Although the newspapers announced that the Camden City Council had decisively rejected an application by the Australian Quranic Society to establish an Islamic school in that suburb of Sydney, Australia, in reality the fight was far from over. An article by the Sydney Morning Herald was typical of the accounts that suggested that the matter was closed. What had ended was the opening round.
About 200 Camden residents cheered wildly as their council formally decided to reject an application for an Islamic school in their area last night. … A council report recommended that the application be refused after more than 3,000 submissions had been received from the public. The vast majority opposed the development.
The Council’s ostensible grounds for rejecting the application to build a 15-acre Islamic school for 1,200 students in an area where only 380 Muslim families live were a) the unsuitability of the low-lying land and b) the lack of proper infrastructure to accommodate the fleet of buses which its proponents explained would be needed to bring students into the area. But behind these formal reasons lay reason c) a deep undercurrent of suspicion between the Islamic proponents and the local objectors.
The Quranic Society, which is the proponent of the school, arrived from the outset with heavy artillery. They had already purchased the land — deemed so valueless by the Camden Council that it did not even charge rates for it — for more than US $1.4 million. They paid US $240,000 in applications. They had hired former Sydney Lord Mayor Jeremy Bingham to act as their spokesman for the project. It was a Hollywood-perfect example of well-resourced outsiders coming into a community to get what they wanted. And once the school was in, many Camden residents feared it would attract an influx of even more Muslims until it became like Lakemba, a suburb where even the Chinese restaurants lettered their shop windows in Arabic.
Thousands of signatures were gathered to oppose the proposal. An unusually large crowd attended the vote on the measure from the gallery. When the application was rejected by the Camden Council, the locals broke out in applause, but the Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR) called it “a reflection of unwarranted fear and ignorance about Islam” and a “victory for racism.” The Green Left Weekly seconded the motion, branding the rejection “organized racism.” The Age warned that Camden only proved that racism was alive and well, that it had cunningly disguised itself in innocent forms. “Gone are the images of angry young men draped in Australian flags and brandishing beer bottles as they rampage through Cronulla terrorizing anyone who looks Middle Eastern. In their place is middle-aged, earnest-looking Kate McCulloch, wearing a large Akubra hat plastered with Australian flag stickers.” That is to say, racists had disguised themselves to look like one of the objectors to the Islamic school proposal. In the media’s view the beach riot that took place between Muslim and non-Muslim “youths” in Cronulla — with each side blaming the other — had been taken up by Islamophobic mothers in suburban Sydney.
Few noticed that the story was far from over. After the Camden Council announced its decision, the Quranic Society announced its intention to appeal in the land and environment court. The court can reverse the Council’s decision. While the ladies in Akubra hats went home, one of the Quranic Society’s more prominent members, Imam Abdul Quddoos al-Azhari, left immediately for Malaysia to raise more money for the fight. Malaysia is a major hub for funding dawa, or Islamic missionary activities, aimed at Australia. There, funds were available not only from the Regional Islamic Council for Southeast Asia and the Pacific but also from charities funded by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Libya. They would be back and with more resources.
When I asked an expert on Islamic charities whether this was a “David and Goliath” battle, he said that described it exactly, but added that the Camden City Council was in reality little David while the Quranic Society, despite its low-profile nature, was actually Goliath. Camden would soon find out that former Sydney lord mayors were only good for the undercard. The main event had yet to start.
At the Quranic Society plans were afoot for an alternative site for the school in case its appeal was rejected. But the Muslim leaders were not looking to lose. They clearly wanted to reverse the Camden decision, not simply to establish their school but to teach every other council which might reject them that resistance was futile.
From the Quranic Society’s point of view, the opposition to the school was simply a sign of ignorance on the part of the residents. Once enlightened, they should want an Islamic school, preferably one as large as possible, established in their area. In the days after September 11, Imam Abdul Quddoos al-Azhari wrote:
As the chairman of imams, I would like to advise all the other imams, and also fellow Muslims, that we are here in this country, we should live in peace and a harmonious relationship with all inhabitants of this continent. Australia has provided us with a peaceful atmosphere to come and settle here, and we are really grateful for that. And we have to be grateful to these people. And we should repay them. But how can you repay? You repay by the best thing you have. And what is the best thing you have? The best thing you have is Islam. Inform them about Islam, talk to them about Islam, and so that it will clarify some of the misunderstandings.