Conspiracy theories and extremism in Australia
An examination of Arabic media in Australia over recent months has revealed that, apparently unnoticed by Australian authorities, antisemitic content and anti-Israel conspiracy theories are being actively promoted by various print and electronic media outlets operating in Arabic.
Particularly concerning is material that has been broadcast on the community based and partly government-funded radio station 3ZZZ in Melbourne.
The Syrian program on the station appears to be spreading the message of the antisemitic Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) – a pro-Assad party inspired by European fascism that calls for a “greater Syria” and has a history of terrorism and violence.
Its broadcasts have also been part of a wider trend in elements of Australian Arabic media claiming that Israel secretly controls and directs the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organisation.
Disappointingly, problematic pro-SSNP programming on 3ZZZ was actually previously exposed in 2009 and promises were made at that time by 3ZZZ management that they would change their procedures to prevent any recurrence. Yet the SSNP’s problematic role in its broadcasts appears to have resumed.
Conspiracy theories and the Arab-Israeli conflict
Conspiracy theories are nothing new in history. These popular stories provide a simplistic and yet plausible explanation of events or phenomena that make us uncomfortable or distressed. In the Middle East, a mixture of cultural factors, political circumstances and religious ideologies have created a hotbed for a culture of conspiracy. In that context, the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict has become a never-ending inspiration for conspiratorial theories.
The birth of the State of Israel – perceived as a considerable blow to Arab power and honour by many in the Middle East – immediately fostered conspiratorial theories across the Arab world to address what was perceived as a historical anomaly. Initially, Israel was labelled “an imperialist plot”, a petty actor in a ploy by Western imperialist governments to divide and dominate the Arabs. Over the years the tables have turned. Recent conspiratorial fantasies depict Israel not as a passive element, but rather as a central player with unimaginable power and leverage over all aspects of international affairs and global developments.
Such an image is in line with the message of the infamous 1903 Czarist forgery, the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which remains widespread and popular in the Middle East. According to this blood libel, adopted as a key source of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda, Jews conspire behind closed doors to achieve global dominance by taking control of the media, banks and other power centres. Similarly, conspiratorial claims emanating from the Middle East insist that the Jewish state is out to achieve regional, and even world, hegemony, supposedly through the inordinate power of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, the Jewish lobby and leading Jewish bankers and media figures to reduce foreign governments, NGOs and other power centres to mere puppets.
The “ISIS equals Israel” fable
The “Israel is behind ISIS” fable is a recent very popular conspiracy theory against Israel in this tradition.
The conspiracy theory took off in 2014 when reports emerged in the media claiming Israel was secretly, and illegally, importing crude oil from the Iraqi Kurds. The long relationship between Israel and Kurdish elements is a well-known historical fact. Some lawless Kurdish elements (along with other groups) were smuggling oil produced in areas under ISIS control and selling it across the Middle East – though there is no evidence any of it reached Israel. Paradoxically, the revenues from the smuggled oil-funded ISIS and at the same time, also groups fighting ISIS.
In December 2015, London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Arabi al Jadid reported the story, adding some unverifiable details about a mysterious Israeli-Greek agent, “Dr. Farid” who was supposedly running an intricate network which bought the oil, and shifted it between ports and tankers until it reached Israel. This fabricated story was later spread widely in the Arabic speaking world as “proof” of already existing rumours that Israel and/or the United States actually created, fund and run ISIS.
The conspiracy theory has been pumped through various channels to the Arab public. Specifically, it serves the interests of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, suggesting this champion of Arab nationalism has not been fighting fellow Muslims and Arabs but is actually in a war with agents of the Zionist enemy. His Russian-assisted brutality against the rebels, which included torture, targeting hospitals, using starvation as a weapon, employing chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of people, can thus be “justified” in the public mind.
And indeed, it was reported in these pages in June by Dr. Jonathan Spyer, who had just returned from an Assad regime-organised trip to Syria, that “the central talking point of regime spokesmen” he met was that “the war in Syria is the result of an Israel-inspired conspiracy intended to foment internal unrest and split the country into enfeebled cantons.”
The conspiracy arrives in Australia
This antisemitic “ISIS is really Israel” conspiracy story is now being spread by Australian Arabic language media outlets.
For example, in November 2017, the Sydney-based Arabic website, Al-Anwar (“The Lights”), published a lengthy article titled “Did Israel create Daesh ISIS organisation?”. The text includes a long list of fabrications, lies and antisemitic slurs which “prove” that ISIS is really Israel. “Evidence” from the antisemitic organisation “Humanity United Against Ashke-Nazi”, distorted quotes from Israeli journalists and notable politicians, along with outright fabrications, are thrown into the mix. The conclusion, the article says, is indisputable – “ISIS is an Israeli innovation and works to achieve Israel’s goals in the region.”
