After riot, Muslims feel under siege

By Kathy Marks

Threatened mainstream community left repairing harm to reputation done by 'hothead' young men.

Kashmiri Muslims shout slogans during a protest in Srinagar, India. Photo / AP
Kashmiri Muslims shout slogans during a protest in Srinagar, India. Photo / AP

On a spring day a stream of men exits Sydney's Lakemba Mosque after prayers. A few offer their views on the violent protests that shocked Saturday shoppers in the city centre a fortnight ago.

"Hotheads", says one worshipper, referring to the young men who turned a demonstration against an anti-Islamic video into a riot.

Eleven arrests were made, 23 people, including six police officers, were injured.

Lakemba, in southwest Sydney where about half the country's 476,300 Muslims live, is home to a large, well-established Lebanese community as well as newer migrants from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. With its cafes, pastry shops and halal butchers it's a colourful area that draws plenty of outsiders at weekends.

But locals are feeling under siege. Following the September 15 protests, which prompted front-page headlines such as "Is This Sydney?", Australian Muslims struggle to repair their damaged reputation.

Although most community leaders condemned the violence, stressing those involved didn't represent mainstream Islamic society, the riot is stirring debate and the backlash shows no signs of abating.

Muslim websites and organisations have received threatening emails, and police said last weekend they took "most seriously" a threat to blow up a Sydney Islamic school. Talkback radio has throbbed with outrage, and some commentators have pronounced the "failure of multi-culturalism", some questioning the capacity of Muslims to integrate in Australia.

"It's like 'here we go again - all Muslims are violent thugs or terrorists'," said the owner of a Lakemba kebab shop.

While Australian Muslims hail originally from about 70 different countries, those who fought running battles with riot police in central Sydney - like those who retaliated after a white mob went on the rampage in the beachside suburb of Cronulla in 2005 - were "predominantly of Lebanese descent", according to Kuranda Seyit, founder of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations. "We've got a generation of angry young men who feel marginalised and disaffected and socially isolated," says Seyit, who blames their lack of education, poor parenting and a weak understanding of Islam, as well as daily experiences of racism including being shunned by potential employers. His views chime with those of police and community leaders, who say it is young ethnic Lebanese men who cause much of the trouble which wider society attributes to "Muslims".

Seyit stresses the high concentration of Lebanese Muslims in pockets of western Sydney is partly responsible for the problems. And he believes 5 to 10 per cent of young men of Middle Eastern origin are at risk of radicalisation, because of the appeal of firebrand preachers.

Ahmed Kilani, director of Australia's largest Islamic website, muslimvillage.com, lists the events which contributed to Muslims' poor press. "It started with the first Gulf War," he says. "Then you had the gang rapes [by a group of Lebanese-Australian men in west Sydney]. Then came September 11, Gulf War 2, the Bali bombings, the London bombings and the Cronulla riots."

Amanda Wise, a sociologist at Sydney's Macquarie University who carried out extensive research for the federal Government after the Cronulla riots, says while tensions have eased, "that's in large part due families from places like Lakemba just not going to Cronulla any more". Wise isn't convinced attitudes have changed.

Community leaders say there have been many success stories of Muslim Australians such as Hazem El Masri, the former league star, Billy Dib, the champion boxer, Randa Abdul-Fattah, the author, as well as countless academics and professionals.

Kilani says: "I still think Australia is almost like a Utopian society compared with the rest of the world ... You might get occasional blips here, but overall it's a welcoming and friendly and harmonious society."

- NZ Herald

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