Political dissent and illiberal or socially harmful expressions of angry citizenship pose a complicated challenge for liberal democratic societies. On the one hand, the political leadership and community as a whole need to be able to fend off oppositional forces that seek to undermine the democratic system. On the other hand, silencing dissent and ignoring underlying grievances can make segments of the community more susceptible to far-right mobilisation. In increasingly polarised societies, governments need to consider how to engage effectively with dissenting community voices – without curbing civil liberties, aggravating social division and fragmentation, and playing into the hands of far-right agitators.
Interviewing a group of people in Australia who had frequently engaged in anti-Muslim protests and advocated for popular far-right conspiracy theories, I asked if they considered their political actions a form of dissent. There were collective nods of approval and smiles of pride in response to my question.
Political dissent seems to have a positive connotation, not only for my interview partners but for many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum. It is often associated with brave resistance and a morally justified, righteous struggle against injustices and hegemonic powers. In Australia, nothing illustrates this better than the enormous popularity of the country’s 19th century bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly, hanged in 1880 for murder, who has been for decades the folk hero symbol for the rebellious side of the ‘Australian spirit’, an underdog mentality ‘with the courage to challenge the authorities’.
Radical right actions as an expression of dissent?
Many far-right actors in Australia and elsewhere frame, and try to legitimise, their political mobilisation as a form of political dissent, exercise of free speech and political communication, which many of them frequently claim is threatened by political elites in an allegedly controlled and brainwashed ‘woke’ society.
Whether we – as a society, political community or personally – consider certain far-right actions as political expressions of dissent depend on many country-specific historical, societal and institutional factors as well as personal moral and political viewpoints. Needless to say, it is often difficult to draw the line between legitimate dissent and extremist antidemocratic or anti-constitutional behaviour. For the purpose of this article, I suggest situating this discussion in Chantal Mouffe’s (1) conceptualisation of modern democracies as being radically pluralistic and ‘agonistic’ and as having to accept the inevitability of disagreement, dissent and ‘angry citizenship’. However, according to Mouffe, there is a fundamental condition attached to legitimate dissent: It needs to adhere to the ‘ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality’ and should not perceive the political opponent as an ‘enemy to be destroyed’ but as an adversary, ‘whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question’ (1).
This article focuses on the response of the political leadership in Australia to dissent, typically articulated by a vocal minority of the community. More specifically, how can government responses create, or limit, opportunities for far-right groups to use community grievances for their own political mobilisation and recruitment? My basic argument is this: Government attempts to suppress political dissent may in some cases be the only option, but it may often come with unintended side-effects of increasing the appeal of far-right groups and networks for those who feel marginalised and silenced.
Many political philosophers and extremism experts seem to agree on this premise. Mouffe (1) warned that oppression of dissenting voices can not only lead to ‘apathy and disaffection with political participation’ but also to ‘the crystallization of collective passion around issues, which cannot be managed by the democratic process and an explosion of antagonisms that can tear up the very basis of civility’. This resonates with political extremisms experts Bartlett, Birdwell and King’s (2) assessment:
‘…the best way to fight radical ideas [of extremism] is with a liberal attitude to dissent, radicalism and disagreement. Silencing radical views is not only wrong as a matter of principle, but it can also create a taboo effect that inadvertently makes such ideas more appealing.’
In the following, I briefly present an empirical case study from Australia (3) to explore these conceptual assessments in more detail.
Case study: local anti-mosque conflict in Bendigo
The protests against the local council’s approval of a mosque in the regional town of Bendigo (Victoria) in 2014-2016 are an illustrative example of what can happen when the political leadership tries to shut down dissent. Dissent in this case was the opposition by a vocal minority in Bendigo to the building of the town’s first Muslim community centre and mosque. The anti-mosque movement started as a local community conflict as a number of residents opposed the council’s approval of the mosque plans, but it escalated into what was described as the ‘ugliest racist outbreak in Australia’ in recent times. Moreover, it is commonly seen as ‘a crucial crystallisation and mobilisation point’ for the (re)emergence of Australia’s far-right in the mid-2010s (4). I argue here that the political handling of the controversy played, together with other factors, a significant role in this.
The reasons behind the local mosque opposition were diverse, as they tend to be in such conflicts. Some residents were concerned about parking and noise, but the general tone of the protests was openly Islamophobic, often driven by widespread conspiratorial misinformation, fears and prejudice – at a time when jihadist violence and ISIS-inspired terror in the Middle East and elsewhere dominated the national and international news, creating a moral panic around the place of Islam in the West.
