Plans to build a Muslim school on the outskirts of Sydney have sparked a backlash that has been stoked by fundamentalist Christians and far-right politicians who have no connection with the area.
Councillors in Camden will vote tonight on whether to allow the A$19m (£9.2m) school to go ahead. While they say they will base their decision on planning grounds alone, observers believe it will be difficult for them to ignore the racial and religious passions that have been stirred up.
Liberal Australia has been shocked by the ferocity of the opposition. Riot police were called when nearly 1,000 people turned up at a public meeting of anti-school campaigners. Two pigs' heads, impaled on stakes, with an Australian flag strung between them, were left on the proposed site, a paddock on the fringes of town. Among the meeting's organisers was Fred Nile, leader of a fundamentalist Christian party and a long-standing member of the New South Wales parliament. Mr Nile – who has no links with Camden – accused Muslims of hating Christians, and called for a moratorium on Muslim immigration.
Inflammatory leaflets have been distributed by Australia First, a far-right party opposed to immigration and multiculturalism. Its leaders include Jim Saleam, who was jailed for involvement in a 1989 shotgun attack on the home of the African National Congress's representative in Australia. The leaflets reportedly described the school as the first step in "Islamifying Camden", and an "attempt to undermine Australian values".
Australia First has also launched a recruitment drive in Camden, and plans to field a candidate at council elections this year.
While Camden is part of the greater Sydney conurbation, it is more akin to a country town, located in a semi-rural area first settled in the early 19th century. Its main street features sandstone buildings, and is lined with Victorian-era lamps and jacaranda trees.
The ugliness of the sentiments expressed by local people has taken some outsiders aback. Protesters at the public meeting chanted "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Oy" – a traditional rallying cry at sporting events.
One opponent told Australian radio: "If it [the school] gets approved, every ragger ["raghead"] that walks up the street is going to get smashed up the arse by about 30 Aussies."
The Quranic Society, which wants to build a school for 1,200 primary and secondary pupils on a 15-acre block, says it will cater to both Muslim and non-Muslim children. It says it would be attended by Australian citizens, following the New South Wales curriculum.Reuse content