Review: Depends What You Mean By Extremist, by John Safran

Editors’ note: 

In his latest book John Safran gets up close and personal with people from the current political fringes of Australia.


In his latest book John Safran gets up close and personal with people from the current political fringes of Australia. He spends time trying to understand White Nationalists, ISIS supporters, and many others besides. It is sometimes tense. It is often funny. It is almost always more complicated than you might imagine. 

Safran, a self-described ‘documedian’, puts a lot of himself into his stories. Early on we read that John has ‘been into racists since high school’. This might strike you as an odd hobby for a school boy. Maybe especially for a jewish school boy. If you are familiar with Safran, however, you would know that ‘odd’ is his stock in trade, especially where it intersects with religion. John’s jewish identity equips him to pick up on religious nuances of the political conflicts he investigates. “In my experience,” he writes later in the opening chapter, “Australian intellectuals — you know, the folks on Q&A who tell you what’s going on — just don’t get religion.”

The book is no systematic investigation of its subject matter. Rather, it is a collection of stories. A Reclaim Australia rally in Melbourne, where police used pepper spray to subdue conflict, is the inciting incident. One of the speakers that day was Pastor Daniel Nalliah of Catch the Fire Ministries. Safran finds the spectacle of Nalliah, a Sri Lankan immigrant, being shouted down by white anti-racists compelling. The main theme of the book arises here: so-called political extremists are almost always more complex than media portrayals allow.

The cause which drew Nalliah to this rally, and to the ‘patriot’ movement more generally, is opposition to Islam. As a Christian minister, it is unsurprising that Nalliah is apprehensive about the increasing presence of muslims in Australia. Yet for the most part, arguments he makes against Islam are secular. Muslims, argues Nalliah, are a special case because the culture of Islam is inimical to broader Australian culture. Muslims therefore won’t assimilate in the way that previous waves of immigrants have. Multiculturalist rhetoric is dangerously flawed because it robs Australians of the ability to defend against such a threat. Nalliah prefers the idea of ‘multiethnic’.

Apart from Nalliah, Safran’s book introduces us to quite a number of far-right leaders and foot soldiers, many of whom seem to be be knock-about Aussie guys from the country who like a drink. One at least of these all-Australian blokes has a documented history with Nazism. We also get to meet a selection of muslim men, mostly converts, whom John seeks out. One of these is arrested on terrorism related charges by the end of the book.

The third side of the triangle, leftist/anarchist counter-protesters, get less coverage in the book. It seems they were more suspicious of Safran and less open to his advances. What there is, however, includes some of the most memorable exchanges in the book. John is schooled in the non-equivalence of left-wing violence with far-right violence, interpersonal v non-structural v structural violence, and how there’s no such thing as meaningful anti-semitism these days. As if.

Why should you read ‘Depends What You Mean By Extremist’?

As a reader: Though structurally a bit all over the place, and lacking a convincing conclusion, John Safran has provided a rollicking tale with large doses of humour. 

As a citizen: This book contains useful insights into today’s political climate and context for interpreting future events. It focusses on those outside the inner-city ‘chattering classes’ whose experiences of life and political concerns are often misunderstood and dismissed. It reminds us that our political opponents (of whatever stripe) are human beings.

As a Christian: The example of Pastor Nalliah’s involvement in politics raises some useful questions about how political engagement intersects with our mission as the church. There is also much food for prayer.