Australians wrestle with cultural differences

From time to time, Sydney businessman Ahmed Kilani heads to this two-mile stretch of surf and sand. Sometimes he encourages friends to come, other times he walks alone - as a Muslim, as an Australian, and as a silent statement that he belongs here, too.

It's one small effort to keep beaches as central gathering spaces for all Australians. But there are larger ones, too: On Saturday, three months after riots at Cronulla beach focused national attention on race relations, the federal government announced a program to boost minority presence in the respected ranks of life savers.

In a few short decades, this country has shifted from a "White Australia" policy to one that supports a growing diversity. But the debate on multiculturalism following the Cronulla riots reveals uncertainty over whether that should require more assimilation or allow freedom within the boundaries of fundamental principles.

"A lot of people ask for assimilation. Assimilation means that you forget about your heritage," says Thu Nguyen, a director in the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in Canberra.

Instead, she says, Australia seeks to give latitude to ethnic traditions as long as they don't conflict with certain basics. "All of us have to observe our democratic principles, the rule of law, equality of the sexes, English as the national language - the basic democratic values we have to put first. Within that framework, people are free to observe their own cultural practices."

But even members of her own government question this vision. Treasurer Peter Costello, who is positioning himself to challenge Prime Minister John Howard, recently criticized a "confused, mushy, misguided multiculturalism" and made reference to the Muslim community in particular.

A poll this month showed broad support for the comments. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of the respondents disagreed with Mr. Howard's assertion in the wake of the Cronulla riots that there was no underlying racism in Australia.

In many ways, the debate has moved far beyond the particulars of what happened on the beaches in and around Cronulla. Most agree that the violence was the handiwork of a few hooligans from both sides, building on fears spread in the media.

The early December attack on some off-duty lifesavers - allegedly by a handful of young men of Lebanese descent - crossed a line. Ethnic Anglo residents described years of frustration with antisocial behavior by some who frequented the beaches via the local train - including picking mismatched fights, playing ball in the middle of sunbathers, and aiming derogatory comments at women.

Scott Goold, a Cronulla native in his 20s, summed up the feeling: "They're volunteers, these people are just doing their job.... Now that it's happened to them, there's no way to say that we did anything to provoke it."

Mr. Goold, who was on the beach on Dec. 11, says a small protest gathering of local youths was soon overtaken by outsiders who had come to make trouble. In preceding days, the media - particularly talk-back radio - had hyped the attack and broadcast a text message going around calling in insulting terms on people to mark a day of bashing Middle Easterners.

The crowd swelled to 5,000 mostly white youths. A few of them then severely beat several ethnic Lebanese beachgoers. In retaliation, and in response to rumors, dozens of youths from Muslim areas in the southwestern suburbs drove in a convoy of cars down to nearby beaches and bashed in windows and attacked bystanders.

Lebanese have been immigrating to Australia for generations, with a big wave coming during the Lebanese civil war. They now number about 400,000, and in Sydney are concentrated around a diverse region in the southwestern suburbs. Employment among Lebanese-Australians lags behind the general population. And intermarriage is much lower than that of other immigrant groups, according to Bob Birrell of Monash University in Melbourne. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the region in Sydney where Lebanese immigrants are concentrated.]

"Australia doesn't have a tradition of ghettos, and that has been a very good thing," says Keysar Trad, a leader among Australia's ethnic Lebanese community. But some young people of Middle Eastern origin found themselves ostracized from games and other activities on the beaches, he says. "The fact that they were not being invited to play by the other groups became an issue.... Some of them go into antisocial behavior because they want respect."

Not all young Muslims feel this way or have lashed out, of course.

"I don't think I've been pressured by Australians to be another way. By living in Australia, I haven't stopped being a Muslim," says Serag Mohamed, a twentysomething who lives in the suburb of Panania. He listens to hip-hop, wears Nikes, follows the Sydney Kings basketball team, and attends Friday prayers at the Lakemba mosque. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Panania.]

But others mention a sense of not being considered "fully Australian" by Anglo peers. Fadi Rahman, a youth leader in Sydney, says this disconnect is felt by many young Muslims.

"I'm as much an Aussie as anyone can get," says Mr. Rahman, who was born in Australia and comes from an Lebanese background. "I eat meat pies like everybody - and with tomato sauce, I might add."

"[But] I don't feel that I'm allowed to still be attached to my parents' and grandparents' culture, and whatever I choose to take from it," he says.

Some young Muslims note that acceptance often does come over time - with interaction. This is the idea behind a number of outreach efforts to encourage socializing over sports, food, beach activities, or music, including a national Harmony Day, slated for March 21.

The surf lifesaving initiative, which is being rolled out in Sydney with a $440,000 grant, will offer training courses in the inner suburbs for kids who don't feel comfortable or welcome in the clubs. These clubs lie at the cultural center of many of Australia's 11,000 beaches. The goal is to raise minority representation in surf lifesaving above the 5-percent level.

By 2001, 43 percent of the Australian population was born overseas or had one parent born abroad. Some 16 percent of Australians don't speak English at home.

But coming together over cultural activities doesn't mean accepting identical values.

"We can integrate about 80 percent of the Australian values, but there are some things we can't because they are sort of unlawful - alcohol, scantily clad women. I can't go to the beach wearing a Speedo," says Mohamad El-Chami, a young Australian born in Lebanon.

While dress codes may become an issue for the surf life-saving initiative, the group does promote values that are Australian in the most inclusive sense. For instance, community service and volunteering are required of all participants. Healthy lifestyles are also encouraged.

Indeed, some argue that finding values that can be shared - rather than cold legal frameworks - could be the best way to build an inclusive Australian identity.

"Pluralist nations like Australia, with no shared ethnicity and no deep historical traditions, need a strong sense of national identity to bind the people together," write the authors of "Imagining Australia," a book published in 2004 by four young Australians. The authors suggest building that identity around a set of shared values including egalitarianism, mateship, and giving everyone a "fair go." They also argue for removing the British stamp from national symbols such as the flag.

This ambitious proposal goes far beyond the current multicultural drive, begun in the 1970s. The government has loosened non-European immigration and changed school curriculums to include indigenous history and Asian languages. Affirmative action is not required, but the government promotes diverse workforces.

Multiculturalism has raised some hackles in the Anglo suburban heartland as a politically correct imposition by urban elites. The suburbs have absorbed most of the new immigrants, largely peacefully.

In the wake of the riots, Cronulla beach has lost some of its former diversity, despite visits by people like Mr. Kilani.

"You need to get [young Muslims] to feel they belong, and get the wider society to embrace them and to stop painting a whole community with a broad brush," says Kilani, who volunteers with Muslim youths.

Goold, the Cronulla native, has joined a small group working to put together a gathering on May 3 that will involve food, music, and personal reflections. He says it's a good if partial step. "People have to isolate the bad guys from the rest, and the police have to deal with the bad guys," he says. "The rest have to get together and integrate more."

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