Ructions in Boganville: the first Camden protest, back in November
A keen follower of events in Camden, I didn’t overlook the news that the Camden/Macarthur Residents’ Group, led by that great community bridge builder Emil Sremchevich, has announced plans to hold more protests if the Quranic Society’s application to establish a school there is approved. A decision was promised in February, but keeps getting postponed, because, according to the Mayor, “We’re still waiting on further information from the applicant and we’re waiting on that information to then be assessed by external Government bodies such as the RTA and Sydney Water.”
So we can expect this to flare up again soon. When it does, how should a sensible person respond?
One possibility is exemplified by Jeremy Bingham, the Society’s spokesman. In response to claims that the objections were about heritage and traffic issues, he made the point, as did many others, that the application would have attracted little criticism if the proposed school was Catholic or Protestant. But he went further than defending the organisation’s rights, and got right on the front foot:
“Obviously, it is a good thing to have a new quality private school teaching the growing population of the area,” he said. “They want their school to be in a rural area because it is the best kind of place to have a school. “It’s best for the children and also best in terms of low impact on neighbours.” Mr Bingham said it would be great for the Camden community to have a Muslim population “because one of the things that is great about the Australian society is we are very varied and able to accommodate all mixes”.”To have a sprinkling of Muslims in the community is a very good thing,” he said. “They make very good citizens. The aim of the society is to bring the students up as good members of the Australian community, not to bring them up as separate.”
Few would be persuaded by the suggestion that the school will prove a magnet for non-Muslims seeking a high quality education, but apart from that, this is a good honest statement of the standard, liberal, tolerant, multiculturalist position.
The problem is that a fair few of the locals don’t adhere to the standard, enlightened, liberal, tolerant, multiculturalist position. Consider Exhibits A, B, C and D:
MAN: If you want to go back to the heritage of the area, the farm that boundaries the property that theyve bought, Ive milked there every day or something like that, there are still furrow marks from the First Fleet, theres still ploughs and things in those paddocks from the First Fleet, and they want to build this obstrosity that we have to look at. No thanks. At the end of the day I dont want it, the community doesnt want it. What more needs to be said? We dont want it, end of story.
WOMAN: Muslims do not fit in in this town. We are Aussies, okay? We’re John – it’s the ex-MacArthur area and it still is MacArthur, and theyre not gonna take it away from us.
MAN: Were from Narellan, right, we’re from Narellan, and theyre saying this is a Camden issue. Like f**k it is mate, we live next door to Camden, right? Now eh, we dont want them here. Pretty soon mate, pretty soon you wont be able to get bacon on your f*****g hamburgers anywhere no more, you know what I mean? Because of these grubs…
MAN: We dont want them. Look how many people is here? F**k them all, get rid of them all…
These comments come from footage of the November Camden protest used in Four Corners a few weeks ago. The program was dealing, not for the first time, with the issue of alienated Muslin youth. The main argument was that police overkill probably makes a positive net contribution to terrorism, by turning vulnerable young men into enemies of society. Police in both Victoria and New South Wales seem to be mending their ways, building bridges through consultative committees, liaison officers, youth workers and the like. It wasn’t all upbeat, though, and this was meant to be an example of Muslims’ being denied a fair go.
There are, however, legitimate questions about religious schools in general and Islamic schools in particular.
The first is whether faith-based schools are desirable at all. The very idea is vehemently opposed in some quarters, on the grounds that indoctrinating children into a particular religion is a denial of their right to make intellectual choices. Nicholas’s hero, Richard Dawkins, goes as far as to call this child abuse. It’s hard to know where gentle persuasion ends and brainwashing begins. The nuns in my own high school obviously relied too much on the former: the faith had lost its grip on me even before I left the school; and I’m unaware of any ill effects. On the basis of casual empiricism, the hard sell employed in more traditional Catholic schools produces only marginally better results. However, Dawkins argues that, whether it works or not, the aim of indoctrination is itself wicked, and I think one has to step outside of one’s own experiences to see it objectively. To test your own attitude, read this passage from an academic paper on ‘the necessity for establishing independent Islamic schools in Australia’:
Every action a Muslim performs, including seeking an education, is seen as an act of worship. Education is fundamentally important to Muslims. The immense incentive to learn is evident throughout the Holy Qur’an, emphasising that God’s commands can never be fully understood without knowledge and education… In considering a curriculum rooted in Islamic values and beliefs, duality in education, that is splitting of knowledge into two distinctive types, secular and religious, with aims and objectives independent of each other, needs to be abolished… If Islam is to be entered in the students’ hearts and the total repertoire of their thinking and living, Islam must enter all student activities (Ashraf, 1994; Al-Afendi, 1980). It was observed that morning assemblies at the College fulfil a religious, social and administrative function beginning with collective worship and morning dua’s (supplications). Zuhr (noon) prayer, falls within the school day at the College and is always performed in congregation allowing the student, whose faith is still growing and developing, to understand that prayer is a combined activity, for both the student and teacher.
