Syria’s Civil War Spills Over in Sydney
By Debra Jopson - October 30, 2012
Syria’s civil war is playing out in Australia’s suburbs along sectarian lines — with some living in Sydney’s west too scared to speak, after beatings, a shooting and an alleged arson.
In early September Abu Ali began to seriously consider closing up his barber shop in the Sydney suburb of Auburn and moving his family to safety in the Shiite Muslim enclave of Arncliffe. That was when two heavyset men with the shaven heads, long beards and short dishdashas favoured by adherents of the strict Orthodox Wahhabi sect came into his shop and ordered him to take down campaign posters for a candidate in the Auburn council elections.
“He said, better for you to take down this photo. I said, no. He said if you [do] not take it down, I’ll give you some trouble,” says Abu Ali, who believes the men were Islamists.
“I am scared of these people. Their version of Islam is very violent. They can attack people,” he says. As a father, he is haunted by internet photos of slain Syrian children, and he fears the same atrocities could be visited on his own.
This was not the first threat. About 18 months before, as the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime began, a muscular bearded man drew up in a car near Abu Ali’s shop, saying Shiites were rubbish, hurling other abuse and threatening to kick him out of his business.
This man also spoke and dressed like a Wahhabi, Abu Ali says. Shiites, or Shia, belong to a branch of Islam which diverged from the Sunni tradition. Wahhabis, or Salafis, are Sunni Muslims. Sunnis are in the majority in Syria, where resistance to the longtime leader Bashar al-Assad has turned into a bloody civil war.
Abu Ali chased the man away, throwing jars of barber’s gel at his car. But eight months ago, more men appeared in his shop on a busy Sunday and shouted at customers who were lining up for haircuts to get out.
“They said, ‘This is [an] infidel Shia. Why are you coming to have business with him?’ And [they] forced people to go out. So the customers got scared and ran away... Many customers did not return,” Abu Ali says.
Under the weight of such threats, some Shiite families have already fled the Auburn area and several more are thinking of following them, according to Abu Ali, whose shop walls now bristle with CCTV cameras. Police are investigating the threats. Abu Ali is wondering how he can rebuild his barber’s business in Arncliffe and how his wife and children would cope moving away from family, friends and school.
But the fear is not confined to Auburn.
The Global Mail has spoken to several members of Sydney’s Shiite community and of another sect within Shi’ism, the Alawites, who have experienced threats and violence. Across the city, an Alawite man has been shot, a Shiite businessman’s shop was destroyed by fire, there have been several instances of extortion using violence, and one man says he slept with his knife for a week following death threats.
Those who spoke to us fear that they are victims of a sectarian campaign, one made all the more frightening because it includes Facebook hate pages glorifying Osama bin Laden and other violent jihadist figures.
After physical intimidation, one building contractor who wants to be known only as “HN” says he avoids certain suburbs, claiming they are becoming “no-go” zones for Shiites.
“In some areas of Sydney you can’t say you are Shia — Greenacre, Lakemba and Punchbowl. There are Sunni there from Lebanon and Syria. Some of them are really dangerous,” says HN.
At heart is the Syrian war, which at its simplest, has Sunni as the main opponents of the Assad regime and Shiites and Alawites as its principal supporters.
Sydney is not the only Australian city where violence has erupted. At least one Melbourne Alawite centre has been fire-bombed and Canberra police are still investigating the February trashing of the Syrian Embassy by demonstrators from interstate.
Jamal Daoud, the council candidate in the poster which the hard men wanted gone from Abu Ali’s shop, believes passionately that violent intimidation on sectarian lines flows from the war in Syria.
“In the last one year, there was big tension in the community. It is an impact of what is happening in the Middle East, especially what is happening in Syria and the perception of some people that this is a global jihad against certain sects and certain ideologies,” says Daoud.
The leafy Auburn avenue where Daoud lives with his family and a chirruping budgie is about 14,000 kilometres from Syria.
But in August he says he slept for a week with his knife, because he had received death threats by text and phone from Sunni fundamentalists who did not want him elected to council.
“There is a dangerous mix here. Religion, politics. Sectarian. It is very dangerous,” he says.
Although he is a Sunni, because of his opposition to removing the Syrian regime by force, extremists have lumped him in with the Shiites they despise, he says.
He replayed the tape of a hate call he recorded on August 29 from a man who spoke in English and Arabic with a Lebanese accent. The man assumed Daoud, a Palestinian from Jordan, was an Iraqi Shiite.
