A Dec. 20 article misidentified the political party of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. He is leader of the Liberal Party.
Riots in Australia Spur Introspection
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
CRONULLA, Australia, Dec. 19 -- 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.
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."
"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.