Cocos island chain grapples with a cultural divide

Muslims living on the tiny Australian island chain in the Indian Ocean claim they have become the victim of repeated racist and religious prejudice.

Muslims living on a tiny Australian island chain in the Indian Ocean claim they have become the victim of repeated racist and religious prejudice, forcing the Australian government to step in to help quash tensions. The government this week announced that it would send an administrator to Cocos (Keeling) Islands to try to quell disputes fuelled by an act of religious abuse and to try to get an agreement between the Muslim population, whose ancestors were from Malaysia, and their Australian counterparts.

Tensions between the two groups, who live separately on the two main islands in what officials call "segregation by consent", have been simmering for about 18 months, with underpayment of Cocos's Malay workers, a ban on speaking the local dialect and a lack of cultural respect being the main complaints. One of the main catalysts in the dispute was the discovery by a Cocos Malay union that workers were not paid correctly. This has led to claims of racism on the islands, which are run by about 150 public servants, mainly from mainland Australia, who live on West Island, one of 27 in the territory that lies about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.

The Malay workers, who number about 450 and live on Home Island, also say they face an economic disadvantage, with Centrelink, the Australian government's unemployment agency, estimating the jobless rate on the islands is about 65 per cent. However, these racial and economic tensions recently boiled over and resulted in a case of religious abuse, with the word "pork" written on the sign belonging to a Cocos Malay trade union.

While the incident has been the only religiously motivated attack, the Muslim population, who are descended from slaves brought to the island from Malaysia in the 19th century, claim they are victims of racism. Last month, notes from a council meeting revealed that workers would have to make morning tea for their colleagues if they were caught speaking Cocos Malay, the first language of the Muslim population, 10 times during a shift.

At the school on Home Island children are also being discouraged from speaking the language. Some students were given Australian Federal Police T-shirts and told to hand out punishments such as collecting rubbish to those who spoke Cocos Malay. Two community meetings held last month were unsuccessful in settling the issue. At one of the meetings, Imam Zaitol Wallie held up the defaced sign and said his people's culture, language and human rights were under attack.

On Monday, Brendan O'Connor, the home affairs minister, announced the appointment of an administrator, the most senior government appointee on an external territory, ending more than 18 months without one. Ron Grant, who is a former councillor and has lived on the islands for 23 years, said the actions of several senior public servants had turned the situation into a case of "us and them". Mr Grant, a Muslim who lives on West Island, said that along with the grievances, the religious differences between the groups was straining relationships.

He said over the past several years the Cocos Malays had started following a more orthodox version of Islam, which had worried the white Australian population. There are three mosques on the island and the Cocos Malay women usually wear the hijab. "You can see the widening in the divisions between the two groups," he said. "Some people are uncomfortable with others having different sets of values. They would prefer to see the Cocos Malays more like themselves.

"You have this clash between a society based on religious values and a society based on secular values." Mr Grant said the defacing of the sign was taken as a serious insult to their religion. "It is the first time it has been said openly, the first time it has been portrayed like this." He said part of the problem was that the senior public servants were not "conversant in multi-cultural relationships".

"There is such a difference between their approach and the approach of their predecessors." He said he hoped the newly appointed administrator would allow people on the island to take their problems to an independent authority, but ultimately the answer to the islands' woes was creating an economy that would support the entire community. The islands have had an unsettled history since they were discovered by Captain William Keeling in 1609. Britain granted the islands in perpetuity to the Clunies-Ross family in 1886 and they controlled them until they were sold to Australia in 1978. Six years later the islanders voted for full integration with Australia.

Many on the unspoilt islands are now struggling to make a living and a large proportion live on welfare while moves to set up new business ventures have been hindered by high travel costs and bureaucracy. John Clunies-Ross, whose father sold the island, said the recent events on the islands were a "politically motivated stunt". "Most of the Cocos Islanders are embarrassed. We have very good relations between the two communities."

Mr Clunies-Ross, the sixth generation of his family to live on the islands, said people should be focusing on economic development, not "meaningless" issues. He said the policy of English saturation in schools was agreed to by the parents-teachers association and that the incidents had been "misconstrued". "It's very disappointing that it could happen. The Home Island community is very trusting." He said that although the two groups have separate social lives, they work together and help each other out.

"It hasn't affected day-to-day business on Cocos, no one is upset." However, Mr Grant, disagreed and said the Cocos Malay community was troubled by the recent events and there were "deep rooted problems" on the island. "There seems to be a serious breakdown in relationships between the two groups," he said.