- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

SYDNEY, Australia | Australians are closely following the trial of five Muslims charged with plotting a terrorist attack on Australian soil.

While few details have been released about the target of the plot, the prosecution says the men tried to obtain sulfuric acid, acetone and other chemicals that could be used in explosives and that they buried weapons and ammunition in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. Police raids on the homes of the five, who were arrested in 2005 and face life in prison if convicted, are said to have turned up a trove of extremist literature and videos.

The trial, which started on Nov. 11 and could last up to a year, is the latest high-profile event to focus attention on the area’s Muslim community — a small minority of Australia‘s population.

According to an annual International Religious Freedom report released by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 67 percent of Australia´s citizens considered themselves to be Christian and 1.5 percent identify themselves as Muslim — slightly more than 280,000 out of a population of 20.5 million.

Sydney, the most populous city in this vast and sparsely populated country, has been the disembarkation point for new arrivals to Australia since the first landing by British Capt. James Cook at nearby Botany Bay in 1770.

In recent years, as typified by the terrorism trial, it has also become the site of tensions between Anglo-Australians and Muslim immigrants of Middle Eastern and Asian origin. The disputes have sometimes spilled over into violence, particularly among the young.

Three years ago, the seafront Sydney suburb of Cronulla was shaken by mob violence that saw more than 30 people injured and a similar number arrested over a contested strip of beach. Encouraged by some Sydney talk-radio hosts, a crowd of 5,000 Anglo-Australians gathered to “reclaim” the beach at Cronulla, besieging people of Middle Eastern appearance and fighting with the authorities after several off-duty lifeguards were said to have been beaten by a gang of Middle Eastern youths.

The upheaval came after a notorious spree of gang rapes in 2000 by a group of Lebanese-Australians in Sydney and after statements in 2004 by Taj Aldin al-Hilali, a Lebanese-born, self-proclaimed spokesman for Australia’s Muslim community, who said that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States were “God’s work against oppressors.”

Though relations improved since then, many fear that a significant social fracture remains.

“For a lot of Anglo-Australians, the riots are over and done with, but for Muslim Australians it still has an impact on where they choose to go and spend their weekends,” said Amanda Wise, a senior fellow at the Center for Research on Social Inclusion at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

“In a sense, the tensions are not as hot as they were, but that’s because the groups are not mixing as much as they were. It’s more a low-level distrust and disengagement,” she said.

This year, on Sept. 11, an online game designed by an Australian programmer titled “Muslim Massacre” was provided free over the Internet. The stated aim of the game is to “wipe out the Muslim race with an arsenal of the world’s most destructive weapons.”

Australian police promised to investigate whether the game violated counterterrorism legislation or statutes forbidding incitement of ethnic violence, but so far no action has been taken.

The election late last year of Australia’s first Labor government since 1996, headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and the withdrawal of Australia’s combat forces from Iraq in 2008 have failed to reduce levels of distrust significantly.

“In some circles, things have gotten better, and in other areas, the level of apprehension and dislike for Muslims has grown tremendously,” said Keysar Trad, a former spokesman for Mr. al-Hilali, who in 2003 formed the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia.

International terrorism has had a strong impact on Australia even though no attacks have yet taken place on its shores. The October 2002 attack on a tourist district on the Indonesian island of Bali killed 202 people, 88 of whom were Australian, while a second attack there in 2005 killed four Australians.

The three men convicted of the 2002 bombing were executed by firing squad in Indonesia this month.

Australia’s most prominent contribution to the annals of international terrorism came not from the country’s Middle Eastern or South Asian communities, but in the unlikely person of David Hicks, a hapless former kangaroo skinner swept up amidst the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Imprisoned for six years in Guantanamo Bay, Hicks pled guilty to the charge of supporting terrorism and training with al Qaeda in exchange for being permitted to serve out the remainder of his sentence in Australia. Released late last year, Hicks is under a court-mandated control order that enforces a midnight-to-dawn curfew and restricts his travel and communications.

Still, many Australian Muslims see their community as unfairly depicted as one of outsiders or agitators.

At a mosque in Sydney’s downtown Surry Hills district one recent Friday, hundreds of worshippers were preparing to disperse after afternoon prayers.

“It’s all to do with perception. People fear what they don’t understand,” said Bill Chahine, a 25 year-old Australian of Lebanese descent who works as a project manager for a Sydney real estate firm.

Mr. Chahine, who enjoys cricket and Australian-rules football, said he is comfortable with his dual identity as an Australian and a Muslim.

“I was born here, raised here and educated here,” he said. “There’s no clash of cultures or values with the Anglo-Saxon community as far as I’m concerned.”

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