POPSART: Hanson in a Burqa? John Safran’s book Depends on What You Mean By Extremist is the conversation we need to have

As a well armed far-right movement in America raises its ugly head in Charlottesville, leaving one oppositional protester murdered, Pauline Hanson turns up to Parliament in a Burqa. As her terribly offensive action is passionately berated by George Brandis, of all people, fourteen people are murdered in Barcelona, mowed down by a car in one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations. Across the globe, the actions and conversations that would have once seemed almost impossible ten years ago in their extremity have become the norm.

Drinking shots with nationalists and gobbling falafel with radicals, John Safran was there the year the extreme became the mainstream. Depends What you Mean by Extremist is a book breaking apart the incredibly complex race, religious and ethnic identity of Australia that’s feeding this divisive threat of nationalism and terrorism, written by the only author that could tackle this material in such an astute, confronting, yet can I say highly entertaining way, John Safran.

Safran has always been interested in far right wing groups, but they’ve always been on the periphery, hidden in closets and in the shadows. But then he saw a shift, a moment he realised things were changing in Australia’s conversation around race. “It started with me turning up to a far right rally in Melbourne in 2015 and seeing all these people at these rallies you wouldn’t expect, like skinheads were there; you would expect those at a far right rally, but it was also multi-cultural and I don’t mean multi-cultural on the left wing side, I mean on the far right side. I mean immigrants. One of the leaders was a Sri Lankan immigrant and it was like… hang on, how do they all fit together? So this book is looking at how all these strange bedfellows fit together.”

POPSART interview John Safran 

Safran takes us on a frenzied, highly comical journey through the colourful intricate web of contradiction and surprise that the “whose who in extremism in Australia” inhabit. The aforementioned Pastor Daniels from the Catch The Fire Ministries evangelical Christian group – a Sri Lankan minister who is opposed to multiculturalism. Ralph Crimea, his fatherItalian, his mother Aboriginal, and his wife Vietnamese, this former leader of the Australian Defense League first turned Anti- Islamist after he asked for an Angus Burger at Maccas and he was told there was no bacon. Blair Cottrell, a fitness fanatic who posts his weightlifting sessions online, he is on record as advocating for a picture of Hitler to be in all schools.

Being very familiar with the book, and having hosted two Q&As with John, I have found it an incisive frame to view the surprising place we are finding ourselves at this time in history. What rings true is extremism on all sides is a powerful vehicle for a charismatic individual to achieve celebrity with their divisive narrative of hate built on distrust of an identified “threat” and fear of what that “threat” will destroy. The “threat” is a character in their story that is interchangeable with what is the most convenient dis-empowered minority to exploit right now.

Pauline Hanson, Australia’s most mainstream extremist, is a prime example of an individual who has risen to power on the hate of the “threat”. In the book, Safran confronts Hanson about her stance on Asian immigration, which she emphatically denies, blaming the media for getting it all wrong, as if she is the victim in all this. He stands his ground and insists that if she’s not against Asian immigration now, she has changed her mind on the matter…

Safran: “How do I know I’m not going to bump into you in fifteen years time and you’re going to be –”

Hanson: “Wearing a Burqa?”

Safran: “Yeah and you’re going to have some excuse about –“

Hanson: “It won’t happen”, she promises, “I will never wear a burqa!”

Says it all really…..

In true Safran style, the author lives the story as the Jewish Detective, frantically ping ponging from the ludicrous to the sublime, fuelled by social media and his own understanding of what it is to be vilified as “the threat”. As the story develops, he becomes more likea Jewish Jason Bourne, training with Avi Yemni, a right wing former Israel Defence Forces soldier who runs an Israeli martial arts gym, buffing up Safran, who said, “I lost all the kilos I put on from hanging out with the beer guzzling patriots.”

The most poignant thing the book reveals is the far right, far left and radical Islam don’t have a good sense of humour. In fact, it’s the one of the things that seems to really undermine them, and this book is a masterpiece in that!

Depends What you Mean by Extremist by John Safran is in stores now.

More POPSART here 


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