SBS Radio News
The SBS MP3 Player requires the Adobe Flash 8 Plugin. You can get Flash from here...
Radio News Bulletin
Sydney simmers with Syria tension: transcript
Sectarian and political divisions between the two main Islamic sects -- Shi'a and Sunni -- are rippling through parts of southwest Sydney, reports Patrick Abboud.
The Bankstown area has one of the largest Muslim and culturally diverse populations in Australia.
Much the same as in Syria, the majority here are Sunni with only around 5 per cent of the community identifying as Shi'a or Alawi.
There are other suburbs in Sydney which are dominated by the Shi'a and Alawi sects.
JOHN: For me as a resident walking through the area I feel I’ve been threatened and intimidated by them.
PA: John (not his real name) agreed to be interviewed on the condition I don’t show his face and his voice is altered.
He wants to point out the areas in his community he no longer feels safe.
John asked me to meet him after 10pm when the streets are empty and his car is not easily recognisable.
JOHN: Anti- Assad, Anti- Syrian, Anti Alawi - they think they’re it and that’s what actually frightens me.
PA: We’re driving down the main street of Greenacre - a suburb in sydney’s south west where John’s lived for the last 10 years.
Like Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, John is an Alawi Muslim.
He’s anxious about me filming, fearing repercussions for his family in Syria if he speaks out.
But he’s desperate to reveal the simmering tensions in his community.
JOHN: Since the uprising this area has actually changed. We found a lot of extremists and fanatical people coming in.
PA: When you say extremists are you referring to Sunni or Alawi or Shi'a ?
JOHN: Extreme Sunni
PA: What is it exactly that makes you feel threatened?
JOHN: If they find out that you’re an Alawi - they will actually attack. They will say something.
PA: Have you seen that happen ?
JOHN: Yes, several times.
PA: So you’re saying that you’ve literally walked down your local shopping strip and you’ve seen Sunnis attack Alawites
JOHN: All the time.
PA: Both Sunni and Shi'a locals tell me they're being attacked.
Several incidents in the area have allegedly been linked to disputes sparked by the Syrian conflict.
The NSW Police are monitoring the situation closely.
NICK KALDAS: There are certainly some apprehensions and tensions within the communities – we view it very seriously.
We are watching what is happening both overseas and locally and we will act in a way that whatever we need to do to diffuse any tensions that exist in the communities at the moment.
Both our minister Mike Gallacher - the Minister for Police and the Minister for Multiculturalism - Victor Dominello - have both taken a very strong interest in this whole issue so I would expect the political end of town if you like as they already are to not only show leadership but to play a part in helping bringing these communities together and resolving the tensions that exist.
PA: As the conflict worsens in Syria, it gets worse here too, says John. We drive through the streets near his home for almost an hour.
He claims there’s been Syria-related violence in the area and surrounding suburbs over the past 2 weeks.
John also shows me several Facebook pages containing lists of Sunni businesses in the area that are being boycotted.
He has joined the boycott and says the lists are being updated daily.
JOHN: We’re just coming up now to my local grocer which is on my left. I used to shop there all the time - I stopped buying from there. Since the Syrian uprising I found them to be too Sunni - extremist - so I’ve decided to boycott.
PA: NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas confirms there are boycott campaigns circulating online.
NICK KALDAS: I’m aware of some people making noises, particularly on the internet in relation to boycotting business and I’m very encouraged and heartened by the fact that leading members of the Sunni community are the ones who are leading the charge against postings on the internet/ facebook and so on that are calling for boycotts of Shi'a businesses.
PA: John is among the minority here with only around 5% of the community identifying as Shi'a or Alawi Muslim.
The majority are Sunni - much the same as in Syria.
Greenacre here in Bankstown has one of the largest populations of Muslim and culturally diverse communities in Australia.
IBBY: Look at the society and the community no one gets along anymore - it’s happening in Syria but it’s affecting us here because Shi'a are not getting along with Sunni, Sunni are not getting on with Alawi - Alawi are not getting on with anyone - that’s how it is - it’s affecting everyone.
PA: It’s the day after I drove around with John.
I’ve spent most of the morning speaking with shopkeepers and residents.
