Fear of violence after nationalist Australian anti-Islam rallies

Opposing protest groups, from the "Reclaim Australia" anti-islam group and those calling for an end to racism are separated by a police line in Brisbane. (Reuters)

Australian officials urged vigilance on Monday following nationalistic and anti-Islam rallies, to ensure sentiment does not boil over into ugly race riots similar to those seen in 2005.

Hundreds of people attended Reclaim Australia rallies around the country over the weekend, with violent clashes erupting in Melbourne as police tried to separate anti-Islam and anti-racism demonstrators.

Anti-Discrimination Board of New South Wales president Stepan Kerkyasharian said divisions in the community were fuelling insecurity.

"You basically have the Muslim community which feels that they are under siege because of international events, because of global terrorism, and because you now have global terrorism which is misusing religion to pursue geopolitical agendas," he told AFP.

"On the other hand you've got the broader Australian community which also is feeling insecure because they feel that they are under siege as well because of what they hear in the news.

"They don't know whether someone who lives next door, or someone in the shopping center that they go to, might suddenly blow them up. So you basically have your whole community living in fear of the other."

Kerkyasharian said while 2005 riots at the southern Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla were "just straight out racism", the current situation was mainly caused by international events and global terrorism.

"The backdrop is different but it could manifest itself in violence and probably more serious violence than what we saw in Cronulla," he said.

Violence erupted in Cronulla in December 2005 when white mobs attacked Arab Australians in order to "reclaim the beach", resulting in more than 20 injuries and over a dozen arrests.

Reclaim Australia organizers denied they were racist and called the rallies "a public response to the shock of recent atrocities of 'Islam's radicals' both inside and outside of Australia".

But Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said Monday there was evidence of unsavory elements at the rallies, including neo-Nazi and racial supremacist groups.

"It is important for us to recognize that anti-Muslim protesters represent a fringe minority in our society and we overwhelmingly reject racism and religious bigotry," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"We need to be really vigilant at the moment about our community cohesion. What we need to avoid is for such groups to be emboldened and take matters to the next level."

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:48 - GMT 06:48