3ZZZ and the ISIS conspiracy
Radio 3ZZZ is the largest ethnic community station in Australia, servicing more than 60 different ethnic groups. It can be listened to across Melbourne’s metropolitan areas and on the internet. According to the station’s website, “more than 400,000 people listen to 3ZZZ every week”. Financed by listener subscriptions, donations and sponsorships, it also receives government funding through the Community Broadcasting Foundation.
Three times a week 3ZZZ runs programs for Syrians in Australia in Arabic. The content of the shows is strongly in support of the Syrian regime. The program’s webpage is proud to point out that “Syria’s current president is Bashar al-Assad [who] won a referendum on extending his presidency for a second term, garnering 97.62 percent of votes in 2007”. This description cynically suggests that Assad is a peaceful leader democratically elected in a free process – which is of course very far from the reality.
On-air support for Assad includes ongoing verbal attacks against anti-Assad forces, and against arch-nemesis Saudi Arabia, the United States and of course “The Zionists” – all of which, it insists, are in fact behind ISIS.
Here is a translated sample quote:
“Can ISIS operate in Syria and Iraq if it wasn’t America activating it in all the places it has been in? [……] Can the massacres by ISIS, Jabahat al Nusra and the Free [Syrian Army] and others [happen] without a predetermined guidance from the Zionist entity? Terror will not operate unless it is operated by such countries that command its war […] If we want the truth, ISIS and its terrorist thinking are nothing less than a [single] dot in the sea of extremism of the American, Zionist, Saudi and Turkish sides and others. When these countries operate their terrorists, [they] call it ‘the fight against terror and for the freedom of the people and the dispersion of democracy.'” (November 8)
This is not the first time the 3ZZZ Syrian program has been the subject of controversy. In August 2009, AIJAC researcher Ilan Grapel revealed that the same program promoted the message of the Nazi-inspired Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Grapel wrote of the party at the time (AIR, August 2009), “The Nazi comparison is not just based on the SSNP logo, a derivative of the Nazi swastika represented as a spinning disc, or their salute, a quasi Sieg Heil to party leaders… At its core, the SSNP is a fascist movement devoted to the ‘Syrian nation’. Like in Nazi irredentism to create a ‘Greater Germany’, the SSNP strives for ‘Greater Syria’, which stretches across many sovereign states and lands, including Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, the Sinai Peninsula, Iraq, and Cyprus…It also has a history of political assassination and terrorist violence.”
In response to the exposure of the SSNP broadcasts revealed by Grapel, the president of 3ZZZ at the time, who was then – and still is – the convenor of the Syrian program, promised “a vigorous and rigorous” review of decision making processes within the station’s management to prevent future occurrences of similar events. “We will internalise the lesson to prevent recurrence”, he told a reporter from the Australian (Aug. 3, 2009).
Yet, it seems that the lessons were not learnt. Research reveals that not only does the SSNP remain active in Australia, it is still being promoted by 3ZZZ’s Syrian program. In a party meeting in Melbourne (October 2017), covered by the Syrian website of the party, speakers warned against “The danger of the Jews” and praised the terrorists Habib Chertouni, the assassin of Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel, and Khalid Alwan, who killed Israeli soldiers in the Wimpy café in Beirut in 1982.
Soon after that, 3ZZZ broadcasters on the Syrian program read out statements issued by the SSNP:
“Palestine is still alive in reality and our memory […] These are the tears that drop to keep the question of Palestine alive, they water the land of Al-Shaam [Syria] and spoil the Zionist terrorist plan that wants to execute in Syria a new ‘Nakba’ [Catastrophe, the Arab name for the events of 1947-1949 and the creation of the State of Israel].” (November 13)
“You [the Syrians] have closed your ranks confronting the Zionist enemy, that has occupied our Palestine in a conspiracy consolidated to defeat [remove] what remains of the Arab hold on it” (November 20)
3ZZZ is obligated to adhere to the Community Radio Broadcasting Codes of Practice. The Codes prohibit broadcasting material that may “incite, encourage, or present for its own sake violence or brutality […] stereotype, incite, vilify, or perpetuate hatred against, or attempt to demean any person or group, on the basis of ethnicity, nationality” (among others). At the very least, serious questions can and should be asked about whether these broadcasts breach these standards.
They also appear to contradict 3ZZZ radio’s own Constitution, which promises to “adhere to the Codes of Practice for community broadcasters” and to “promote multiculturalism, and community languages and to combat racism.” Surely such a mission should preclude amplifying the messages of an antisemitic, fascist-inspired, and historically violent and totalitarian outfit like the SSNP.
Dr. Ran Porat is a researcher at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation (ACJC) at Monash University.