The unsung heroes of the Cronulla Riots
This month marked ten years since the Cronulla riots, an event remembered as a day of shame in recent Australian history. 12 December 2005 was the day that the frustrated fantasy of a far-right “white Australia” exploded in a drunk and violent display of racist rage.
Less well remembered are the reprisal attacks, the convoys of angry young men bent on revenge, indiscriminately smashing cars and property and escalating the whole event to a fully fledged race riot. In this exclusive retrospective, The Point Magazine looks back beyond the headlines to discover some of the unsung heroes of Cronulla – the “Middle Eastern” mums who kept the peace on the home front.
As if we needed reminding, media outlets marked the ten years since Cronulla by republishing images of a heavily intoxicated and violent mob, draped in Australian flags and soaked in beer, assaulting anyone unlucky enough to be in the area who might be branded “of Middle-Eastern appearance”. Countless opinion pieces and academic studies hold up the infamous beachside riots as a warning sign, pointing to a dangerous undercurrent of “white Australian” racism in our society. Most analyses treat the reprisal attacks by gangs of Lebanese Australian youth as an afterthought.
After the first day of rioting at the beach, text messages started circulating among young Lebanese Australians from Sydney's south western suburbs. It was a call to arms to descend on Cronulla in a show of vigilante force. Hundreds heeded the call, further inflaming tensions and leading to more violence.
But the situation could have been worse. While police struggled against the odds to keep the peace, it was the mums from Arabic speaking families who held the line on the homefront, keeping their sons from joining the senseless violence.
Silma Ihram, of the Australian Muslim Women's Association, recalls how the mothers in her community took action.
“We were calling on families and especially mums, not to give the keys of their cars to their sons, and to confiscate their phones so they could not see the viral text messages calling for retribution. This was taken up by the community and it worked, along with the calls from the imams for calm and from other community leaders.”
“We were calling on families and especially mums, not to give the keys of their cars to their sons, and to confiscate their phones so they could not see the viral text messages calling for retribution. This was taken up by the community and it worked, along with the calls from the Imams for calm and from other community leaders.”
– Silma Ihram, Australian Muslim Women's Association
Maha Abdo and Wafa Zaim, of the United Muslim Women’s Association, remember it as a very busy time for their organisation.
“We realised we needed to open our doors and our phone lines 24/7 during that time. We had mothers calling our organisation and expressing their anger and asking us for advice. We gave them different options to choose from and gave them access to resources which were available at that time, there was for example a hotline,” Zaim said.
“We were both heavily involved in keeping mothers strong and in control making sure their sons and daughters were physically away from harm during those difficult traumatic times of Cronulla incident,” Abdo said.
Zaim said mothers play a key role in conflict situations, and in the case of Cronulla they felt a great responsibility to act.
“It is very important to focus and emphasise on the role of the mother, she’s the heart of the family, she is the one keeping everyone together and maintains the calmness within the family. We as a community and as organisations acknowledged that role and used it to protect our youth and try and diffuse the situation.”
Zaim said families should always be at the frontline when dealing with youth issues.
“Without these family foundations we cannot establish foundations in our community and across communities. Families play a crucial role in building and strengthening our community cohesion, we should be investing more resources into them, listening to their experiences and learn,” she said.
Those who witnessed the damaging effects of the riots agree that families, communities and relevant government bodies all have a role to pay to ensure that there isn’t a repeat of Cronulla ever again.
The Point Magazine looks back beyond the headlines to discover some of the unsung heroes of Cronulla – the “Middle Eastern” mums who kept the peace on the homefront.