None of them let me film any of our conversations. 21 year old Lebanese-Australian Sunni - ‘Ibby’ - allows me to record only his voice as we walk and talk.
IBBY: I won’t go to a Shi'a shop and buy stuff from them - I’m boycotting them that way - they won’t come to us. Do you get me?
That’s how it’s affecting us - if you sit here all day you won’t see not one Shi'a walk through Greenacre. That’s the go - that’s how it is.
PA: Ibby is angry at what he refers to as ‘his people’ dying in Syria.
He has friends from many different Islamic sects, and he says they are divided like never before.
But regardless of religious beliefs, it seems almost everyone here is reluctant to talk.
ASMA FAHMI: I feel like I am taking a risk speaking to you because everything is monitored in Syria.
There’s no freedom of speech, there’s no freedom of expression.
There’s no religious freedom either.
PA: Asma Fahmi is a Syrian community worker.
She identifies as Sunni and lives just 2 streets away from John.
Asma invites me into a family member’s home where it feels safer to speak.
ASMA FAHMI: For many decades Syrian people were not able to speak out against the Govt and if they did they would be kidnapped and tortured and there’s many accounts of that so this is quite new for alot of people and you find alot of people will not speak about this.
The majority of the Syrian community are still refusing to speak - it still affects them even in Australia because they feel that there are people in Sydney who are still monitoring them and so you hear constantly most people refuse to speak out because they’re worried about what would happen to their family and loved ones back home.
PA: Asma explains that the recent death of local Sunni Sheikh Mustapha Al Majzoub – who was also a friend of her family – coincided with a surge in tension in the community.
ASMA FAHMI: We’ve been labelled everything under the sun.
They’ve called us terrorists, they’ve called us Wahabis. People have taken it too far - there’s been death threats for instance.
We had a visitor knock on our door and ask us where our loyalties lie - whether we were pro Govt or anti-Govt and my relative who answered the door was scared and just said - no we’re with the Govt - and so they sort of said that’s good and then they gave us a pro-Govt propoganda DVD.
Things like that are occurring and it is scary.
PA: The 30-year-old Sheikh was reportedly known to counter-terrorism authorities for holding extremist views but Asma and other community leaders say that’s far from the truth.
ASMA FAHMI: The impact it’s had on south west Sydney in particular has been very deep and the wounds are quite fresh.
People really loved and respected him and so when people are claiming that he was there for the wrong reasons it’s really ruffled a lot of feathers so tensions have become inflamed as a result of that.
PA: The impact of the Syrian uprising on these communities is complicated - leaving locals confused about their allegiances.
For Asma it is not simply a war between the sects. She says it can also come down to being pro or anti dictatorship.
ASMA FAHMI: It’s a generalisation to say that one particular sect supports the government because the Syrian Govt are a part of that sect.
I have Shi'a friends for instance who are against what the Syrian Govt is currently doing to its people.
I’m well aware of Alawis who are also against what’s happening and Druze who are also against what's happening.
This is being reported where they've seen a divide between the older generation and the younger generation who are questioning what the Govt are doing.
PA: Kuranda Seyit is the Executive Director of the forum for Islamic Relations in Australia, an organisation that works across the Islamic community.
KURANDA SEYIT: Well it’s definitely serious and its simmering and the tension is there and if we probably don’t address this it could get to a point where it might spill over into our communities here with violent repercussions – that could happen - and there’s been some incidents like that - it could worse – that’s what I feel .
I know that the people that I meet from Bankstown - this is a really big issue for them and it’s divided the community – there’a a lot of people who are going to rallies for and against the regime – generally speaking yes I would say it’s quite intense.
PA: Despite the tension, there are those working to unite rather than divide.
Mustapha and his friends are a mix of Sunni, Shi'a and Alawi.
They are spreading this simple but very powerful message.
MUSTAPHA: I’m anti-violence.
MARIAM: Our discussions are basically not sectarian they are basically humanitarian and we agree that the tragedies that are happening overseas are obviously affecting here and we should be doing something about it - we shouldn't let sectarian divides - divide us - we should be joining together as one and helping the people overseas.
MUSTAPHA: We will try and promote unity by ignoring these people and ignoring these campaigns and sticking to the unity that we've been living in the whole time this community has been here in Sydney.