The local political leadership in Bendigo was overwhelmed by the escalating anger and increasingly expressed anti-Muslim racism of the local mosque protesters. Instead of trying to engage with the anger and the underlying grievances, the local council insisted on following administrative procedures. The mosque application was handled as a ‘normal’ planning issue, and anti-Muslim prejudice, fears and emotions had no place in this formal consultation process. As protests grew more confrontational and threatening, the local council saw no other option than to limit its public consultation. This ultimately meant the end of any possibility to meaningfully engage with the local mosque opponents (3, 5, 6) – and with their ill founded but genuine grievances and fears. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Victorian Premier also weighed in. Well-intended in his support of the mosque and the Muslim community, he publicly stated that the mosque protesters ‘wouldn’t be able to spell Bendigo’, alluding that mosque opposition was imported from outside the local community and hence disregarding existing grievances within it.
This did, of course, not calm the protests. The council decision ‘magnify rather than ameliorate opposition. It provided an additional issue of significance utilised by opponents to marshal opposition’ (5), as the anti-mosque protesters increasingly branded the council as un-democratic, accusing it of ignoring the will of the local constituency and of curbing free speech. This was an example of what Harris, Macklin and Busher describe as ‘jujitsu politics through which [anti-minority movements] use the (‘over’) reaction of state and civil society opponents to fuel their grievance narrative and, potentially, build public sympathy and support’.
The local conflict increasingly attracted nationwide attention, in the media but also among far-right groups, which had gained some prominence during this time of heightened anti-Muslim fear and panic across the country. The Bendigo protests were an opportunity for far-right, nationalist groups to mobilise and push their own agenda by expressing their sympathy and support for the local mosque protesters.
Between August 2015 and February 2016, Australia’s most vocal and active far-right group (at the time) held three public rallies in Bendigo, which are still celebrated within far-right milieus as a great success and the beginning of a new nationalist movement in Australia (although the landscape has changed significantly since then). The far-right was welcomed in Bendigo by many, albeit not all, local mosque opponents – also because they were seen as the ones who listened to and took seriously their grievances, fears and concerns, which everyone else seemed to brush off as ‘racist’. In our fieldwork, the sentiments were described to us in our research like this: ‘If the council, who is supposed to represent us, doesn’t listen, guess what, there are these people here who are going to defend us, our rights and oppose this [mosque]’. Similarly, the group of far-right ‘dissenters’ I interviewed, explained why they welcomed the rallies, brough to Bendigo by the far-right group: ‘We were all yelling and screaming and no one was listening’. But the radical right did – and they established ideological and personal relationships with parts of the local community that last until today.
The mosque conflict has ended and the mosque is being built, but the controversy has had far-reaching ramifications on different levels. Bendigo’s political leadership and local community have demonstrated exemplary commitment and dedication to proactively foster positive community relations, promote diversity and inclusion, prevent prejudice and tackle racism. But what happened to those in the community who six, seven years ago protested against the mosque? Most of them probably still live there. Some may have changed their minds, but our research (e.g., analysis of recent voting behaviour) also indicates that a significant proportion of the community still hold anti-Muslim sentiments and far-right views. We also found evidence in our research that suggests the mosque conflict, and the way it was handled, drew some people from the local community further into far-right spaces and networks. What started as Islamophobic fear about a mosque has turned into deep mistrust towards government and conspiratorial convictions that the mosque was part of a secretive plan to ‘break our society’ and ‘de-populated the world’. It is unclear if their expressions of political dissent are still situated within a ‘political community whose rules we have to accept’ (7).
Alternatives to silencing dissent?
Was this avoidable, and what role did the government response to the angry and Islamophobic dissent play? We can’t know for sure, but our analysis suggests that suppressing anti-mosque voices may have successfully – and as intended – marginalized these unwelcome (and unwelcoming) elements of the community and it has given space to pro-diversity voices to dominate the public climate. This is a good outcome, but there have been unintended side-effects as it seems to have contributed to further radicalizing community members and strengthening their connections to far-right networks.
