With its lace curtain bungalows and steepled Anglican church, the once tranquil town of Camden in New South Wales seems the most improbable of settings for a row that combines race and religion.
Proud of its rich history, the town promotes itself as “the birthplace of the nation’s wealth”, for it was here, in the early 19th Century, that the sheep and dairy industries first began to flourish.
Now the town, which lies on south-west fringes of Sydney, is confronting a very 21st Century issue: the proposal to construct an Islamic school for some 1,200 Muslim pupils.
Behind the proposal is the Sydney-based Quranic Society, which has purchased 15 acres of land on the fringes of town, and produced detailed plans and designs.
None of them reference any obvious Islamic influences. Functional and non-descript, the two-storey school could easily be a light industrial development.
Camden council is currently deciding whether to grant planning permission and allow the controversial development to go ahead.
At the council’s headquarters, 12 bulging ring-binders hold more than 3,200 submissions from the public. Only 100 are in favour of the development.
The council will deliver its verdict either later this month or early next.
Twice the town has managed to rebuff the fast food giant McDonald’s. Now it has mobilised to block the construction of the Islamic school.
Back in November, more than 1,000 local people took part in a public meeting. Many participants expressed themselves with little regard for political correctness.
“This has to be one of the nicest places in New South Wales,” said one woman, who has lived in Camden for the past nine years.
“Everywhere is being destroyed. Why don’t we tell the truth. They’re wrecking Australia. They’re taking us over,” she said.
“Why hasn’t anyone got any guts? They’ve got terrorists amongst ’em. . . . They want to be here so they can go and hide in all the farm houses . . . This town has every nationality .&nsbp;. . but Muslims do not fit in this town. We are Aussies, OK.”
Some of the loudest cheers of the night greeted a speech from a local man in his late 70s.
“Can I just say this without being racist or political?” he said. “In 1983, in the streets of London a parade by Muslims chanted incessantly ‘If we can take London, we can take the world’. Don’t let them take Camden.”
Some speakers focused solely on the environmental impact of locating an urban-scale school in such a bucolic setting; and, in particular, on the traffic congestion it would bring.
One speaker implored the crowd to stick to planning issues, and not let the campaign be contaminated by racism or xenophobia.
When the chair of the meeting invited anyone in favour of the development to speak up, no one stepped forward.
Camden does not harbour a large Muslim community—census figures suggest about 150 families.
Most of the pupils at the proposed school would therefore be bussed in from Sydney, a journey that takes about an hour each way.
Andrew Wynnet of the Camden/Macarthur Residents’ Group showed me the site of the proposed school, and focused on its unsuitability and undesirability.
“When you have no Muslims living in Camden, why have a Muslim school here?” he asked.
He was also concerned about its long-term, demographic impact.
“The character of the town will change. When you have a large facility like this, the parents will follow. That amount of parents will change the character of the town.”
Residents explain their opposition
“If you introduce 1,500 Muslim people to the town they’d be a majority. And that’s not what this town is about.”
Bravely, given that local council elections are due later in the year, Mayor Chris Patterson has adopted a neutral stance.
Presumably, it would have been more politically expedient to veer towards populism.
“This is not a nationalistic issue, it’s not a religious issue, it’s a planning issue, and it will be addressed on those merits,” he says.
Determined that the planning process should be allowed to play out, Mr Patterson does not want to prejudge it.
Many locals fear that the campaign is being hijacked by right-wing, nationalist groups with their own agendas.
The Australia First organisation has been advertising for members in Camden, and says it plans to field a candidate in September’s local elections.
Pauline Hanson, the former leader of the One Nation Party, has also paid a visit to the town, though the local paper, the Camden Advertiser, reported that she mistakenly thought the proposal was for a mosque rather than a school.
The increasingly acrimonious and race-charged debate has also crossed into mainstream politics.
Camden is part of a Liberal-held parliamentary constituency which was high on Labor’s target list at last November’s federal election.
Campaigning in nearby Campbeltown, the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd said that the local infrastructure could not support such a large school, and that he therefore opposed it on “planning grounds”.
The Quranic Society has kept a low public profile and was not available for comment.
But its position has been that Australian parents have the right to educate Australian children wherever they wish, regardless of race or religion. If the council rejects its planning application, it could appeal to the Land and Environment Court.
Camden residents will not give up easily.
“This town has fought all sorts of developments,” Andrew Wynnet. “It will take on all-comers regardless of religion.”