The mosque: Bendigonian political action options
Posted on September 28, 2015
Over the past couple of years, there has been a low-level debate over a planning permit for a mosque in Bendigo, which in recent times culminated in a protest cum street battle between the United Patriots Front, and No Room for Racism/Socialist Alternative. For ease of writing, let’s call the United Patriots Front ‘the UPF’ and those on the other side, ‘the Miscellaneous Groups Against UPF’ or MGAUPF. (This article in The Australian is the best summary I’ve read.)
The UPF plans another rally on October 10, and the MGAUPF plans to be there (for example, the Bendigo Action Coalition).
For concerned Bendigonians who want to stand for freedom of religion and against the targeting of Muslim people, what are the forms of political action that are available?
Option 1: Join the MGAUPF
The MGAUPF believes that allowing the UPF to hold their rallies unopposed allows the UPF to claim that their cause has local support in Bendigo, which in turn strengthens their hand in recruiting people to their nefarious cause. These are outcomes that the MGAUPF cannot abide. I think the MGAUPF’s argument has some weight; the UPF is an extreme organisation, whose tactics inevitably breed prejudice against Muslims, even while they claim that they are technically not ‘racist’ because ‘Islam is not a race’. We must let them know that their views are abhorrent.
However, while singing wildly different lyrics, both the UPF and the MGAUPF carry the same tune when it comes to political action. It’s all about bonding. In social capital language: you can bond with people who are like you; and you can build bridges to those who are different. The UPF and MGAUPF act in order to bond more strongly, and have little interest in bridging unless the other converts first.
Why? It would seem that the most effective way to counter extremism would be to persuade an extremist to come over to the side of light. However, both the UPF and MGAUPF is convinced that the members of the other group are incorrigible, and that they are engaged in a battle against an evil enemy. That’s not to say that they would turn away recruits, but that persuading their opponents, which would include understanding them, is not a motivator.
What is the motivator then? Bonding has the purpose of strengthening the group by narrowing the ‘radius of trust’. Group strength has positive outcomes for group members, such as a feeling of safety, knowledge that needs will be met and external threats vanquished. I think both the UPF and the MGAUPF are primarily motivated by the need to be part of such a strong group. There is nothing wrong with this, but bonding becomes unhealthy when groups are exclusionary. Could a member of the UPF turn up to a meeting of the MGAUPF and not be denigrated? 1
The outcome of exclusionary bonding is perpetual battle. Staging a counter rally will strengthen the UPF’s sense of group strength, leading them to hold more rallies; the MGAUPF will feel morally strong in their opposition, and feel more equipped to oppose the UPF yet again. While I think that the UPF’s agenda must be opposed, counter rallies are not the only way.2
Option 2: Go positive
While perpetual battle strengthens tribes like the UPF and MGAUPF, it is poison to neighbourhoods. For neighbourhoods to thrive, the ‘radius of trust’ has to be widened, not narrowed. People must bridge the gap to their neighbour who is different to them. Bendigo is basically a ‘neighbourhood of neighbourhoods’; perpetual battle is anathema to its long-term health as a diverse community3.
I am interested in this point because I am writing this piece as a member of the Bendigo neighbourhood. I want that neighbourhood to thrive into the future, and a constant stream of pitched street protests will eventually force neighbours to choose sides between the UPF and MGAUPF. Not because they have to, but because that’s simply how it seems.
This fact, of being a neighbourhood member, is behind the ‘Believe in Bendigo’ campaign. This option involves emphasising values of diversity, inclusivity etc. ‘Go positive’ political action consists of events like festivals and picnics which embody the kind of community you desire. Going positive tells the UPF, by implication, that their denigration of Muslims is not welcome in Bendigo.
The sharp reader may have perceived a downside of ‘go positive’ political action; it is also a bonding activity. Though it bonds through proactive connection rather than outright opposition, ‘going positive’ has little potential for bridging. However, I reckon it has a little more chance than the MGAUPF.
Another downside of ‘going positive’ is the effort it takes to pull off. The events need to be large, diverse and fun – that is quite hard to do. What if ignoring the UPF (which is essentially what this strategy does) does not work? The UPF may simply take the lack of explicit opposition as permission to keep using Bendigo as a base for their national campaign against Muslims. Will those who want to ‘go positive’ keep holding large community events for as long as the UPF hangs around?
Is there another way?
So, where things stand now: joining the MGAUPF is fine for an outsider but difficult for a member of the Bendigo neighbourhood, and may have the effect of emboldening the UPF. Going positive is more attractive for a neighbourhood, and less divisive, but is exhausting as an ongoing form of action.
Is there a way of getting the UPF to go away, and its sympathy in Bendigo to dry up? But which also makes Bendigo a healthier neighbourhood through bridging?
Option 3: Bring enemies to the table
Ann Morisy, in one of her many excellent books on community, suggests another form of ‘social capital’ in addition to bonding and bridging. She proposes brave social capital. This basically means going out of your way to connect with your enemy.
Jesus brought enemies together. Many meals hosted by Jesus have enemies at the table, most often ‘tax collectors and sinners’. Tax collectors were the debt-collectors for the Roman military occupation; sinners were ‘debtors’. His own circle of followers included class enemies: Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector and collaborator with the Roman Empire, and Simon the Zealot – the Zealots were dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation of the Jewish land.
I reckon bringing enemies to the table could work in Bendigo, using the method of nonviolent action. An example, in Bendigo, of nonviolent action was the Love Makes a Way action (in which I was involved), in which religious leaders prayed and sang in Senator Bridget McKenzie’s office until they were arrested.
In this context, we could hold a ‘Believe in Bendigo’ event right next to the UPF rally4. It could be a smaller event at which UPF and MGAUPF are invited to sit down over the best coffee and food Bendigo can provide, and have a chat with us about our city, what we love about it, and give them some volunteer opportunities to contribute to the neigbourhood. Sure, this event would need some hardy souls to play host, and some mysterious workings of the Spirit for UPF/MGAUPF members to take up a chair, but that’s the point of nonviolent action: to put the issue peacefully and squarely in the middle of the public square, risking harm in order to do so.
Does bringing enemies to the table send a clear message to the UPF? I think it does. Does it strengthen the neighbourhood? If members of the UPF/MGAUPF get involved in our city. Does it bridge the gaps between people in the UPF and MGAUPF? It may do just that; still to be done, though, is the work of persuading them that this is worthwhile.
Counter rallies have their place, as does ‘going positive’, but I would love to see a sit-down banquet in the middle of the ‘battle’ on October 10.
- I’m not suggesting their views be unchallenged: but could this hypothetical person be treated as a person first, and not a member of the UPF? ↩︎
- I do think they have a place though, and I’m not ruling out joining one 🙂 ↩︎
- The MGAUPF may argue that the UPF is the true poison to neighbourhood, and that opposing them is the only way to defeat them. I agree with the first statement, but not with the second. ↩︎
- I still think it’s a good idea to have the large Believe in Bendigo as a separate thing. ↩︎