Race violence erupts in Sydney

Cronulla riot

Australian Prime Minister John Howard called for ethnic and religious tolerance on Monday after racial violence, spurred on police say by white supremacists, erupted in parts of Sydney.

Racial tension sparked violence on Cronulla Beach on Sunday when around 5,000 people, some yelling racist chants, attacked youths of Middle Eastern background, saying they were defending their beach after lifesavers were attacked there last week.

Violence then spread to a second beach, Maroubra, where scores of men armed with baseball bats smashed about 100 cars.

“Attacking people on the basis of race and ethnicity is totally unacceptable and should be repudiated by all Australians, irrespective of background and politics,” Howard told a news conference on Monday, by which time the violence had subsided.

At Botany Bay, riot police confronted hundreds of youths and police said a man was stabbed in the back in a southern Sydney suburb in what media reports said appeared to be racial violence. New South Wales (NSW) police said a group of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists stirred on the drunken crowd at Cronulla.

“There appears to be an element of white supremacists and they really have no place in mainstream Australian society. Those sort of characters are best placed in Berlin 1930s, not in Cronulla 2005,” NSW Police Minister Carl Scully told reporters.

On Sunday, mobs of drunken and angry youths, some draped in Australian flags, shouted “No more Lebs (Lebanese)”. The mobs chased and attacked Australians of Middle East appearance, rushing onto a train at one stage to fight. More than 20 people were injured and 12 arrested.

Arabic and Muslim leaders said the violence had been expected as Muslims had been subjected to racist taunts, especially since the Iraq war and bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali where many Australians were among the dead.

“Arab Australians have had to cope with vilification, racism, abuse and fear of a racial backlash for a number of years, but these riots will take that fear to a new level,” said Australian Arabic Council chairman Roland Jabbour.

NSW state premier Morris Lemma said the violence was the “ugly face of racism in Australia”, but Howard said it did not reflect a deeper problem with Australia’s multi-cultural society.

“It is important that we reaffirm our respect for freedom of religion in this country, but it is also important that we place greater emphasis on integration of people into the broader community and the avoidance of tribalism,” he said.

Government politician Bruce Baird said tensions between the Anglo-Saxon and Muslim communities had simmered for years, with Cronulla locals angry after six women from the area were killed in the 2002 Bali bombings. Eighty eight Australians were among 202 people killed by the nightclub bombings. “Where this riot took place is actually the site of where we’ve got the Bali memorial for these women,” Baird told local radio. Asked if the riots were revenge for Bali and September 11 in the US, Baird said: “I think so.”

Muslim leaders accused politicians and media commentators of “fanning the flames of racial tension”.

“Fear and scaremongering have long been targeted toward the Arab and Muslim communities, as politicians fueled by media sensationalism, justify support for draconian agendas and simplistic policies,” said Arab council chairman Jabbour.

Reuters, 13 December 2005