The recent national Census may have recorded a decline in religious affiliation but John Safran says faith and belief still can’t be conveniently relabelled as something else in contemporary Australia.
Religion has long been a preoccupation for Safran in his eclectic and sometimes provocative backlog of TV and radio work plus print and online journalism.
In his new book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist, Safran mingles with radically fundamentalist Christians, such as Catch the Fire Ministries leader Daniel Nalliah, ISIS-supporting Muslims and pugnacious Jewish gym owners as well as far-right activists and their left-wing opponents.
“Increasingly you can’t understand Australia if you’re not going to spend some time looking at things through a religious filter,” Safran told Crosslight.
“I just think when it comes to Islam, for instance, the people just don’t know including the people who most confidently talk about it like the ABC crowd.”
Safran has spent the last month on a speaking tour and sat on numerous discussion panels to do with religion and extremism.
“Generally what happens is that religion is just flattened, so it’s no longer got anything to do with religion it’s just like ethnicity,” he said.
In the book Safran meets an Indigenous man who says that becoming a Muslim meant he was virtually excommunicated by a community elder who said he had “lost himself”.
“When I told that little story to people back home they were sort of confused or shocked by it, because if you say that all of Islam is being non-white and being a persecuted minority and all that of Aboriginality is being non-white and being a persecuted minority, that story is confusing because you think ‘aren’t they on the same side?’,” Safran said.
“But then as soon as you look at it through a religious lens you say Islam’s got a spirit realm and Aboriginality is a spirit realm then suddenly it makes all the sense in the world that there’d be a conflict and that an Aboriginal elder might be upset at that.”
Safran says that even when apparently secular many extremist groups still have a religious overlap.
“The far-right is obsessed with religion even if they are not always religious themselves,” he said.
“There’s a lot of quasi-religion even if there’s not religion. The (Klu Klux) Klan has this whole talk about the Bible and what it says in the Bible about who the Hebrews are.”
As a self-confessed “trainspotter” of the far right that makes them even more fascinating for Safran.
“I am pretty super-interested in for whatever reason in the mystical aspects of religion,” he said.
‘I am more interested in these fringe groups where they overlap with that.”
Safran said his ancestral history and religious identity, he is perhaps the best-known graduate of the orthodox Jewish Yeshivah Beth Rivkah College in East St Kilda, also led to his interest in the far-right.
“It’s got to do with growing up with grandparents where there was always this cloud hanging over things, even though they didn’t say anything, I just knew something was up,” he said.
“Possibly that even made it more interesting, the whole secrets of it all, where things weren’t discussed.
“It is kind of weird that the assumption that Jews just talk non-stop about the Holocaust and the Nazis but hang on, my grandparents lived with them and their whole family was killed and they fled, even my mum was born on the run but it just wasn’t really spoken of.
“At Yeshivah College, where I went to in my high school, we didn’t really talk about it there either.”
Safran writes in the book of his surprise at the extremist positions he saw being espoused to niche audiences becoming increasingly mainstream through the election of One Nation and Trump, although he thinks most of the extremists he met will remain marginalised.
“I think they can be trend leaders but in the context of Australia most of them are too strange to remain trend leaders,” he said.
“They can put their memes out there and their thought bubbles out there but I think ultimately they are all too weird to break into the mainstream. But their thoughts aren’t too odd for Australia.”
Safran says that this is understandable given the constant stream of terrorist-related incidents being reported from around the world.
He says some people on the left would prefer to talk about other things or try to contextualise this in some other way but to expect the general population to not be “absorbed and frightened and be really screwed up a bit by this terrorism is just ridiculous”.
“It’s really distressing how violence is normalised,” Safran said.
“It does seem in the last year we have moved to something that is different from what it is before.
“We have become extreme. In Melbourne we have put bollards up on the streets. How strange is that if you said two years ago ‘they’re going to have bollards in the street to prevent terrorism’?
“It’s too late now. Yes, we have changed.”