Can Lessons be Learned from Camden? (2009)

CPDS Home Contact  
Introduction +


In June 2009 the NSW Planning and Environment Court dismissed an appeal by the Quranic Society in relation to a decision by the Camden Council to reject an application for development of an Islamic school at Camden.

The Council's rejection had been framed in terms of planning and environmental concerns, yet there was a broader context which had generated controversy.

One observer suggested that concerns were expressed locally about whether such a school would pose some sort of threat (eg by: implanting a culture that is incompatible with Australian egalitarianism; being driven by a powerful political agenda; and reflecting hostility to the West). Moreover it was argued that: (a) the issue is not going to go away, because the demand for such schools is increasing; (b) multiculturalism is a challenge for communities such as that at Camden; and (c) there is no indication that the 'Quranic Society' which promoted this particular school (unlike some others) has linkages with extremism - though it is hard to get information from or about the said Society (Neighbour S., No lessons here, The Australian, 3/6/09)

This document will first suggest that the issues raised by the proposal for an Islamic school at Camden require much deeper consideration.

It would be counter-productive to try to prevent the dissemination of ideas merely because they don't conform with established practices. However the value, and practical consequences, of the education that would be provided through such a school arguably needs to be better understood both by the general community and by Muslims - as it may well inadvertently transmit a social and cosmological rigidity that has been a key factor in the unsatisfactory economic and political progress in the Middle East in recent centuries.

Other questions that have been raised concerning Islamic education in Australia are also mentioned below including: (a) the parallel, which neither side can recognise, between the Quranic Society and some in Camden who oppose its proposal; and (b) suggestions that official support for 'high quality Islamic studies courses' might reduce the risk of home-grown extremism within Muslim communities in Australia.

Camden Issues +

Camden Issues

Analogies with (say) Christian Schools in Other Lands

Assuming that there really is no extremist agenda underlying such a proposal, relevant parallels could be drawn with the establishment of (say) Christian schools throughout most of the world over recent centuries in terms of challenges this posed to traditional communities elsewhere.

There is always going to be a contest for hearts and minds, and it is inappropriate to reject ideas that are different just because they don't fit into the established order. Otherwise it would be impossible to justify the efforts which have been made, and continue increasingly to be made, to disseminate Western ideas and traditions throughout the world.

Compatibility with Australian Institutions?

There might well be an incompatibility between what might be taught in an Islamic school and Australian institutions. For example, Islamism (ie the view that government should be based on the religion of Islam) would be incompatible with democracy (see Spiritual and Philosophical Programs must be Compatible with Australian Institutions - which referred to possible changes to religious education practices in Queensland schools).

However in the world of academia, professors who develop all sort of radical theories that are not compatible with the established order are a protected species, and are sometimes of huge value when a 'way out' idea proves to be just what is needed to solve a real-world problem. And in the world of business, 'skunk works' are sometimes established to incubate transformative innovations.

The Big Picture: What is the Consequence of Islamic Education?

The broader question that needs to be considered (as a basis for informing the community generally, rather than as a basis for prohibiting dissent from the established view) concerns the value of the education which might be provided through an Islamic school.

Muslim dominated nations have experienced centuries of political and economic weaknesses - and there are good reasons to suspect that the broader world views that Islamic scholars have elaborated around the religion of Islam (which would presumably be transmitted in Islamic schools as well an introduction to the Qur'an) have played a significant role in their difficulties. This point is explored further in Discouraging Pointless Extremism and A Response to Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain's Manifesto.

While Islamist extremism is a legitimate cause for community concern, it needs to be recognised that the origin of radicals' agenda for political change in the Middle East seems to lie in the poor political and economic conditions that exist in that region. In the absence of deeper understanding, a radical 15% of the population blames the region's weaknesses on external 'oppression' and also seem to believe that basing government on Islam could be the 'solution'. However, because of the intellectual baggage the Islamic religion often brings with it, this would probably merely amplify their problem.

For example, a major constraint appears to lie in the assumption that all knowledge has to be viewed solely from the viewpoint of religious assumptions. Islamic science has been said to involve a (so called) 'intellective' approach (ie its purpose is to help understand God, not creation). This, and apparently-unrealistic cosmological assumptions associated with 'Islamic science', severely limit what can be known and achieved. These issues are explored in About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science. The resulting narrow approach to knowledge seems likely to lead to suppression of dissent, and thus to a severely constrained social capacity for innovation.

A Quranic view of economics (which highlights the derivation of theories about that facet of human affairs from religious assumptions, and the expectation that human authorities would act as enforcers of God's law) may also be of interest (see Khalid Sayyed, 'The Economic System Of The Quran ', 24/7/09)

Public awareness of the nature of Islamic education and its practical consequences (which are speculated, rather than authoritatively established, in the above comments) are needed at least as much as the risk of terrorist linkages by those proposing such schools. An inquiry into the practical consequences of Islamic education might even help in reducing the disadvantages that the Middle East suffers, and the extremism which that disadvantage sometimes engenders,

Broader Issues Broader Issues

Similarities between the Quranic Society and Some of Its Opponents

Attention was drawn to to similarities between the Quranic Society (which proposed an Islamic school near Camden in NSW) and some groups in Australia who are radically opposed to the establishment of such a school on the basis of equal certainty about the importance of their special way of life. One opponent, it was noted, had a link with One Nation. (Burchell D., Cultural foes of a similar thread, The Australian, 8/6/09).

