In the context of One Nation’s presence in the Australian Senate, indications of increased voter support for the party and wider populist trends in the United States and Europe, Australians need to understand One Nation’s world view – especially where the party’s ideas come from.  It is important to chart One Nation’s ideological and political topography rather than to just narrowly fact check the details of its claims and policies. 

One Nation has made numerous controversial statements on Islam that have attracted a measure of public support and considerable criticism.  These were the centrepiece of the party’s 2016 federal election campaign and remain at the heart of its political agenda.  Perhaps none of these claims is more striking, indeed outrageous, than the claim that Islam is not a religion. 

This is a radically new proposition within Australian public life — a claim that one of the world’s major faiths, practiced in Australia for more than 150 years, is not actually a religion.  One Nation’s signature policy on Islam is a call for “an inquiry or Royal Commission to determine if Islam is a religion or political ideology”.   

Australia’s High Court has already established precedent for the meaning of ‘religion’ in a 1983 case regarding the tax treatment of Scientology.  There is no doubt that Islam meets all of this case’s requirements to be constituted as a religion. The idea that a Royal Commission could determine whether Islam is a religion is an obvious legal and political non-starter. However it is clear that One Nation will continue to press its claims that Islam is not a religion as a key part of a broader campaign to exclude Islam and Muslims from Australian politics, society and life. 

Investigation of the origins of this claim highlights the One Nation party’s intellectual debt to far-right groups in the United States and Europe. As early as June 2007, conservative American Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said “we have to recognise that Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world.” 

The underlying purpose of these claims has been to deny the status of Islam is “protected” status under the First Amendment of the United States constitution. The claim helps the Christian far-right square their love of religious freedom with their desire to clamp down on another faith.  Similarly One Nation seeks to deny Islam’s status as a religion and thus deny Australian Muslims constitutional protection for their human rights of freedom of religion and belief.  If left unchallenged this has the potential to significantly undermine respect for freedom of religion and potentially give a green light to acts of overt discrimination and hostility towards Australian Muslims and other minorities. 

The exact origins of the claim that Islam is not a religion are somewhat obscure.  Beyond the claims of some American Christian evangelists, proponents of this view include: 

  • Iranian-born Canadian ex-Muslim activist Ali Sina who argues Islam is not a religion but rather an unreformable, violent, militant political cult.
  • Rebecca Bynum, publisher and managing editor of the British far-right New English Review, who claims “If it is a religion it is not a religion only. Islam is a total system of life … [including] geo-political aspirations – the conquest and administration of territory.”
  • An obscure American former professor of engineering Bill French, who writes under the nom de guerre of Bill Warner, who published ‘statistical analyses’ of the Koran and other Islamic texts to argue that Islam is “political, not religious.  Islam is a political ideology.” 

Although ostensibly an Australian nationalist party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is in large measure serving as a political portal for the introduction of American and European far-right positions, policies and rhetoric into the Australian political landscape.  

One Nation has conspicuously celebrated President-elect Donald Trump’s victory in the United States.  The idea that Islam is not actually a religion is now espoused by people who will occupy positions at the highest levels of the US Government.  As further papers in this series will show many elements of One Nation’s outlook and policies have their origins in American far-right thinking and activism. It can be confidently anticipated that One Nation will continue to draw inspiration and adopt ideas and policies from the US ”alt-right” for some time to come. 

Full report