- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

SYDNEY, Australia — A Muslim cleric in a gray robe and white skullcap 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 that 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 motivated more by ethnicity than religion. Only about 300,000 Muslims live among Australia’s 20 million people, and many Middle Easterners here are Christian.

[An emergency session of the state legislature passed special legislation yesterday allowing Sydney police to “lock down” parts of the city to stop unrest, Reuters news agency reported. The New South Wales Parliament also increased the penalty for rioting from 10 to 15 years in prison, and doubled the sentence for “affray,” or brawling, to 10 years.

[“Louts and criminals have effectively declared war on our society, and we are not going to let them undermine our way of life,” Reuters quoted state Premier Morris Iemma as telling the State Parliament.]

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.

Beer, slogans and strife

On Sunday, a week after the beatings, hundreds of whites flooded the area to “reclaim” the beach. After hours of drinking beer and shouting slogans, some whites starting beating up people who they thought looked Middle Eastern, setting off a riot that police quelled with clubs, dogs and pepper spray.

More clashes followed Monday. Bands of youths who appeared to be Arabic rampaged through suburbs breaking windows in stores, houses and cars. Nearly 40 people were injured and 27 were 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,” Mr. Wilson said. “A lot of that downside explains what we saw in Cronulla.”

The trouble will persist as long as “there are hotheads 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.

Leaders seek peace

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.

Muslim community leaders and surfers in Cronulla also met Wednesday in what they billed as “a mission of peace.”

Brad Whittaker, who describes himself as a representative of Cronulla’s surfers, said the violence must end. “We would like to apologize for the behavior of some of our members on Sunday, December 11,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Surfer rules challenged

Fighting is commonplace among Australian surfers, who resent outsiders using what they regard as their beaches.

Clifton Evers, a University of Sydney observer of surfer culture, said strict and complex unwritten laws govern behavior at Cronulla.

“The surf culture is very Anglo-Australian and the rules suit the dominant culture,” Mr. Evers said. “But the demographic is changing and diverse groups of young people are now frequenting beaches and challenging the rules that are made by others.”

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