Already pegged as a ‘career bigot’, the arrival of Raheem Kassam has relit the discussion of what constitutes free speech in this country.
This week, a heated row blew up in the senate and on social media when Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristine Keneally demanded that a controversial political figure, Raheem Kassam, be denied a visa to speak at a political event in Australia.
Many Australians have never heard of Kassam, although he’s known in the UK for his hard-right “politically incorrect” views on migration, Muslims, and women. He’s also posted offensive anti-Semitic comments online.
The Kassam visa dispute has now developed into a “free speech versus hate speech” debate on the international stage, with Donald Trump Jnr tweeting his support of Kassam.
In Australia, Senator Mathias Cormann labelled Kassam’s views as disgusting, while also defending the decision to let Kassam in on the basis of freedom of speech, thought and expression.
Meanwhile, Labor senators have described the event Kassam is attending as “normalising the extreme right wing in Australia”. And Kassam’s co-hosts in Australia have ridiculed Keneally for calling a man who was raised Muslim an Islamophobe.
This isn’t the first time in the past year that controversial right-wing speakers have faced visa bans. Far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, conspiracy theorist David Icke and western chauvinist Proud Boy Gavin McInnes have all been turned away. And each time we see a re-run of the “free speech vs hate speech” debate.
So who is Raheem Kassam?
Raheem Kassam is a British political activist with a decade-long involvement in political campaigns on the hard right in the UK.
Now an atheist, he describes himself as philosophically conservative but radical in practice. He is notorious for provocative public statements.
His most well-known roles have been as a senior adviser to Nigel Farage during the 2015 general election and as a (failed) candidate for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) leadership. Echoing Trump, his election slogan was “Make UKIP great again.”
He is a strong nationalist and an anti-refugee critic of immigration. We should be proud of what I call Faragism – a belief in your country, a belief in your culture, a belief in the people of this great nation.
Kassam is deeply embedded in the far-right ecosystem of anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-feminist sentiment. And until 2018, he was the London-based editor of the American far-right media outlet Breitbart, one of the most influential media outlets, under the guidance of Steve Bannon.
While at Breitbart, Bannon mentored controversial figures like Yiannopolous to engage with the extreme right and supremacist groups.
As an ex-Muslim who is not white, Kassam operates as a provocateur in much the same way as the openly gay (with a black husband) Milo Yiannopolous. Both use their identity to counter criticism of their extreme views as racist or intolerant.
Despite being from an immigrant background and having Muslim parents, Kassam has published books strongly against Muslim immigration. He has called the Koran “fundamentally evil”, and Islam a “fascistic and totalitarian ideology.”
Why does Labor want to keep him out?
Keneally says Kassam’s extensive track record of vilifying others on the basis of race, religion, sexuality and gender makes him a “career bigot”.
She has asked Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton to deny Kassam a visa under Section 501 of the Migration Act on the grounds that he is at risk of vilifying others, inciting discord, and putting sections of the community in danger if he is let into Australia. As a result, Kassam has threatened to sue Keneally for defamation.
For Labor, Kassam’s presence at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is symbolic and significant for more than just his views.
CPAC: the ‘dark arts of hate speech’?
CPAC brings together a range of like-minded conservative politicians and lobbyists from Britain, the USA and Australia for the first time.
The list of speakers is a who’s who of hard conservative politics in Australia: One Nation’s Mark Latham, MP Craig Kelly, Senator Amanda Stoker, Tony Abbott, Campbell Newman, Ross Cameron, Peta Credlin, Janet Albrechtsen, and Rohan Dean. And visiting speakers include influential republican congressmen Matt Gaetz and Mark Meadows, and UK Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage.
The aim of CPAC is to establish a solid base for conservative lobbying and campaigning in Australian elections. Its motto is “Protect the future – fight on”, and one full day is dedicated to grassroots political campaigning.
Keneally describes this inaugural Australian CPAC as an attempt to normalise the extreme right in Australia and a “cavalcade of intolerance at the CPA talkfest of hate.” Labor Senator Penny Wong has called the annual CPAC in the USA as an extremist breeding ground of bigotry, and the “dark arts of hate speech”.
Hate speech vs free speech?
Canadian far-right anti-Islam provocateurs Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern jointly toured Australia in 2018.
Before his ban in 2019, Milo Yiannopolous toured in 2017 and even spoke in Parliament House at the invitation of Senator David Leyonhjelm.
Both tours generated violent clashes between opposing groups of protesters and fans. Both tours were costly in terms of police resources and security. And inflammatory, insulting and derogatory statements targeting Aborigines, women, Muslims and LGBTIQA people were made by all three speakers.
There is no evidence that Kassam uses the same extreme strategies to stir up audiences. But it’s clear he acts as an agent to goad opponents and push a hard-right conservative agenda.
It’s also clear the American-style campaigning of inaugural Australian CPAC has truly arrived. This is a style marked by divisive and hate-filled campaigns designed to increase divisions with society using the mass circulation of highly partisan and fake news on social media.
It could be a defining moment in Australian politics.