Were there any alternatives in this mosque controversy? Could the local council or other stakeholders have found ways to engage with the mosque opponents without endorsing their anti-Muslim sentiments? I argue that it would have been challenging but worth testing alternative forms of engagement with their dissenting views outside the formal consultation process. At the centre of these alternative modes of engagement lies a difficult balancing act of acknowledging, listening to, and trying to understand grievances and their origins without legitimizing anti-Muslim hate or prejudice. Finding a middle-ground may not always be possible, but what is then equally (or even more) important is that the engagement process ensures that those who ‘lose’ the democratic argument do not also ‘lose face’ and can maintain a sense of dignity, self-worth and connectedness to the community. Disregarding grievances and marginalizing dissenting views appear counter-productive as the person may turn to fringe communities that seem to meet their needs for recognition and belonging – and far-right groups have strategically and successfully preyed on these vulnerabilities for decades.
Of course, such an empathic approach to dissent can also fail. It appears to be less promising when dealing with those who hold ideologically hardened far-right views, utterly disinterested in democratic deliberation. And it would almost certainly fail with those radical right agitators who secretly welcomed the local mosque conflict as a mobilisation and recruitment opportunity.
The bigger picture
The Bendigo case study might seem qualitatively rather insignificant in the face of the rising threat of far-right extremism in Australia and globally, but it illustrates how suppressing oppositional voices and the inability to engage critically but empathetically with dissent in the community can further far-right radicalisation. But this is a broader issue that goes beyond what has come to be known as Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE). The question of how we address and respond to dissent goes to the very heart of the democratic process in pluralistic societies – at a time when civil liberties have been in decline across the globe and when social and political polarisation continue to reinforce ‘enclave deliberation’ (8), that is, ‘deliberation among like-minded people who talk or even live, much of the time, in isolated enclaves’ that can threaten ‘social stability’ and contribute to ‘social fragmentation or even violence.’
Almost any social or political issue can be divisive and trigger dissent among parts of the community – and many have been and can be exploited for far-right mobilisation, from immigration and BLM to foreign investment, from #metoo and gender diversity to abortion, from climate change and bushfires to corona restrictions. This has been highlighted by many studies, including our recent analysis, in collaboration with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), of far-right mobilisation on Facebook (9) and the alt-tech platform Gab (10).
The ramifications of the failure to engage with dissent and how it is linked to far-right mobilisation is probably most obvious in the way democratic governments have responded to dissent with corona restrictions and vaccination programs. In its latest Democracy Index 2020, The Economist Intelligence Unit writes that
‘…governments made little serious effort to involve the public in a national discussion of how to deal with the pandemic, despite it being a public health emergency. Instead, the approach was a top-down imposition of extraordinary measures, justified on the basis of “the science”.’
There is little doubt that this has contributed to frustration, grievances and dissent, which have manifested in frequent every-day acts of disobedience as well as mass protests against corona lockdown or (allegedly mandatory) vaccinations around the world. The far-right has enormously benefited from this crisis. The membership numbers of the Australian sub-group on Gab, for example, have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic from 14,000 to 58,000 (certainly not only because of the pandemic) and corona-related issues have dominated the discussions until today. New communities and networks have evolved, both online and offline, where ‘old’ far-right conspiracy theories flourish as they are adapted to the context of the global health crisis.
These are complex processes shaped by a range of factors, but there is little doubt that many people have joined these far-right spaces because they felt their concerns and grievances – from personal economic struggles to police power overreach or imposed restriction of personal freedoms – were brushed off, ridiculed or silenced in the public debate. Instead of exploring ways to engage with their concerns early, their dissent has been described as ‘silly’, ‘selfish’ and ‘evil’ or met with patronizing ‘disappointment’ and ‘disgust’. Many of them seemed to have found what they were looking for when they joined far-right networks online or marched shoulder-to-shoulder with far-right groups in anti-lockdown protests: recognition and a sense of community among many like minded people who take their concerns seriously. But they may have also maneuvered themselves into a democratic dead-end or what Davis (11) calls ‘anti-publics’, where dissent is expressed with ‘a level of hostility to democratic conventions and institutions that in general exceeds … even the most permissive notion of an “agonistic” public sphere’.
It will be the task of the future to help people get out of these far-right anti-publics, where a fundamental mistrust towards government or even rejection of democratic process and principles have been cultivated, and to counter the – currently highly fertile – recruitment efforts of far-right networks. Sanctioning, silencing and suppressing dissenting voices does not appear to be the most effective way to achieve this goal.
Dr Mario Peucker is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Senior Research Fellow at Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. See full profile here.
© Mario Peucker. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).