The town of Camden lies nestled between rolling hills just beyond the urban sprawl of Sydney, Australia's largest city. It is famed as the site where, in the early 19th century, John Macarthur bred the Merino sheep which reputedly provide the best wool in the world.
But history is not much on the minds of Camden's residents at the moment. It's the future they worry about, with some believing that plans to build a large Islamic school on the edge of town threaten the community's social harmony.
The president of the Camden-Macarthur Residents' Group, Emil Sremchevich, explained why such an Islamic presence would be unwelcome. Islam, he says, "is a monoculture which does not want to integrate itself with any existing cultures. Most other cultures do integrate themselves and coexist, and want to do that, but Islam does not do that because it cannot. Its teachings are such that it does not allow integration into other societies."
The school would have some 1,200 pupils in primary and secondary grades studying the state government school syllabus. It would also have a small number of Koranic students who would dedicate their time to religious studies.
In May, the Camden town council considered the building application, and refused permission for the project. "An application came before council, council assessed that application on its merits, and clearly the application came up short on several planning instruments, and as a result it has been refused," Mayor Chris Patterson said.
One of the grounds for refusal was that the applicant had not dealt with the issue of soil contamination, which the council said exceeded the level allowed for a primary school site.
The land involved is currently farmland, and lies about 600 meters away from an existing public high school.
Lawyer Chris Gough says he plans soon to lodge an appeal on behalf of the Koranic Society against the Camden Council decision, which, he says, appears to rest on insufficient grounds. "It's our intention -- if this matter proceeds to appeal -- to pursue those planning issues and endeavor to establish that the planning issues which have been raised are not such as to warrant refusal of the application," Gough said.
Neither the Koranic Society nor the Islamic Council of the state of New South Wales were available for comment on the current school case, or on the larger issue of Muslim integration into Australian society. But the Islamic Council website carries a paper by chairman Ali Roude saying that since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, Australia has been increasingly in the grip of "Islamophobia."
Roude says the Islamic and Arabic-speaking communities in Australia continue to be the target of discrimination and vilification, which he says makes Muslims feel increasingly isolated. He notes that at the time of writing, only Muslims had been arrested under Australia's terror laws.
Roude blames the situation partly on the media, which he accuses of sensationalizing the news. Certainly the media had opportunity for purple prose during the 2005 Cronulla riots when Lebanese youths, including Muslims, battled in the streets of Sydney with Australian youths of European descent. Cronulla is the southern Sydney beach from which the trouble spread.
Officials say the riots were unique in modern Australian history in the racist motivation exhibited on both sides.