“You fuckin Shia dog. I’m gonna fuck you...send you back to Iraq, you fuckin dogs, you fuckin scumbags,’’ the message said.
Australian authorities acknowledge the tensions. ASIO says in its recently-tabled annual report: “…The situation in Syria, with the potential for violence spilling into other parts of the Middle East, increases the possibility of associated communal violence in Australia and remains a concern for ASIO. There are a small number of people actively promoting hatred and inter-communal violence in Australia.”
Tony Sheehan, the Attorney-General’s Department official responsible for national security and criminal justice, recently warned of the volatility in the air after September demonstrations by Muslims in Sydney’s CBD turned nasty.
“Protests such as the one in Sydney have the potential to intensify existing tensions, particularly when combined with the localised violence in Sydney and Melbourne resulting from issues such as the conflict in Syria,” he said.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas told The Global Mail: “We are certainly aware that there are tensions within the community out of what’s happening in Syria. We accept that that is the case.”
He sees evidence of that in a number of Sydney incidents, but says there are a handful of perpetrators in an Australian Muslim population of half a million. It is not all about politics, he says.
“Some people who have a criminal background and have been involved in criminal activity in the past appear to be simply using the events in the Middle East as an excuse to cover up their continuing criminal activities in Sydney, such as extortion and so on,” he says.
While their cause may not be clear, a string of incidents has kept those who feel vulnerable in the Shiite and Alawite communities on edge.
Shooting: Ali Ibrahim was shot in the leg outside his home in the Sydney suburb of Punchbowl in February. After speaking to Ibrahim’s family, Daoud told reporters that the shooting followed a Facebook debate over the Syrian conflict.
A man has been arrested, charged and appeared in court in relation to the shooting and further charges are now being considered, according to Kaldas, who cannot say if there is a political or sectarian element to this.
“It’s difficult to say definitively what his motives were, because he’s not telling us a great deal ...I guess we’ll have to wait and see with that one how it plays out in court,” he says.
Shop fire: Rockdale councillor Michael Nagi was quoted in a local newspaper in July saying that a suspicious fire which destroyed his Bankstown chicken shop was lit “because I am a Shiite Muslim”.
Nagi is not prepared to speak about it now. Kaldas says there is still “very much an active investigation” into the fire. Police are not sure who did it, he says.
Extortion: The proprietor of a Sydney juice shop named in a Facebook hate page, “Boycott Tyranny”, which urged its fans to shun Shiite-run enterprises, was assaulted and forced to quit his business. It is understood police are still investigating.
Firebombing: Victoria Police say they are still investigating a petrol bomb attack on the Alevi Community Council of Australia, a Turkish Alawite centre in North Coburg. No-one has been charged.
Fear of reprisals
The conflict in Syria, where some preachers are advocating ethnic cleansing, is a constant conversation topic among locals with Middle East backgrounds, says Joe Wakim, a founder of the Australian Arabic Council.
“They are generally scared of what is happening there and what could happen here,” he says.
Where once the Sunnis were the underdogs in Syria, spied on by secret police, “it’s all twisted now because you have a situation where the people who are pro the government are the ones now spied on... There is now a vindictive thing going on,” Wakim says.
Australian Shiites and Alawites are being told “if you don’t keep your mouth shut, we’ll get your relatives overseas”, he claims.
In the digital age, where images can cross the globe in a flash, there is an additional cause for fear. Agitators are taking photographs at both pro- and anti-Syrian regime demonstrations in Melbourne, Sydney and overseas which can be used to target protesters or their families, Wakim says.
“I knew people who wanted to go to demonstrations but didn’t go because they were worried that their relatives could be beheaded,” he said.
Three Sydney men who initially agreed to speak about the intimidation they had experienced withdrew.
In one case, a man’s wife screamed in distress when he ushered this reporter into the family living room in western Sydney. He apologised and said she was too afraid for him to tell his story.
Two more men confirmed that they had been attacked, but declined to speak for fear of retribution.
A community leader who, with the encouragement of his religious mentors after he was attacked, planned to speak to The Global Mail about Sydney Shi’ites’ fears, pulled out at the last minute.
“In view of the assassination in Beirut [when a car bomb killed Sunni leader, Lebanese intelligence chief, and Assad opponent Wissam al-Hassan] and the situation in Syria getting worse, my family not feeling safe of myself doing this interview, just in case they [his attackers] work it out. It will be putting my family in danger,” he texted.
