals working on private projects, literally, with some of their friends and a few other people they can associate (with) - concentric circles. There are larger circles who are deeply anxious about Islam, but I think most of them don't want to align themselves with a blatantly right-wing group like the Australian Defence League."

However, Professor Barton warns that does not eliminate concerns over what he terms the far right.

"The most scary thing to think about is that we might, one day, see the same thing that caught the Norwegians by surprise in July 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik successfully detonated a vehicle bomb and then went on and shot a further 69 people dead, killing 77 in all. No-one would have anticipated that happening. It came out of exactly this sort of English Defence League, Australian Defence League, anxiety about Muslims. And it resulted, very surprisingly, in very effective, fatal force. So, I think we can no longer discount that as a remote possibility. We have to be on the alert for that as well."

The English Defence League, the Irish Defence League and the Finnish Defence League are all among the groups who "like" the Australian Defence League's Facebook page.

It is a page that bristles with angry contributors referring to what they call jihadist Muslim scum, anti-Christian scum and similar.

"Islam is a disease of the mind, all emanating from the Quran." "Civil war is the only thing that will reverse this toxicity." "The only way to combat the building of new mosques is to desecrate the proposed site."

Earlier this month, the Australian Defence League organised a so-called meet and greet in Brisbane through Facebook, but went to considerable effort to hide the location.

Interested parties were to be advised of the exact location after they made contact and paid a 10-dollar fee.

Australian Defence League President, Ralph Cerminara, says 40 to 50 people attended the meeting.

Mr Cerminara claims the day before the meeting, undercover police turned up at the venue asking about the group.

Mr Cerminara is open about the Australian Defence League's anti-Islam stance.

"We stand for Australia -- Australian way of life, Australian values, Australian culture ... the Australian sort of values that our Anzacs died for, freedom of speech only to a certain point. And we're against Islam and Islamic way of life -- with the sharia law, the oppression of every other single religion and violence against women."

Ralph Cerminara says his group is fighting the same cause as the English Defence League, which is to stop Muslim immigration.

But he says the links between the two groups go no further than that common cause.

Mr Cerminara says he accepts there are Muslim immigrants who want to "fit in" to Australian life but he says there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim.

And he declines to condemn the bombing of two Muslim schools in Britain following the death of British soldier Lee Rigby.

"I don't believe, in any culture, that we should be having Islamic schools. If you read the Koran, which says that beheading people is okay, bashing women is okay, killing all Christians and Jewish people and, basically, any non-Muslim is proscribed for you, I don't want people teaching this. So, when people are bombing and doing whatever in Britain, look, that might be a bad way to go about it, however, what choice do they have?"

Ralph Cerminara does not reject accusations of Islamophobia aimed at his group.

Mr Cerminara says the Defence League must educate Australia about Islam.

"What I need to do is get time from people to educate them on what Islam is and what is the culture, because Islam and sharia law are one and one. They can't exist without the other. Now every Muslim and every Imam will tell you the same thing, that they cannot exist without the other."

The Imam at Sydney's Lakemba Mosque, Sheikh Yahya Safi, says in Islamic countries, sharia law is, indeed, understood to mean every law under Islam.

But he says sharia law actually translates in Arabic as the way, or the path to be followed.

He says, Muslims in Australia are expected to follow Islamic teachings in their personal lives, such as prohibitions on alchohol and avoiding adultery.

But the Sheikh says Australian law clearly prevails if there is any difference between the two.

"The only section where there is lots of arguing about it (is) the section of the courts and the section of the law itself when there's a dispute between people. And here, of course, in Islam, you cannot put this into account unless there's an Islamic government. (In Australia,) you need to have a judge, you need to have witnesses, you need to have authority from the government to deal with these methods as a judgment, as a sentence from a judge."

With a federal election ahead, Ralph Cerminara says the Australian Defence League wants to work with any political group willing to oppose Muslim immigration.

He supports the ideas of the Rise Up Australia Party and politician Pauline Hanson, as well as the new Australian Party for Freedom, patterned after Dutch politician Geert Wilders' party.

Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom opposes Islamic immigration in Europe.

But Professor Barton says what he calls the "Old World" of Europe embodies a very different set of circumstances from Australia.

"Australia is a New World society. The United Kingdom, in some ways, is halfway between Old World and New World. It is a society very much shaped by migration, but not nearly as much as Australia, Canada, the US or New Zealand, all New World societies where, basically, there's a high degree of success in dealing with migration and no great deep-rooted opposition to migrants, including Muslims. And (there's) not the same sort of far-right politics that we see in northern Europe."

Professor Barton suggests it will be hard for groups like the Australian Defence League to expand their influence.

And he says the characteristics of modern society also make it harder to instil the enmity Jewish, Romany and some indigenous people in the north have long faced in Europe.

"We think of modernisation, globalisation and urbanisation as going together, so the rise of cities has brought people side by side with people from different backgrounds. That's true all around the world."

Source SBS

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