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Last Updated: Friday, 2 February 2007, 13:46 GMT
Surf's up for Australian Muslims
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Surf life saving group in Sydney
The group is set to become Australia's first Muslim surf life savers
On a beach in south Sydney, a group of young Australian Muslims is about to take a highly symbolic cultural leap.

For the past 10 weeks, they have learned how to rescue stranded swimmers from the foaming surf, discovered more about the undertows and rip currents which can make even the most inviting sea so very perilous, and taken part in gruelling fitness tests.

Now they are about to receive that most coveted of Australian prizes - their bronze, surf life saving medallions.

Tens of thousands of surf life saving volunteers have made this rite of passage.

But this group is unique. These 18 young people, of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Libyan backgrounds, are about to become the first Muslim Australians to receive this prized qualification.

More remarkable still, they have learned and honed their skills on the country's most controversial stretch of sand - Cronulla beach, the site of grotesque race riots in December 2005.

We are sick and tired of being demonised... We want to work towards the safety of Australia
Dr Jamal Rifi

Then, brandishing Australian flags and hollering chants of Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, thousands of white protesters descended on Cronulla vowing to make it a "Leb-free zone", using a derogatory term for people of Lebanese or Middle Eastern appearance.

The protest was in retaliation for an attack the previous weekend on a pair of white surf life savers, allegedly carried out by youths of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean appearance.

In the minds of many protesters, the youths had attacked an almost sacred Australian icon - the Surf Life Saving clubs, a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon, working class traditions and values.

Almost inevitably, the Cronulla protest turned violent, when the mob started to target anyone they suspected of coming from the Middle East. The riots shocked and shamed the nation.

First step

Dr Jamal Rifi
Dr Rifi says Cronulla brought about the change

But far from making Cronulla a "Leb-free zone," the riots have had quite the opposite effect, producing what 12 months ago would have been considered an unthinkable ethnic and religious first.

"We always had great respect for the surf lifers associations and they're a great Australian icon," explained Dr Jamal Rifi, a general practitioner from Lakemba in Sydney, who has helped train this inaugural group.

"Unfortunately, we had always assumed it is for the white, blue-eyed, blond-haired Australians, and we were very hesitant to take that step forward to be part of the movement. Unfortunately it took the events at Cronulla to get us to take that step forward," he said.

A grant from the Australian government, to the tune of A$600,000 (242,000), also helped.

So, too, did a local clothing designer, who designed a full-body Lycra swimsuit which let female life savers perform their duties while at the same time adhering to Islamic dress codes. With its own hijab, or head scarf, attached, the outfit has been dubbed the burqini.

Student Mecca Laalaa, 20, who had never imagined becoming a surf life saver, wears it with great pride.

Mecca Laalaa
The idea has helped Mecca Laalaa's community

"My life and probably the life savers didn't really mix, so joining never occurred," she said.

"But I'm really glad that I've been offered this opportunity because it has really helped me and it's helped my community. It's upsetting that not a lot of other cultures are part of the life savers but it's good now that we are," she said.

Change all round

Surf Life Saving Australia has more than 300 clubs, but just 5% of its membership comes from children with non-English speaking parents or those who have come from overseas, even though 28% of Australians were born overseas.

Lee Howell, the organisation's national diversity manager, is working hard to change that, and the Cronulla riots have definitely accelerated the process.

"Surf life saving acknowledged itself that we were very Anglo-Saxon, and very traditional and almost exclusive," he said. "The population is now pretty broad and we want to make surf life saving the same."

So the presence of Mecca and her friends at Cronulla could change perceptions on all sides.

The Surf Life Saving Clubs have long been regarded as all-white citadels. And in post 9/11 Australia, Muslims have sometimes been viewed with suspicion and have had their patriotism questioned.

"We are as Australian as them," Dr Jamal Rifi said.

"We are sick and tired of being demonised and marginalised and at the same time being perceived to be a threat to Australia. We want to work towards the safety of Australia," he said.

Life savers on Cronulla beach

Sydney police get riot powers
15 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Long-term tensions behind Sydney riots
13 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Racial violence erupts in Sydney
11 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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