17 October 2002

Australia grapples with its emotions in aftermath of Bali bombing

by Michael Hutak

672 words
17 October 2002
Agence France-Presse

SYDNEY, Oct 17 (AFP) - Australia's moods are shifting by the hour from grief to anger to compassion five days after the nation's worst terrorist incident so far.

Talk radio, acknowledged as a barometer of public opinion, has been inundated with calls about the bombing, and trends are beginning to emerge.

A national media monitoring firm, Rehame, has tracked 1,300 calls since Saturday's attack and reports that overwhelmingly people are using radio as an outlet for expressions of grief and dismay at the attacks.

However other issues are emerging, many fueled by the assumption that Islamic radicals linked to the al-Qaeda network were behind the bombing.

More than 20 percent of callers have criticised the Australian government's strong alignment with the US administration of President George W. Bush.

"People are starting to draw the link between the attacks and the prime minister's unconditional support for US-led war on terror," said Matthew Mitchell, a media analyst for Rehame. "They're now starting to say that we are paying the price for that support."

"You have to rememeber that in the six weeks leading up to the attack, feeling against support of war against Iraq has been consistently at 60 percent, so this was to be expected," he said.

"But the anti-US feeling is very strong, with many callers critical of George Bush's 'underwhelming' response to the Bali attacks, and of the US media's focus only on American casualties."

Another trend emerging is a strong anti-Muslim sentiment, underlined by an attack Tuesday night on the home of Imam Ahmed Shabbir, a prominent Sydney Muslim cleric, and the firebombing early Thursday of a mosque near Melbourne.

Mitchell said most anti-Muslim feeling was emanating from Sydney, Australia's most ethnically diverse city which has seen racial tension following a series of notorious gang rapes in 2000 perpetrated by local Lebanese youths targeting what they called "Australian" women.

The crimes inflamed prejudice against the Lebanese community.

Callers to one of Australia's best known "shock jocks", John Laws, were running strongly against Muslims, said the program's producer Stuart Bocking.

"It's reopened old sores in the community," said Bocking, who cited the Afghan refugee issue at the 2001 federal election, the September 11 attacks in the United States and this year's trials of the Sydney gang rapists as lightning rods for the racial vilification of Muslims in the country.

"All this had died down a bit recently but the Bali bomb has reignited it and brought the bigots out of the woodwork again."

Other radio programmers report that the blame game had been less prominent.

"We've been struck by how many people simply want to know how they can help," said Richard Glover, a presenter on Sydney's ABC 702.

"We've had our share of conspiracy theorists, but the main thread, and perhaps a surprising one, has been an outpouring of compassion and sorrow for the Balinese people."

"Many people are saying that it's actually bringing the Australian and Indonesian people together in a way we have never been before, and that that's a good thing," he said.

Glover said that despite much anger about the failure of Australian intelligence agencies to pass on US warnings about possible terrorism in Bali, there was also a sense that most people would still have embarked on their holidays.

"People are angry but there's been no widespread call for revenge out there," said Glover. "It's more an fatalistic attitude of the kind that says 'there but for the grace of God go I'."

Mitchell said while Prime Minister John Howard was under harsh criticism for his closeness to the United States, there was also much praise for his government's relief operations.

"But next week when the death toll is finalised, then you will see the start of some serious finger-pointing."


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