SYDNEY // Shoppers watched in horror as a demonstration in Sydney against the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims turned violent.
Australian Muslims said the riot and its aftermath had exposed deep communal tensions, which were reinforced when allegations emerged of inflammatory comments posted on Facebook by soldiers believed to have served in Afghanistan.
Although the violence a two weeks ago was condemned by most Muslim community leaders, it provoked a week of headlines and TV debate, with some commentators questioning the capacity of Muslims to integrate in Australian society. Muslim websites and organisations received threatening and abusive emails, and police said they were taking "most seriously" a telephone threat to blow up a Sydney Islamic school.
This week it emerged that former, and possibly serving, members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) may have joined in the backlash. In comments posted on the Facebook page of an ex-soldier said to have served in Afghanistan, friends reportedly fantasised about attacking those involved in the riot with machine-guns, a sniper rifle and a flame-thrower. One commented: "Could add a new meaning to Clean Up Australia Day," referring to an annual day when volunteers clear rubbish from public places.
Another wrote: "Mate, what I would given [sic] to drop the legs on a MAG 58, slap on a 500 round belt, adopt a stable firing position in the middle of the street and lay waste to every single one of those cancerous …" (Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio, the source of the allegations, edited out the final word.)
At least 20 people "liked" the conversation between the men, some of whom were pictured in military uniform, according to the ABC, which alleged that a number were linked to the Royal Australia Regiment, based in Townsville, in northern Queensland, and had also fought in Afghanistan.
Khaled Sukkarieh, the chairman of the Islamic Council of New South Wales, said he would be "very concerned if former or current personnel of the ADF held such views, especially if they have … served in Muslim countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan".
Military chiefs are investigating the claims, and the head of the army, David Morrison, promised strong action if serving soldiers were found to have been involved.
Mr Sukkarieh was among the community leaders who denounced the young men who fought running battles with police in Sydney on September 15, saying they did not represent mainstream Muslim society. But after the demonstration against the US-made film, which led to 11 arrests and 23 people being injured, Australian Muslims are struggling to repair the damage to their reputation.
They also said the backlash evoked memories of the riots in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla in 2005, when a white gang went on the rampage, attacking men of "Middle Eastern appearance". The following night, groups of young Australian-Lebanese descended on Cronulla and vandalised cars.
Community initiatives to mend fences, some funded by the federal government, were established following Cronulla. "A lot of hard work has been done in the last few years to normalise relations between Muslims and non-Muslims," said Ahmed Kilani, the director of Australia's biggest Islamic website, muslimvillage.com. "Now a lot of that has been destroyed." The trouble in Sydney "has set us back years", he added.
Mr Kilani listed a series of events, domestic and external, which had tarnished the image of Australian Muslims.
"It started with the first Gulf War," he said. "Then you had the gang rapes [series of attacks carried out by Lebanese-Australian men in Sydney]. Then came September 11, Gulf War 2, the Bali bombings, the London bombings and the Cronulla riots."
In the meantime, there were terrorism-related arrests at home, while the perpetual debate about asylum seekers arriving by boat - many of them from Muslim countries - played out in the background.
In Sydney's western suburbs, where about half of Australia's 476,300 Muslims live, members of the largely peaceful, religiously moderate community are ruing the actions of a militant minority.
"It's like 'here we go again - all Muslims are violent thugs or terrorists'," said the owner of a kebab shop in Lakemba, which is home to a large Lebanese population.
Kuranda Seyit, the founder of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations, a think tank promoting interfaith dialogue, said: "We've got a generation of angry young men who feel marginalised and disaffected and socially isolated."
He blamed a lack of education, poor parenting and a weak understanding of Islam, as well as daily experiences of racism including being shunned by potential employers. Five to 10 per cent of young men of Middle Eastern origin are at risk of radicalisation, Mr Seyit believes.
Amanda Wise, a sociologist at Sydney's Macquarie University who carried out extensive research following the Cronulla riots, said that while tensions had eased, there was still "low-level distrust" between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
She is not convinced that attitudes in Cronulla - and other white Anglo-Australian enclaves - have changed.
Ms Wise also criticised the bridge-building projects that took place as "not massively effective" and too short term.
"As soon as the issue disappeared from the front pages, the funding dried up," she said.