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Conspiracy theories and religion invade political mainstream

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Over the past few years, we have witnessed extremist politics penetrating the U.S. Republican Party, alongside the burgeoning of insane conspiracy theories like QAnon.

The FBI has taken a particular interest in QAnon since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January.

An FBI release titled Adherence to QAnon Conspiracy Theory by Some Domestic Violent Extremists says:

‘Its foundational principle holds that a corrupt cabal of “global elites” and “deep state” actors run a Satan-worshiping international child sex trafficking ring and engaged in plots to conduct a coup against a former President of the United States while he was in office.’

It is marked by the spread of false information about ‘alleged election fraud, the COVID-19 pandemic and the dangers of 5G technology’.

The spread of this theory has led Politico to ask ‘whether the time has come for a new wave of outreach to religious communities, this time aimed at evangelical Christians’.

Once, only Muslim communities were so targeted.

Elizabeth Neumann, formerly of the Department of Homeland Security, pointed out that social isolation during the pandemic is a known risk factor for the spread of extremism.

Another risk factor is economic stress, particularly in a country with a primitive medical insurance system and low levels of social security.

Neumann said that people without a strong sense of community are vulnerable and a small proportion of them may be mobilised towards violence:

‘The Moonshot CVE Group, which studies radicalisation, said that in states with stay-at-home orders that lasted ten days or longer, [online] searches for White supremacist content increased by 21%. In states where there either weren’t stay-at-home orders or they lasted nine days or fewer, that increase was only 1%.’

Neumann saw danger in authoritarian structures in some strands of evangelicalism:

‘...where you see the most ardent Trump supporters or the QAnon believers, because they’ve been told: “You don’t need to study [scripture]. We’re giving you the answer”.’

The hostility of QAnon adherents to anti-pandemic measures is related to their claim that masks are part of a Muslim plot to bring Sharia law to America.

Richard Hanley, a journalism professor, said:

“That masks leads to a burqa and then goes to Sharia law image... is part of the constructed narrative that people in the conspiracy world are using via the coronavirus to extend and expand their pre-existing perspectives.”

Trump was photographed with a QAnon leader in the Oval Office and retweeted QAnon memes including a link to a video featuring a man who said Muslims would kill Americans if they did not allow them to follow their religion.

Andrew Feinberg wrote in The Independent:

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Centre who studies extremist violence... said there has been a “crossover” between the QAnon systems and evangelical Christianity that is going to imbue right-wing extremism with the sort of violent fanaticism more associated with al-Qaeda or ISIL.’

Pulitzer winner Eliza Griswold summarises this as ‘a set of beliefs... which centre on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation’.

Sociologist Andrew Whitehead wrote:

‘Survey after survey of the American public demonstrates that Christian nationalism is present within the population and especially among white evangelical Protestants, where upwards of 80% are at least somewhat favourable of a fusion of Christianity and American national identity.’

This strain of nationalist theocracy is already infecting the Australian political mainstream.

The veneration of American culture in some Evangelical circles in Australia has led to a great increase in activity.

Former WA Liberal politician Norman Moore, responding to the debacle in his state, blamed religious fundamentalists inside the Party for damaging its standing in the community:

“We are a secular party... we don’t want to be seen to be captured by any fundamentalist group no matter what it is.”

Sky News Australia came out in support of the fundamentalists in the SA Liberal Party which denied membership to about 150 people because they were “Pentecostal Christians”.

Sky News contributor Caleb Bond says it was “open religious discrimination”.

One very observant blogger has given good coverage of the takeover of the Liberal Party by the religious fringes — it is worth consulting:

‘I wrote a few articles about the effective takeover by the religious of the Liberal Party branches in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and federally, and how this will eventually lead to their demise...’

Such a demise would be evidence that the Australian people are not going to follow the American Republicans down that rabbit hole.

Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. You can follow Bilal on Twitter @BilalCleland.

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