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A “permanent Cronulla”? New hate groups changing the racist stakes

Far right groups sparked backlash over their plans to mark Cronulla riots anniversary with a ‘commemoration’ on Cronulla beach this month. But court action successfully thwarted plans by a far-right extremist group to hold a rally marking ten years since the Cronulla riots.

Rally organisers had planned to symbolically “bury multiculturalism” in the sands of the iconic Sydney beach. A small turnout of defiant protesters and counter-protesters failed to make any significant impact, symbolically or otherwise. So has Australian society finally moved on from “Cronulla”? Or has ultra-nationalist hate simply shifted its focus from race to religion?

Two courts made separate rulings to prevent the Party for Freedom from holding the rally at Cronulla on 12 December, on the grounds it would incite racial hatred. In addition, the Federal Court ruled in favour of an application to prevent any other groups or individuals from commemorating the event.

Rally organisers said on Facebook that they hoped to re-open the discussion on what happened a decade ago, claiming the facts about Cronulla have been distorted by the government and "a corrupt media."

"Finally, it is time for the government to APOLOGISE (sic) to the abused and battered Cronulla locals who cried out for help but were ignored and ridiculed," the group stated.

"The upcoming tenth Cronulla Riots anniversary is a fitting time to bury multiculturalism," it stated.

In a statement to media, Sutherland Shire Mayor Carmelo Pesce said the group was trying to stir up more trouble.  "I will not tolerate any violence or racism in the shire," he said.

Although the rally was banned in court, an estimated 120 Party for Freedom supporters turned up on the day for a “halal free” barbeque.

Anti-racist activists, including members of the far-left extremist group Antifa, also gathered on the day in counter-protest. Individuals from both groups clashed violently with police, with two arrests made. A strong police presence saw police outnumber protestors. 

“One is obviously the criminals who commit atrocities and say they do so in the name of Islam. The other is western bigots, many of whom make lucrative careers out of whipping up anti-Muslim prejudice. They are two sides of the same coin. They both believe Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live in peace together and are doing everything they can to divide us. Both deserve contempt.”

– Susie Latham, Voices Against Bigotry.

Latham said although the riots were ten years ago, bigotry is still rife.

“The Cronulla riots took a lot of people by surprise. Tension exploded in a shocking way and the racism was widely denounced. Ten years on, bigotry directed towards Muslim Australians has crept up more slowly. Some politicians have encouraged this for political reasons and others have failed to condemn it. This has helped to create a “permanent Cronulla”; a situation where anti-Muslim social media comments, rallies and political parties seem normal, which I think is much more dangerous. Now Muslims get attacked away from the TV cameras,” she said.

Noticeably the discourse around the Cronulla riots has shifted focus away from ‘Arab’ or ‘Lebanese’ communities, to the Muslim community.

Latham, said that sophisticated organisation of anti Islam groups has allowed for such groups to spread their ideology and shift language.

“The Cronulla riots was very much a local phenomenon without an organised leadership. Today the groups and individuals organising against Muslims are much more sophisticated and connected both within Australia and globally. They distance themselves from overt racism because they know it is socially taboo,” she said.

Wafa Zaim from United Muslim Women’s Association said, the current anti Islam climate is changing the way people remember the Cronulla Riots.

“What’s taking place now is that people are relating it more with the Muslim community even though we know it wasn’t a Muslim community issues. We’re finding that the media is also playing a  role in shifting people’s ideas from what it is and some are taking advantage of that,” she said.

Professor of sociology at University of Technology Sydney, Andrew Jakubowicz says that far right groups are exploiting this change in language.

He told The Point Magazine, “The key issue is that the Federal Racial Discrimination Act allows action for damages in relation to ’race‘ but not religion. Whenever Reclaim Australia stands up it  says ’Islam is not a Race‘ and ‘we can say what we want.’” 

Susie Latham, a PhD candidate at Curtin University and co-founder of Voices against Bigotry, said that although the Cronulla riots happened ten years ago, the underlying issues of racism and bigotry that Cronulla exposed are still rife in Australia.

“The Cronulla riots took a lot of people by surprise. Tension exploded in a shocking way and the racism was widely denounced. Ten years on, bigotry directed towards Muslim Australians has crept up more slowly. Some politicians have encouraged this for political reasons and others have failed to condemn it. This has helped to create a “permanent Cronulla”, a situation where anti-Muslim social media comments, rallies and political parties seem normal, which I think is much more dangerous. Now Muslims get attacked away from the TV cameras,” she said.

During the Cronulla riots, it was people identified as 'Middle Eastern', ‘Arab’ or ‘Lebanese’ that were subjected to racist hate and abuse. Ten years on, the focus of hate seems to have shifted away from racist labels to religious ones: “Islam” and “Muslims” are the new targets.

Latham said that the rise of social media and more sophisticated forms of organisation have allowed anti-Islamic groups to spread their ideology and adapt their language to gain more influence.

“The Cronulla riots was very much a local phenomenon without an organised leadership. Today the groups and individuals organising against Muslims are much more sophisticated and connected both within Australia and globally. They distance themselves from overt racism because they know it is socially taboo,” she said.

She said that the global rise of ISIS-inspired extremism has given far-right extremist groups an excuse to re-focus their hate. The two forms of extremism are feeding off each others' rhetoric.

“One is obviously the criminals who commit atrocities and say they do so in the name of Islam. The other is western bigots, many of whom make lucrative careers out of whipping up anti-Muslim prejudice. They are two sides of the same coin. They both believe Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live in peace together and are doing everything they can to divide us. Both deserve contempt.”

Wafa Zaim of the United Muslim Women’s Association said the vocal rise of anti-Islamic rhetoric is changing the way people remember the Cronulla riots.

“What’s taking place now is that people are relating it more with the Muslim community even though we know it wasn’t a Muslim community issue. We’re finding that the media is also playing a  role in shifting people’s ideas from what it is and some are taking advantage of that,” she said. 

Andrew Jakubowicz, Professor of Sociology at University of Technology Sydney, said that far-right groups are exploiting this change in language. 

“The key issue is that the Federal Racial Discrimination Act allows action for damages in relation to ‘race’ but not religion. Whenever Reclaim Australia stands up it says ‘Islam is not a Race’ and ‘we can say what we want.’”, he told The Point Magazine.

Latham said she is optimistic that there will not be a repeat of the Cronulla riots.

“Even the most extreme organisers of anti-Muslim events like to portray themselves as respectable, everyday Australians. I think the real danger is that some of these anti-Muslim political parties will eventually attract enough support to start influencing policy, as has happened in the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Austria, France and Italy,” she said. 

She said multicultural communities have a pivotal role to play in curbing racism.

“They can make public statements that recognise the harmful effects of racism in Australia, from the dispossession of Indigenous Australians to vilification previously focused on the Greek, Italian, Asian and African communities. They can say they stand with the Muslim community, recognising that many anti-Muslim groups are also opposed to multiculturalism itself,” she said. 

The Point

Court action successfully thwarted plans by a far-right extremist group to hold a rally marking ten years since the Cronulla riots.

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