Going to extremes to figure out radicals
Author ‘goes rogue’ with Aussie bigots for his new book
JOHN Safran is back and inviting readers to go with him down a rabbit hole of extreme political views and radicalisation in Australia. The author is in the thick of it, again, from interviewing Aussie ISIS supporters to Reclaim Australia leaders, and the result is a complex and manic picture of some of Australia’s extremists.
The book was written before Donald Trump’s rise to the US presidency, in the midst of the Reclaim Australia rallies in 2015 and last year.
Safran arrives at a rally held in Melbourne, is recognised, and from there dives into the gonzo style of story-telling that he has embraced since his 2004 television series John Safran v God.
Safran talks to religious and political radicals, many born and raised on home soil.
Framing radicalisation in terms of religion, Safran says, is crucial to better understanding it. It is one of the things he wants readers to glean from the book.
“Religion is coursing through Australia at the moment in a way that people don’t usually think about,” he says.
“The way issues are discussed (is) through a really non-religious lens.”
Safran says because it is often difficult for people to understand that extremists truly believe in magic, or that key religious figures are about to return, media organisations often frame issues in a more “palatable” way for the reader, listener or viewer.
“The key players in Reclaim Australia are really motivated by this belief that the Christian Messiah is about to return and there’s spiritual warfare going on,” Safran says.
“I also hung out with a couple of Australian ISIS supporters. And their belief in the scripture and their belief they have to go to Iraq or Syria to fight because the Muslim Messianic age is about to happen really drives them.
“That’s so difficult to accept if you’re a regular Aussie, because what do you do with that?
“People are driven to radicalisation because of isolation, and bigotry towards them, and foreign policy and all that is obviously true, but there is that other layer that is so important and is so difficult to get your head around. And because there’s no apparent answer to it, it’s hard.”
Safran’s fame was confirmed following the airing of the afore-mentioned TV series, when he took a world trip and analysed a few belief systems along the way.
Since then, the self-titled “Jew detective” has also travelled to the US to investigate a murder and has written the fairly hilariously titled, Murder in Mississippi: The True Story of How I Met a White Supremacist, Befriended his Black Killer and Wrote This Book.
The author also says the rise of social media has played a huge role in people forming extreme beliefs.
“Especially now because there’s so much media out there, especially social media, and news stories and message boards, you can cherry-pick anything and make it fit what your existing theory is,” he says.
“Especially when you’re Jewish you really pick up on this. Like when people have conspiracy theories about the Jews controlling everything, so everything can fit into that.
“And if anything goes wrong in the world, you can scan around until you find the Jewish connection and that becomes the story.
“It’s the same with other sorts of bigotry... you can pluck things ... and make everyone look bad really.”
Some moments of hilarity in the latest book come when Safran suddenly gets a dose of reality from “regular” people operating outside of the radical world the author finds himself in.
“In the months since (finishing the book), I’ve had time to decompress,” Safran says.
“I thought I was being balanced by thinking ‘oh, I might spend a few days with the white supremacists’ or ‘I’ll spend some time with ISIS supporters’, and I thought there was some logic to that.
“Now I spend a few days with the people down at the cafe ... and I noticed close to the end (of writing the book) there was something funny about when a normal person shows up on the scene and breaks the bubble.
“Now I know for my next book I need to put more of that in. For my next book I need to spot the book a bit more with regular people.” Depends What you Mean by Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables is out now through Penguin Random House. John Safran will appear at the Byron Writers Festival (August 4-6). More at byronwritersfestival.com.
◗ John Safran has released a new book, Depends What you Mean by Extremist.