John Safran: ‘In Australia we don’t get religion’

Guardian: John Safran has made a career of taking a sharp stick to the slumbering bear of Australian identity politics. So it’s not a surprise to learn that he has been reporting his way through the rise of our extremist fringe. His new book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist, is a whirlwind tour through Australia’s increasingly visible radical and reactionary demimonde, from early Reclaim Australia rallies in 2015 to the return of Pauline Hanson in 2016.

Safran gets stoned with the United Patriots Front; attends a sermon by the Catch the Fire Ministries’ pastor, Daniel Nalliah; hangs out with the Muslim convert and firebrand preacher Musa Cerantonio (who has since been arrested and charged for allegedly attempting to join the Islamic State); and trains with a local sort-of-recruiter for the Israeli defence forces, Avi Yemini.

As a cultural observer – on ABC and SBS television, on Triple J radio, and now in books – Safran has always had an unusually receptive antenna for the fraught collision of racial, cultural and religious difference. Or, as he writes in Extremist: “I’ve been into racists since high school.”

Sitting in a cafe in the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava, Safran mulls over the origins of this sensibility: part comes from growing up Jewish in the mostly non-Jewish East Balwyn; a bit more comes from having grandparents who escaped the Holocaust. And then there was the religious education class he took as a kid, when his teacher got mad about Mel Brooks’ Hitler Rap.

“It really stuck with me, her getting anxious about this Jewish comedian dressing up as Hitler,” Safran tells me. “I always remembered that, years later.”

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