John Safran figures the left should think about Australian extremism differently

Australia’s most renowned comedic documentarian returns with a look into zealotry in our country that asks more questions than it answers

This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here.

Throughout his career, on projects like John Safran vs God and Race Relations, John Safran has been taking a hands-on approach to researching religion in Australia and around the world. His latest work, Depends What You Mean By Extremist, continues this tradition. But in studying a subject as troublesome and pertinent as Islamophobia and Islamic fundamentalism, Safran confronts an image of the far right extremism which is more complex than most of us give it credit for, and what this means for the dynamics of Australian religion going forward.

HS: What I’ve been telling people about your book is that this isn’t the book you’d expect to read about extremists in Australia. There are all these atypical portraits you’re painting of people on all sides of the spectrum — of right-wing nationalists with diverse, multicultural backgrounds, like Pastor Daniel Nalliah, and also of one particular white, Monty Python-loving ISIS supporter. So what did you learn from these differences between expectation and reality? And do you think the way progressive people look at extremists has to change?

JS: I think the way the archetypical left wing pinko thinks has to change. So in the case of radical Muslims like the ones who want to go and join ISIS, for them they’re under the spell of religion. They believe this book is saying they need to go over and fight because they’re on the cusp of the Muslim messianic age. So for these very radical ISIS dudes, for them, they’re looking at things through a religious lens. Then when you’re coming to non-dangerous devout people, for example, devout Muslims, they look at their life through a religious lens. They believe in magic, basically, and they’re doing that through a religious lens. And then you have these people on the far right with really bad agendas and they want to stir up trouble, and they’ll start going “look at these violent passages,” or whatever.

So everyone’s talking about things from a religious perspective, and the left wants to keep it simple, but they can’t really keep it simple. They almost want to flatten Islam which is a religion, and say “oh no” and imply it’s like an ethnicity, and then also on top of that say something like the Quran is a cultural artefact because if they flatten it like that they can argue against the far right, who have bad intentions, but to flatten it like that you’re insulting regular devout Muslims because that’s not how they see it. So if the left doesn’t start learning about religion and engaging with religion, they’re like, left out of the conversation.

HS: In another part of your book you’re talking to a Muslim fundamentalist (who is now locked up by ASIO) but he’s talking about satire, and he’s saying  “in my Sharia law version of Australia there’s no satire,” and I’m like, that’s the most 2017 thing I’ve ever heard. Because it feels like now with Trump getting elected, people that do satire and people who try to use comedy as a way to attack the powerful have reached this quagmire, and we don’t know what to do and it feels like none of this stuff works, and it’s pointless. So where do you see yourself as a satirist today?

JS: Well this is where I frame it differently. It sounds like I’m starting off on some tangent, but I’ll get to the point — I once hung out with an exorcist for this documentary I was filming, and I was beaten with a Bible and screaming and these other people were all screaming and writhing on the floor and I was speaking to all these people and they all had troubled lives, like they’d either been abused, or they just had issues and awful things happen to them, like human beings.

Anyway so I got back to Australia and I was talking to these psychologists about this Exorcist and I thought they’d bag the exorcism, and say “this is religious nuttery, you should do it through a legitimate thing because we’re not religious and you should be doing it through us,” but instead they said, “you know what? Life’s just mad and tough and it’s good to scream, it’s healthy to scream, and exorcism is a good way to have a scream”.

I think for comedy, I think just look at the world now, and I just rock up to the Melbourne CBD and there’s riot police there, rather than it being happy, and there’s people marching and swastikas and then there are terrorist attacks, and what do you make of that? And Manchester? And Islamophobia? And bombs? And there’s so much bad, weird shit in the world that we’re all just soaking up.

It’s healthy to scream and I think comedy, like an exorcism, is like a healthy scream, and that’s the purpose of it, rather than dragging down, or like, “I bring down Trump”, or even “I bring down Blair Cottrell”. I just think the world’s mad and it’s healthy to scream.

Art: Matthew Fisher

HS: Why do such an in-depth study of the far right? I’ve seen a few gonzo-like studies of people like these be rejected by left-wing activists because their idea of it is: “What’s the point of studying these people? They’re racists. Like what more is there to find out?” What do you say to that?

JS: I think you don’t know what you don’t know, and then when you go out and explore something, you find things you don’t know you didn’t know. So just that can even be handy! Most people are fine with my stuff, so I’m not being a cry baby or a drama queen or whatever, but in one case, there was this far left group that simultaneously ran my article as an example of what the far right is and how to look at it and also having a go at me, and it’s like, you can’t have it both ways. I think the stuff I talk about in this book is helpful and I think helpful for people on the left.

This idea that if you find out more, you’re empathising, which means you’re excusing, it’s just not the path I take. I’ve done lots of crime writing and when I talk to someone who’s murdered someone and they become more three dimensional, it’s not like I’m like, oh they’ve become more three dimensional, and they should be released from prison. It’s just that they’ve become more three dimensional.

And I notice that on the right when it comes to art there’s this financial bean counting, like how is this making money, and the left has ideological bean counting, and it’s like you have to hand in some report that proves to me this has some kind of positive effect, and that’s such a lame literal way of thinking about it. I reckon to regular Aussies, my book in its own silly way probably gets across this thing about how you have to be careful, about how you can’t just be attacking Jews for everything, or think Muslim anti-Semitism is okay, I reckon this book in its own way is more effective than the official Jewish group putting out a press conference, but it’s hard for me to prove that.