SYDNEY, Australia — The nation’s first Muslim lifeguards hit Sydney’s Cronulla Beach yesterday, reflecting changes since the worst race riots in the country’s modern history erupted about a year ago.
In December 2005, mobs of whites attacked Lebanese-Australians in a bid to “reclaim the beach,” sparking a series of retaliatory attacks in which churches, shops and cars were trashed.
As a result, Australians of Middle Eastern appearance became afraid to go to the southern Sydney beach.
Today, 17 Muslim lifeguards are qualified to patrol the beach. Lee Howell of Surf Life Saving Australia says the group is a powerful symbol of the changes that have occurred, and the area’s need to move forward.
“I think that it kind of shows that a lot of people regret what happened on the beaches of Cronulla,” he said.
“But I also think it was not a true indication of racial integration. … I think racial integration is going quite strong. I think as a whole, the broader Australian community is quite integrated and quite multicultural.”
The riots, which forced police to close several Sydney beaches, were triggered by an attack on two Cronulla lifeguards apparently carried out by a group of men of ethnic Lebanese origin.
Violence erupted when thousands of whites thronged to the area to protest the attack and “reclaim the beach.”
A government investigation into the violence released last year found that a combination of racism on the part of some local residents and the criminality of some Middle Eastern youths was to blame for the mayhem.
Newly trained Muslim lifeguard Mecca Laa Laa, who will wear a full body covering known as the “burkini” when patrolling the waves, said she felt as entitled as any other Australian to enjoy the country’s iconic beaches.
The “burkini” — a two-piece swimsuit incorporating a head covering, a loose-fitting chemise and leggings — was designed in Australia to allow women and girls who wear traditional Islamic dress to go swimming.
“What I wear doesn’t make me any different,” Miss Laa Laa said.
Lifeguard trainer Tony Coffey said the group had spent four months preparing for their graduation and had the most difficulty negotiating the waves and rips that claim lives each year in Australia.
“They had to reach a standard, and we basically just kept training them until they reached the standard,” he said.
As thousands of Australians flocked to Cronulla and the adjoining beaches yesterday, there was little reminder of the racial unrest of 14 months ago.
While several women sported bikinis featuring the Australia flag and youths bought ice drinks in the Australian sporting colors of green and gold, other women in Muslim head scarves watched their children in the water.
Lifeguard Melissa Miles, 19, said the rioting was largely fueled by uninhibited drinking on the alcohol-free beach and had cast an unfair light on the sandy strip.
“There were bad things that happened, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed,” she said. “People got scared to come down to Cronulla, and that’s just ridiculous.”