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In December 2005 I was discussing inter-group issues with a Palestinian sociologist at Haifa University; reflecting on the breaking news from Cronulla, he suggested I might like to stay in Israel for a while. News of the conflict travelled far and fast.
Who has learned what from those violent days in that hot summer? The build up at Cronulla was set against a year of growing tension, with news reports of gang rapes, beach-front violence, and increasing racially-charged stirring by shock-jock Alan Jones.
Despite the denials of PM Howard, Cronulla was a quintessential modern Australian mess.
The key participants in those events and their aftermath are drawn from every part of Australian society – the coastal communities with their own histories of sexism and violence, the western suburban communities of the children of the refugees of a generation before, the conservative heartland of the Liberals, and the knock about branch stacking of the Labor Right. Despite the denials of PM Howard, Cronulla was a quintessential modern Australian mess.
When Strike Force Neil later reported to the NSW Cabinet on the debacle of the day and the retaliation raids in the aftermath, it revealed a police and government uncaring and unprepared, with no intelligence of what was happening in the communities, and no capacity to foresee and thus be forearmed or even forewarned, and no public presence in the ongoing debate.
The police learned a lot from Cronulla: they became militarised, they modernised with riot squads, body armour and anti-personnel ordinance. Their command and control structures were reinvigorated with a much greater planning and response capacity. Most importantly but not sufficiently, they realised that community relations and engagement would be crucial. While a battle raged in the upper echelons of the NSW Police over corruption and competence, the first steps were made, albeit on tottering ankles, to lay down long term positive relations with some of the communities. Ironically the relations are today better with the Muslim communities, from which most intelligence now comes, than their non-Muslim antagonists, whose rallies on Cronulla Day will do most to stoke community apprehension and anger.
So one lesson from Cronulla that has bitten for both absolutists and white racists, has been that hate speech works for them and their causes.
The political class has learned very little. They appear not to realise that the absolutist wing of the Islamic groups need their Islamophobia to gain purchase on the apprehensions of the wider Muslim communities. Whenever a Federal minister slings off at a Muslim leader, often in an ill-considered and demeaning way, he or she adds to the evidence that absolutists use to intimidate their own communities into subservience to the Jihadist fantasy of a Caliphate.
Whenever a ministerial slam is made on a Muslim leader, the racist Right draws courage from the affirmation they see for their claims to the irremediable deviance of all Muslims. So one lesson from Cronulla that has bitten for both absolutists and white racists, has been that hate speech works for them and their causes. Reclaim Australia and the Jihadists desperately and achingly need each other; no one else does.
The Muslim communities have learned that they face two enemies. Inside Islam, they are continually harassed by extremists, who want all Muslims to turn their backs on the values of democratic Australia and to bow unthinkingly before the ideologues of Islamism. Outside Islam they confront a spreading stain of invective and hatred from non-Muslim society, occasioned by the violence of small minorities, which preach the religion of despair. This has become an excruciatingly painful impasse in which to be trapped.
Ten years after Cronulla frightened and angry non-Muslims will rally at Cronulla to “celebrate” what was in truth then not even a Phyrric victory. They will be protected and deterred by a heavy police presence, now steered by people who have studied the mistakes of the past, and the somewhat limited successes (such as the prevention of the attack on the US Consulate through Hyde Park in 2012).
Cronulla has taught us that sustained engagement, active and respectful listening, and creative involvement…remains crucial to building the trust that necessarily underpins the social capital of a cohesive society.
State politicians in NSW will be better guided by a major strategy of community engagement and social cohesion, and few if any will be allowed by their leaders and advisers to erupt into the demagoguery and rhetoric of 2005. Federal Liberal politicians, with no such strategy and an emotional imperative that seems to demand they call out to the most fearful and least rational parts of the community, will probably do so again as they have done in recent days.
Australians have moved a few steps beyond the aged supporters of 18th century France’s Ancien Regime, which had learned or forgotten nothing. Cronulla has taught us that sustained engagement, active and respectful listening, and creative involvement, enabling people to put down a stake and a place in the complex web of reciprocal social relations, remains crucial to building the trust that necessarily underpins the social capital of a cohesive society. Unfortunately those who do not want to see that trust realised are all too eager to find every opportunity to let the conflict rip.