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Riots in Australia spur introspection

The violence and lingering tensions in Sydney, Australia's largest metropolis, have sparked an extraordinary level of soul-searching across this island country about race, religion, and cultural and national identity.
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Across Tom Ugly's Bridge just south of Sydney, this sleepy beach suburb once conjured the good-natured images of Australia's laid-back surf culture with strapping, straw-haired lifeguards and locals heading to the shore in their pick-up trucks for a cold lager with their mates.

That no-worries image went up in a blaze of hate last week when an angry crowd of 5,000 Anglo Australians staged vicious mob attacks on dark-skinned beachgoers and on people they believed to be Muslims.

After the incident, Lebanese Australian street gangs staged reprisals, rampaging across Sydney's largely white southern suburbs with guns, bats and iron bars. The incidents have amounted to the worst outbreak of ethnic violence here since Australia became a federated nation in 1901. In recent days, Cronulla Beach, a suburb, stood largely deserted as 2,000 police officers locked it down with checkpoints to prevent further attacks.

Over the weekend, police arrested more than 59 people, including alleged white supremacists and Lebanese Australian gang members carrying homemade bombs, iron-spiked bats, swords and axes. Officials said the blockade of troubled beach areas could continue through Christmas.

Yet the violence and lingering tensions in Sydney, Australia's largest metropolis, have sparked an extraordinary level of soul-searching across this island country about race, religion, and cultural and national identity. Perhaps most striking is that community leaders and sociologists are viewing the riots, at least in part, as a local manifestation of the broader ethnic troubles linked to the global fight against terrorism.

Preoccupation with terrorism
Anti-Muslim feelings, community leaders say, have been rising for the past several years in Sydney, with its picturesque harbor and 4 million residents known for their welcoming hospitality. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Australia, which has staunchly supported the Bush administration and dispatched troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, has had a preoccupation with terrorism.

Australians refer to bombings by Islamic attackers at Bali, Indonesia, nightclubs in October 2002 as their version of Sept. 11. Of the 202 people killed in the attacks on the resort island, 88 were Australians, including seven women from the Cronulla Beach area. Their photographs are displayed on a stone memorial in the center of the area where the riots took place one week ago.

Authorities arrested 18 Islamic radicals in Sydney and Melbourne last month under newly strengthened anti-terrorism laws. The men, among them Australian-born Muslims, had been stockpiling large amounts of explosives and chemicals for what appeared to be a series of major terrorist attacks, officials said. Among their plans, according to testimony and evidence presented in court, were a bomb attack on a nuclear power plant in Sydney and an assassination attempt against Prime Minister John Howard. Reports on the trials were featured on the front pages of newspapers and on television news shows here in the days before and after the riots.

Tensions erupted after a group of Lebanese youths allegedly attacked two Australian lifeguards -- figures viewed here as national symbols akin to Canada's Mounties or Britain's Beefeater guards. Radio talk-show hosts and tabloid newspapers inflamed passions by calling for demonstrations on the beaches. A campaign of cell phone text messages went further, some apparently originating from white supremacist groups, and widely disseminated. The messages prodded protesters to turn Dec. 11 into a "bash the Lebs day" -- referring to Australians of Middle Eastern descent, many of whom are ethnically Lebanese.

Participants said the crowd on the beach that day included men wrapping themselves in the Australian flag, some wearing profane shirts slandering the prophet Muhammad. At least one man in the crowd wore a shirt that read, "Osama Bin Laden Doesn't Surf."

'Things just got scary'
"It started as a laugh with the mates," said Tim Kelloway, 16, a bronzed surfer who recounted the day's events. "But then things just got scary."

The ethnic taunts become violent, and mobs began "attacking anyone at the beach who looked like a Leb," said Kelloway, echoing the accounts of 11 other eyewitnesses interviewed for this article.

"The situation was ready to explode here," Kelloway said. "The Lebs have been coming around more and more, being rude to the Aussie girls and acting like this beach is theirs. I think we were all surprised by how bad things have become, but the truth is, they aren't really Australians. Look at what they do in other parts of the world. I mean, they don't see themselves as Aussies and we don't see them as Aussies, either."

More than three decades after this nation officially dropped its policy of selective immigration and welcomed people of many ethnic backgrounds, the riots have shocked many Australians. In recent decades, the country has embraced the concept of a multicultural society, in which non-European immigrants were not pressured to assimilate culturally into mainstream society.

Leaders of Australia's large Asian population -- the nation's single largest ethnic group after white Australians -- hail the country as exceedingly tolerant. "We could not ask for a more hospitable home," said Peter Wong, a legislator in the New South Wales parliament who immigrated from China almost 40 years ago.

Rise in violent gangs
Those sentiments, analysts and community leaders said, can be attributed in part to the rise in recent years of violent Lebanese and Middle Eastern gangs who are taking their cues from an unusual mix of Muslim-empowerment messages and American hip-hop culture. Wearing baggy jeans and souped-up low-riders, they cruise the streets of Sydney, dwelling mostly in the disadvantaged western suburbs, which suffer from lower education levels and employment rates almost twice as low as the national average. In 2002, several gang members were charged with brutal rapes of Australian women.

Community leaders say that increasing anti-Muslim sentiment has isolated people of Middle Eastern origin from other Australians, although many Lebanese here are Christians who fled violence in their country in the 1980s. People of Middle Eastern origin largely live in the greater Sydney area, where they make up about 5 percent of the population.

Young Arab Australians say that white Australians don't give them a chance, especially in the age of the war on terrorism. In high school, "I had lots of Aussie mates, but these days, you get the feeling they just don't trust you," said Ahmad Kanj, 30, an Australian-born Lebanese X-ray technician. Kanj advises young Muslims at the Islamic Youth Center in the Sydney suburb of Liverpool.

"They look at us in the malls, when we're walking down the street. And you know what they're thinking," he said.

"It's unfair to call us racists," said Alice Campbell, 16, who said she was at the Cronulla riots. "I have lots of Middle Eastern friends. But some of them come down here with their women who go into the water fully clothed and then turn around and stare at us and calling us cheap sluts. . . . I say, they need to start understanding our culture if they really want to be Aussies."

'Racism is at the core of this'
Members of Howard's Conservative Party and some commentators have used the sudden explosion of ethnic violence to denounce the concept of multiculturalism, which was embraced and promoted by the previous government, led by the Labor Party. Howard, meanwhile, has refused to describe the attacks against Australians of Middle Eastern descent as racially motivated. The prime minister instead referred to the violence more vaguely as a problem of "law and order" while insisting it must be viewed in the context of the assault on "Aussie" lifeguards the previous week. "Australia is not racist," he told reporters last week.

However, a public opinion poll by the Sydney Morning Herald published Monday showed that 75 percent of respondents disagreed with Howard, saying that the country has underlying racial problems.

The government of the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is located, has promoted meetings between representatives from both the beach communities and minority groups from the western suburbs. But the state legislature also passed emergency measures last week, allowing lockdowns of troubled neighborhoods, roadblocks and train searches that have lead to dozens of arrests and confiscations of weapons.

The national government has taken only one direct measure: an offer of a $385,000 grant to train Lebanese Australians as lifeguards.

"Australia has changed in the post-9/11 world without many of us even realizing it," said Amanda Wise, a fellow at Macquarie University's Center for Research on Social Inclusion. "It is clear that we are now in the middle of Islam-aphobia, and we need to admit that racism is at the core of this so we can begin dealing with it."