A series of anti-Islam rallies have been held across Australia, with police forced to intervene to separate protesters from rival, anti-racism demonstrators in the city of Melbourne.
The events by a group called Reclaim Australia drew hundreds of supporters but also triggered counter-rallies from other groups who criticised them as racist and called for greater tolerance.
Between 500-800 people gathered in the pouring rain in Martin Place in Sydney’s central business district on Saturday for one of the largest demonstrations, which were held in a number of state capitals and regional centres.
A speaker, who called himself “the great Aussie patriot”, addressed the Sydney crowd, saying: “Out of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims that live on this planet, only 15-20 percent of them are extremists, yet 15-20 percent is around 300 million extremist Muslims who are dedicated to the takeover and downfall of western civilisation.”
“Now Muslims have an average of five to eight children per family. So the number of extremists raising all their kids with this point of view…”
One protester, who identified himself as Greg, told Al Jazeera “we’re just fighting for our way of life”.
“[Muslims] come here to live in Australia and they want to change our values, our way of life, to suit them. They come here for a new life – and they want their old life. So why stay here if they don’t want it? They can leave -simple as that.”
“We are pro-Australian values and anti-extreme Islam, but we’re not anti-Muslim,” Reclaim Australia spokeswoman Catherine Brennan told the AFP news agency, adding there was no racism behind the rallies, which she said had attracted people from diverse backgrounds.
“Since when is it being racist to love your country and to love the values and culture that you’ve been brought up with?”
In Melbourne, tensions between competing protesters led to scuffles, with police on horseback forced to form a barrier between the groups, and paramedics treating several people for injuries.
Police arrested three people in Melbourne, while a man in Hobart was arrested for assault and two women were removed for breaching the peace at the Sydney rally.
‘Implicating good people’
Anti-racist rally organiser Mel Gregson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Reclaim Australia was spreading “conspiracy theories”.
“It’s basically implicating good Muslim people in the political movements of a tiny minority,” she said.
“What we’re trying to say is that it is dangerous to allow hate speech to occur on the streets of Melbourne.”
Reclaim Australia says on its website that it wants to make Islamic law illegal in Australia, ban Halal certification, ban the teaching of Islam in public schools and ban “the burqa or any variant thereof”.
“This peaceful rally … is being used to show the people of Australia we have had enough of minorities not fitting in and trying to change our Australian cultural identity,” the group says.
The group also says it wants to keep Australia’s “traditional values” and “introduce pride in the Australian flag and anthem at all levels of schooling”.