Muslim leaders in Australia called for a peaceful resolution to a siege in central Sydney as the gunman’s suspected links to militant Islam threaten to spur racial tensions in the nation.
The Grand Mufti said he and the Muslim community condemned “this criminal act unequivocally” as armed police surrounded the Lindt cafe in Martin Place and negotiators sought to end the hostage-taking. While police say they haven’t determined the motives of the gunman, television footage showed a black flag with white Arabic lettering pressed against the window of the cafe.
Muslim leaders have appealed for calm since authorities raised the terrorism alert in Australia in September to the highest level in a decade, citing the threat posed by supporters of Islamic State. In recent months, a mosque has been defaced in Queensland’s Gold Coast and pamphlets were distributed in the state’s northern tourist city of Cairns urging the boycott of halal products.
As crowds gathered behind police tape near Martin Place today, a Caucasian male shouted anti-Muslim racist abuse in the direction of the cafe before he was ushered away by officers.
In a special afternoon edition, the tabloid Daily Telegraph, Sydney’s biggest-selling newspaper, ran the headline “Death Cult CBD Attack” on its front page and said the Islamic State was behind the incident.
Anti-Muslim sentiment sometimes bubbles to the surface in Australia and reached a flashpoint in December 2005 at the Sydney seaside community of Cronulla, where the assault of a group of surf lifesavers by young men of Middle Eastern appearance led to retaliatory attacks.
Waves of Middle Eastern migrants have seen Australia’s Muslim population surge 69 percent in a decade, with security experts warning that disaffected young men facing fewer job prospects on the fringes of major cities are susceptible to Islamic State propaganda.
The number of Australians identifying themselves as Muslim rose from 281,600 in 2001 to 476,300 by 2011 -- about 2.2 percent of the population. Some Muslim families cluster on the outskirts of cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in traditionally working-class strongholds where manufacturing jobs are disappearing.
“The problem is we’ve ended up with a lot of frustrated people in Australia,” said Clive Williams, a former Australian military intelligence officer and now a visiting professor at the Australian National University’s College of Law. “Most of the people involved with Islamic State in Australia don’t want to conduct violence in Australia. They want to go to the Middle East to do it.”
More than one in 10 of Australia’s 23 million people has racist tendencies, according to a University of Western Sydney report released last year. The nation operated a discriminatory White Australia Policy on immigration from federation in 1901 that was only fully dismantled in 1973.
Australia has raised its terrorism alert to the second-highest level as it supports U.S. President Barack Obama’s coalition against Islamic State, deploying 400 air force personnel and 200 special forces soldiers to a U.S. base in the United Arab Emirates.
An 18-year-old man was shot and killed Sept. 23 after wounding two counter-terrorism officers with a knife. He stabbed the officers in an unprovoked attack outside a police station, where he was due to be interviewed by police after waving an Islamic State flag inside a shopping center.
Williams said a flag with Arabic writing shown in the Sydney cafe window today was probably a ‘Shahada’ -- not an Islamic State flag, though it is sometimes used by some of the group’s followers.
‘Messenger of God’
The Shahada flag declares ‘There is no god but the God, Muhammad is the messenger of the God,’’’ he said. “The black flag with the Islamic writing on it, and the fact that it seems to be one person in a low-tech, high-impact operation is consistent with what Islamic State has been urging its supporters to do.”
There has never been a major Islamic terrorist attack on Australian soil, although 88 Australians were killed in the 2002 bombings of bars on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali.
Poorer job prospects may be exacerbated by prejudice. Muslim workers in Australia were viewed as “other” by employers, fellow workers or customers, resulting in discrimination, according to a University of Newcastle report released in 2011.
Muslims in Australia were more than twice as likely to be out of work, the report said, citing 2006 unemployment data. The western Sydney suburb of Lakemba, which had a Muslim population of 42 percent, had a jobless rate of 12 percent, it said.
The Grand Mufti said he and the Muslim community have been “devastated” by the “reported hostage incident unfolding in Martin Place in Sydney,” according to the statement. Along with the wider Australian community, we “await the results of the investigation about the identity of the perpetrators and their underlying motivations behind this criminal act.”