A Sunni man who supports the revolution to overthrow the Assad regime said he could not afford to use his real name because his Syrian relatives could suffer the consequences.
Supporters and opponents of the uprising have taken to social media to push their cause with gusto, posting pictures of fallen martyrs, dead and injured children, and militiamen in battle. Then there are the hate pages.
In mid-October, it was still possible to find an Australian Facebook page headed by a photograph of Osama bin Laden, describing the late violent jihadist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi admiringly as “Lion of Jihad and Slayer of Shi’ites.”
The page is named “Bab Al Tabbaneh”, after a Sunni suburb of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, a regular scene of conflict with the Alawite neighbours in Jabal Mohsen.
It described its role thus: “Together hand in hand from Lebanon, Australia and around the world in solidarity and support of the Syrian Revolution and Palestinian Liberation, against the ruthless dictator Bashar Assad and the Terrorist State of Israel”.
The page listed Sunni religious leaders who, it claimed, signed a fatwa (a ruling on a point of Islamic law) declaring that Shiites were “outside the fold of Islam”. It named more than 20 Sydney businesses that it urged followers to boycott because they were Shiite or Alawite. This list attracted 5,843 “likes” and some lively hate posts.
One by Hala Haouchar said: “U know wat burns me the most is Hariri chicken!! I stopped eating there when i was told with his own mouth that he had coverted to shiism...i couldn’t finish my food...”
By October 17, the original Bab Al Tabbaneh site was taken down and replaced by another, “Bab al-Tabbaneh”, with the post: “We are backkkkkkkk.”
It directed people to another Facebook page,“Bilad Al Sham: The Revolution”, which had 2,664 “likes” by Tuesday morning.
A post by Khaled Ibn Al Walid which — still on the page at the end of October — praised bin Laden, declaring “may Allah be merciful with him”. Walid says on his own Facebook page that he lives in Sydney.
The list of businesses to boycott is still running on another Facebook page which vilifies Shiites, called “The Awkward Moment When You’re Engaging In Taqiyyah”. It has 193 likes.
Kaldas says that these pages are illegal but can be difficult for counter terrorism authorities to shut down quickly.
“The monitoring and censorship of information and material contained on Facebook pages is primarily the responsibility of Facebook...Facebook is hosted in the United States, which makes it difficult for Australian law enforcement agencies to police,” a spokeswoman for the Australian Federal Police says.
Moderate Sunni leaders, still smarting from the virulent anti-Muslim sentiments unleashed by the September protests, are circumspect.
Samier Dandan, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association says: “There are a lot of people in the community who would like to inflame things beyond what they are.
“There have been some incidents and there have been some kerfuffles, but they are not directly related. There has been dialogue and discussions and yelling and screaming, but they are not acts of violence.”
“Hans” Dandachli, a leader of the Australian Syrian Association, which advocates both tolerance between religions and Assad’s overthrow, says he has only heard reports of threats, but he hopes that authorities can close down extremist pages.
“I say if you find these people, stop him...Australia is not Syria. Australia is not another country. Australia is Australia. Keep Australia clean,” he says.
Hosam Khammousieh, an Association member, believes anyone could have mounted the Facebook pages and says that no-one has reported attacks to its Lakemba office.
Daoud, who describes himself as a “hard left” secular Hezbollah and Hamas supporter, insists that there is segregation in western Sydney, along both sectarian and ideological lines.
“People don’t talk to each other. People don’t buy from each other...I do this myself. If I know that this shop is owned by one Wahhabi, I won’t go and buy,” he says.
He claims the NSW and Australian Federal Police are turning a blind eye to a situation with potential for bloodshed, given the ease with which arms can be obtained in Sydney.
But Kaldas says that police have found there was no real evidence of Daoud’s death-threat allegations and he also does not accept that there are “no go” zones in Sydney. An Egyptian-born Arab himself, he says police are well informed about the doings of Australians from the Middle East.
“If we don’t protect the community, then we have a lot to answer for, God forbid,” he says.
Whatever the police assurances, Abu Ali, who came to Australia 14 years ago fleeing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s persecution of Shiites, is ever vigilant, in case the hard men come back. He no longer sees Australia as a place of refuge.
“I’m really scared now. It reminds me of what was happening before in Iraq. We thought we came to a democratic safe country,” he says, “but we are very scared now.”