First Published: 2007-02-04

 
Australia's first Muslim lifesavers ride Cronulla waves
 

17 qualified Muslim life-savers to patrol beach in move that indirectly addresses issues of integration, racism.

 

Middle East Online

By Madeleine Coorey - SYDNEY

Mecca Laa Laa; ready for all types of waves

Australia's first Muslim lifesavers hit Sydney's Cronulla beach on Sunday, symbolising the changes seen since the worst race riots in the country's modern history erupted here just over a year ago.

In December 2005, mobs of whites attacked Lebanese-Australians in a bid to "reclaim the beach", sparking a series of retaliatory attacks in which churches, shops and cars were trashed.

As a result, Australians of Middle Eastern appearance were left afraid to go to the southern Sydney beach.

Today, 17 Muslim life-savers are qualified to patrol the beach -- a group which Lee Howell of Surf Life-Saving Australia says is a powerful symbol of the changes that have occurred, and the area's need to move forward.

"I think that it kind of shows that a lot of people regret what happened on the beaches of Cronulla," he said.

"But I also think it was not a true indication of racial integration... I think racial integration is going quite strong. I think as a whole, the broader Australian community is quite integrated and quite multicultural."

Howell said as Surf Life-Saving Australia celebrates its centenary in 2007, it was important to remember that "the beach is there for all to share".

The riots, which forced police to lock down several Sydney beaches, was triggered by anger over an attack on two Cronulla lifeguards allegedly carried out by a group of men of ethnic Lebanese origin.

Violence erupted when thousands of whites thronged to the area to protest the attack and "reclaim the beach."

A government investigation into the violence released last year found that a combination of racism on the part of some local residents and the criminality of some Middle Eastern youths were to blame for the mayhem.

Newly trained Muslim lifeguard Mecca Laa Laa, who will wear a full body covering known as the 'burkini' when patrolling the waves, said she felt as entitled as any other Australian to enjoy the country's iconic beaches.

The 'burkini', a two-piece swimsuit incorporating a head covering, a loose-fitting chemise and leggings, was designed in Australia to allow women and girls who wear traditional Islamic dress to go swimming.

"What I wear doesn't make me any different," Laa Laa said.

Another Muslim lifeguard, 18-year-old Malaak Mourab whose parents immigrated from Lebanon, said going to the beach was just part of growing up in Australia.

"I've always been at the beach. I love the beach," she said.

Life-saving trainer Tony Coffey said the group had spent four months preparing for their graduation and had had the most difficulty negotiating the waves and rips which claim lives each year in Australia.

"They had to reach a standard and we basically just kept training them until they reached the standard," he said.

As thousands of Australians flocked to Cronulla and the adjoining beaches on a sparkling Sunday, there was little reminder of the racial unrest of 14 months ago.

While several women sported bikinis featuring the Australia flag and kids bought ice drinks in the Australian sporting colours of green and gold, other women in Muslim headscarves watched their children in the water.

Nineteen-year-old lifeguard Melissa Miles, who was patrolling the beach Sunday, said the rioting was largely fuelled by uninhibited drinking on the alcohol-free beach and had cast an unfair light on the sandy strip.

"There were bad things that happened, but it wasn't as bad as it seemed," she said. "People got scared to come down to Cronulla, and that's just ridiculous."

 

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