Malek Fahd school in Greenacre
If you substituted Catholic for Muslim in there, it probably wouldn’t sound that different from dozens of speeches my old headmaster gave. But from this distance, it sounds outrageous, and I find myself sympathising with Dawkins. Even if the religious brainwashing fails, it’s hard to see how this philosophy wouldn’t foster an insular and tribal mentality in the pupils and their communities, or how it’s compatible with the development of open and inquiring minds.
The second question relates to the potential for faith-based schools to engage in malicious political and racial propaganda, inculcate intolerant and even violent attitudes and promote practices that are antithetical to liberal democratic values. In principle any religious school, and indeed any private school, could do this. In the United Sates in particular, there are grounds for concern about cultish evangelical Christian schools that teach creationism, along with apocalyptic interpretations of contemporary world politics. Creationism is taught in some British and Australian Christian schools as well. But it is obviously Islamic schools that have attracted the overwhelming majority of mistrust as far as dangerous doctrines are concerned.
However, it’s by no means self-evident that this suspicion is deserved, and there’s a big difference between the insular and tribal attitudes I referred to in the previous paragraph on the one hand, and hateful and anti-democratic attitudes on the other. The same paper quoted above says:
Co-operation rather than competition, service to others rather than selfishness, mutual consultation rather than domination, are not only the guiding principles of an Islamic character, but resemble the Prophet Muhammad
As far as I can tell from their web sites and other material to hand, Australian Islamic schools in general teach enlightened values. Nonetheless
this story from 2006 about Melbourne’s East Preston Islamic College gave me pause, and it seems a certain Muslim Ladies’ College in Perth was closed down last year for curriculum breaches among other things.
My main point, however, is that these are national issues. There should be a national debate and a consistent national policy, even if actual legislation falls to the states; but if particular states were to take the lead in regulating private schools that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. What is absolutely clear is that what a particular school teaches or wants to teach its pupils is not a matter for local government. Whether the Quranic Society establishes its new school in Camden or in some other municipality absolutely should not depend on the local residents’ theories about Islamic education. A Camden resident who worries about the proposed Islamic school preaching jihad and breeding terrorists, should take it up with their federal or state member of parliament; if his concerns about dangerous religious doctrine are real, it shouldn’t matter whether the Islamic school is proposed for Camden or for Palm Beach.
We are told to think globally and act locally, but that isn’t a good prescription in every case. People have powerful dormant fears about strange cultures and religions, and these may sometimes have a legitimate basis, but it’s no good waiting to act on those fears until events impact on your immediate physical environment. By the time the process gets to the DA stage, the school has already passed the major hurdles of approval by the state education department and funding by the federal government.
In assessing an application to build a school, a local government may consider only issues deemed relevant under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act and other state legislation. The guidelines are sufficiently rubbery that a hairy-chested council may sometimes be able to reject a controversial application knowing full well that the decision will be overturned on appeal to the Land and Environment Court.This is what happened in the infamous case of the Annagrove prayer room. At the same time, there may indeed be relevant traffic and noise issues that are sufficient to knock an application out. That seems to be the case with the proposal for another Muslim school at Bass Hill, which the Bankstown Council rejected, in a tense meeting that also featured in the Four Corners story. Mayor Patterson of Camden won’t predict whether there will be an appeal if his council knocks back the Camden proposal.
Is there some intermediate set of issues, about the cultural impact of a school, that local government should be involved in? Should there be some test according to whether an area is culturally and psychologically ready? Not just about traffic, infrastructure and heritage, but something to make sure the guy who is worried about his hamburgers, and all the concerns that comment stands for, doesn’t feel as though his rights are being stomped on? I’m yet to be persuaded. But if state and federal politicians think that planning regulations should take cultural sensitivities into account, they should say so. Meanwhile, if those same politicians, from Fred Nile the Crusader to Kevin “70%” Rudd have views on the role of faith based schools in general and Muslim schools in particular, they should put them explicitly on their respective state and federal agendas, rather than stir up the xenophobes of Camden.