Today’s papers report on a meeting by Camden locals unhappy at proposals to build an Islamic school in their neighbourhood. The meeting became rowdy after police refused admittance to the overflowing crowd once the auditorium was full. People aren’t generally that desperate to share the company of Fred Nile, so it’s fair to assume that they just keen to express opinions such as “If it does get approved, every ragger that walks up the street’s going to get smashed up the arse by about 30 Aussies.”

However, Islam – albeit in a somewhat unconventional form – is not as new to the area as Camden residents might think. Buried in the local cemetery is the mysterious Baron von Frankenberg. Von Frankenberg grew up as a member of the German aristocracy, but his mother, Jessie Eliot, was an Australian heiress. Her father lived and owned property in Algeria, and although I cannot establish whether the Baron ever visited his family there, this may have been where he first encountered Islam.

Regardless, he eventually became a disciple of Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian Sufi Muslim leader who maintained that Sufism was a universal faith. In 1927 the Baron emigrated to Australia and founded a small Sufi movement in Camden during the 1930s. My stepgrandmother was one member of his order.

Camden locals had reservations about foreigners with odd religious beliefs even back then. I recently obtained the security file that was kept on the Baron during World War II, when both his German background and strange religious beliefs brought him under suspicion. I don’t know why he wasn’t simply interned – perhaps his influential Australian relatives protected him. Camden residents were doing the 1940s equivalent of phoning the anti-terrorism hotline, claiming that the religious gatherings were a cover for a Nazi plot and that the Baron was keeping in touch with Berlin via a radio in his basement. There are interview records and intercepted letters from his followers, who seem not to have been aware of the extent of the surveillance.

After the Baron’s death in the 1950s, his tiny movement crumbled. But he is buried in Camden cemetery, a reminder of the community’s past.

Peter Fray

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