Back in 2001, the Liberal Party chose an optometrist from Camden as candidate for the Auburn state by-election. From what I saw of her, she didn’t have any hint of sectarian or racial prejudice. And how could she in a State seat with such an enormous range of different ethnic and religious groups. That by-election was on Saturday 8 November. Three days later, everything changed.
You’d think a proposal to build a school in a small semirural village on the outskirts of Sydney would be just another planning issue. The Council would advertise the plan, residents might raise objections based on parking or traffic or whatever. What could religion possibly have to do with it?
I have a mate who lives in Camden. He enjoys grunge rock, likes to surf, does a little farming with his mum and parties a fair bit. And he happens to be of Muslim heritage. Last night, he told me: “I went to school with half of these people. Many are people I’d consider mates.”
Believe it or not, Muslims have their sectarian prejudices. Many Muslims in Bankstown who always come out in support of extensions to the local Buddhist temple will simply refuse any application from the pro-Syrian Lebanese al-Ahbash sect. When the sect wanted to build a complex in Bass Hill, few Muslims outside the sect rallied behind it.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
That proposal also showed some very un-Christian attitudes from Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party. Their press release speaks of “educational apartheid” and claims kids at the school would have “zero contact” with other kids. The allegedly Christian Democrats are again out in force at Camden, joining a coalition of other far-Right fruitloops, such as this chap. And so we have the legitimate concerns of a small community are being hijacked by the far-Right, a coalition of Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis getting together to fight “Islamic extremism”.
For many in Camden, this will be the first time they will come face to face with Muslims. Well, actually it won’t. My Camden mate tells me he knows some 70 Muslim families in Camden, mostly professionals or small business people who enjoy the semi-rural lifestyle and/or aren’t interested in paying through the nose for their rent or mortgage. And because they have completely “integrated”, you don’t even notice they’re there.
So where do these Camden Muslims fit into the picture?
“They don’t”, my friend said. “People are too scared to go to the public meeting. They know outsiders have taken over the debate, and they don’t wanna get lynched by their neighbours.”
Federal Liberal MP Pat Farmer was at the rally. He claims much opposition to the school development isn’t racist. I believe him. But his is now a marginal seat. I’m sure he would have been on the phone to the PM afterwards. Will this become another Tampa? Will we see Howard promising to use federal powers to overcome planning decisions of local councils?
I guess it depends on how desperate Howard gets. Watch this space.