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Archive for Thursday, December 15, 2005

Surfers, clerics try to ease ethnic tensions

December 15, 2005

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— A Muslim cleric in a gray robe and white skull cap sits down with a youth in a baseball cap and shorts for talks on cooling tensions. Lebanese members of a motorcycle gang and a group of surfers agree both sides need to calm down.

Some unlikely alliances are being formed to try to head off any escalation in the ugly fighting on beaches near Sydney this week that exposed racial divides and tarnished Australians' self-image as a nation of laid-back, sun-kissed beachgoers.

The clashes, some of the worst ethnic violence in Australia in decades, are more racially motivated than religious. Only about 300,000 Muslims live among Australia's 20 million people, and many here with Middle Eastern ancestry are Christian. The country's history also has been tainted by abuse of dark-skinned Aborigines.

While deep-rooted antagonism between some whites and those of Arab descent was the driving force behind the unrest, the flashpoint was a turf war between surfers and weekend visitors to a shore that the surfers regard as theirs alone, analysts say.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks along with summer temperatures, drawing more casual visitors to beaches frequented mostly by locals and die-hard surfers in the off season.

On Dec. 4, a group of youths of Arabic appearance beat two lifeguards on the beach in the blue-collar suburb of Cronulla after an argument during which both sides hurled insults.

A week later, hundreds of whites flooded the area to "reclaim" the beach. After hours of drinking beer and shouting slogans Sunday, some whites starting beating up people they felt looked Middle Eastern, setting off a riot that police quelled with clubs, dogs and pepper spray.

More clashes followed Monday, including bands of Arab-appearing youths rampaging through suburbs breaking windows in stores, houses and cars. Nearly 40 people were injured and 27 arrested over both days.

The riots exposed the dark underbelly of Sydney's outwardly easygoing surf scene, said Paul Wilson, a criminologist and forensic psychologist at Bond University.

"While we romanticize surf culture, there is a downside which is hard drinking, drug taking and violence," Wilson said. "A lot of that downside explains what we saw in Cronulla."

The trouble will persist as long as "there are hot heads on both sides who are looking for violent confrontation," he said.

Far right groups have been accused of fanning tensions by haranguing the crowds that gathered on the beach Sunday.

Some Australians criticize the country's Middle Eastern communities, saying they don't do enough to assimilate into society. But most people seem intent on calming tensions.

Lebanese religious leaders met Tuesday at a Cronulla surf club with members of the beach fraternity to discuss ways to cool antagonisms.

Also Tuesday, a group of surfers known as the Bra Boys, who hang out at Maroubra beach near Cronulla, met with members of the notorious Comancheros biker gang, which has many Lebanese members.

Bra Boys member Sonny Abberton said the meeting was the start of a dialogue "to try to ease some tension and calm the racial violence that can never be tolerated in Australia."

His group held a similar meeting with Muslim leaders Wednesday.

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