Australia remembers Sydney race riots

A policeman watching over detained youths at South Sydney's Cronulla beach on Dec 12, 2005, during a second night of racial violence in Sydney. The alcohol-fuelled riots pitted "Anglo" nationalists against the Middle-Eastern community. An estimated 5
A policeman watching over detained youths at South Sydney's Cronulla beach on Dec 12, 2005, during a second night of racial violence in Sydney. The alcohol-fuelled riots pitted "Anglo" nationalists against the Middle-Eastern community. An estimated 5,000 people took part.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

10th anniversary of clash involving Mid-East community prompts renewed soul-searching

Australia has this week been commemorating the 10th anniversary of an event it would perhaps rather forget - the Cronulla riots in Sydney which pitted "Anglo" nationalists against the Middle-Eastern community.

The alcohol-fuelled riots occurred on Dec 11, 2005 in the beachside suburb of Cronulla. An estimated 5,000 people took part, calling for revenge following an incident a week earlier in which Lebanese youths allegedly clashed with one or two local beach lifeguards.

The violent scenes marked one of the ugliest episodes in the nation's recent history and were seen as a grim indication that an undercurrent of xenophobia flowed just beneath the apparently calm surface of multicultural Australian society.

The anniversary has led to a fresh round of national soul-searching.

Describing the events as "shameful", the Canberra Times newspaper this week suggested the lesson was not that Australia was innately xenophobic but that "the rule of law remains fragile, and that usually decent people can be tempted quickly to ignore it".

ENGAGEMENT IS KEY

Cronulla has taught us that sustained engagement, active and respectful listening, and creative involvement… remain crucial to building the trust that necessarily underpins the social capital of a cohesive society.

PROFESSOR ANDREW JAKUBOWICZ, from the University of Technology Sydney

"That day remains a deeply disturbing portrait of Australian culture, regardless of whether such a portrayal is accurate," the newspaper said in an editorial.

"So confronting were the events that the very word 'Cronulla'... became a byword for the raw xenophobia and hatred of difference that some Australians feel, yet manage to hide most of the time... Nonetheless, it is wrong to try to use the crowd's violence on that day to define Australians."

Australia has not experienced large-scale riots due to race or ethnicity since 2005, yet many of the tensions appear to remain unresolved. In recent months, there has been a resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiment and far-right nationalist groups, partly fuelled by concerns about terrorism and the influence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Far-right groups have held rallies in recent months, sometimes protesting against proposals for new mosques. A group named Party for Freedom has planned an anniversary rally at Cronulla for Saturday, but the local council and police have taken legal action to try to block it. Analysts say the numbers of far-right radicals are small and police believe interest in the groups has peaked.

Local media tracked down some of the leading Cronulla rioters in recent days and many claimed that they regretted the violence but not their attempt to support their local beachside community.

Mr Geoffrey Atkinson, 28, who was convicted for being part of a mob that attacked a Middle-Eastern man, told Fairfax Media he was "ashamed of what I did but I'm not ashamed of the stance I took".

An expert on multiculturalism in Australia, Professor Andrew Jakubowicz from the University of Technology Sydney, said the riots led police to improve their anti-riot capabilities and to bolster engagement with the Muslim community. He said the lesson was that engagement was the key to avoiding future ethnicity-based clashes.

"Cronulla has taught us that sustained engagement, active and respectful listening, and creative involvement… remain crucial to building the trust that necessarily underpins the social capital of a cohesive society," he wrote on the SBS News website.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'Australia remembers Sydney race riots'. Print Edition | Subscribe