However the point made in that article may be even more important than its author indicated. One Nation arguably reflected 'left behind' elements of Australian society who sought to blame others for the social and economic difficulties that they suffered as a result of changing circumstances (see Assessing the Implications of Pauline Hanson's One Nation, 1998). However involvement in the political process enabled weaknesses in their understanding to be revealed and reduced, so tensions subsided.

A very similar difficulty seems to arise in relation to the Muslim world - where prevailing world-views arguably generate a cosmological and social rigidity that inhibits both adaptation to change and economic prosperity. Yet there does not tend to be a democratic political process in such countries through which weaknesses in understanding of the situation could be explored and reduced, so those discontented with the modern world have taken more extreme action.

For several years, the present writer has suggested that Islamists be encouraged to engage in political debate about the relevance of their 'solutions' to problems in the Middle East, as this could be the best way to build bridges (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism, 2002). Yet even when they live in Western societies, where there is little reason to fear retaliation from authorities for expressing dissident opinions, there seems to be a reluctance by those favouring Islamist options to do anything but develop their ideology in secret isolation.

The particular issue of Islamic education (which has been raised by the Camden proposal and others) could potentially provide an opportunity to reduce political tensions - because (as suggested above) such education may well transmit a social / cosmological rigidity that may explain most of the difficulties that have confronted the Muslim world in recent centuries.

High Quality Islamic Studies Courses: The Solution or the Problem?

In an article unrelated to the Camden proposal a suggestions was recorded that the federal government should fund for 'high quality Islamic studies courses' - in the context of mounting pressure to 'do something' about the risk of home-grown extremism amongst Muslim groups in Australia. (see Dodd M.,  'PM urged to tackle extremism'. The Australian, 9/6/09)

However there might be more to be gained by federal funding of an inquiry, led by members of Australia's Muslim community, into the practical consequences of 'high quality Islamic studies courses'.

It seems to be widely assumed that quality Islamic education would help potential radicals understand Islam properly, and thereby moderate extremism.

But, for reasons outlined above, this may not be correct. 'High quality' Islamic education may indirectly and unintentionally be a significant factor in the the political and economic dysfunctions that have characterised the Muslim world in recent centuries (and which have now given rise to extremist movements that potentially affect Western societies).

Camden Feedback Camden Issues Feedback

In response to a widely circulated email containing an argument along the lines outlined in Camden Issues above, responses were obtained from Mr Keysar Trad (who has often spoken publicly on behalf of Muslims in Australia).

Email received 4 June 2006

"Muslim schools are subject to the government curriculum, they are only allowed four hours per week to teach religious studies.

They don’t teach “Islamic world views”, in fact they don’t teach any “world views” other than what comes under the government curriculum.

Four hours a week are not enough to give them a proficient understanding in any of the topics of Arabic and Qur’an and hadith. At best, they give them an intro on how to approach the study of these subjects.

The current problems with the Muslim world are mostly the client regimes that had been imposed on them. The previous problems in the last two hundred years relate mostly to decay that begins from corruption at differing levels. That was not because of Islam, it is because of marginalising the moral and ethical religious teachings.

Whilst these schools are open to children of other faiths, the reality is that children of other faiths are not interested in them, they do not even meet the needs of Muslim children because there is a very high demand for these schools and most of them have a very long waiting list.

These schools have nothing to do with proselytising or indoctrination, what they do is provide a safe environment for Muslim children where they are free from racial or Islamophobic taunts, so that they can grow happy, like other kids and they get a basic intro into their faith and a greater appreciation of languages."

CPDS Reply 4/6/09 (edited)

Undoubtedly part of the problem facing Muslim countries results from the 'client' status of many regimes. Resource rich regions generally tend to find that those who offer quick / 'effortless' paths to increasing community income gain political and commercial power - even though they provide poor leadership to the community (see comments on the 'curse of natural resources') - and the Middle East with its massive oil resources has suffered from this. Also history has left a legacy of other difficulties in such societies.

However there is more to the problems facing Muslim dominated countries than this. Whilst the writer is anything but an expert, some attempt has been made to understand the paths to development of both Western and East Asian societies, and to look what is available about the thinking in Muslim countries in relation to the sorts of institutions and arrangements that have been critical to others' progress (eg see Competing Civilizations).

A reasonable conclusion is that there are features in the broader world view that have been elaborated around Islam which must constrain progress (eg in terms of facilitating social / economic change and dealing with scientific knowledge). If this is so, then those disadvantageous features are likely to be being transmitted through the Islamic educational process - even if only at a rudimentary level at the primary / secondary school level. One does not have to specifically teach a 'world-view' (eg an understanding of the subservience of scientific knowledge relative to religious teachings) as part of the formal curriculum in order to transmit it.

Email received 4/6/09

Please visit And

Our problem is not Islam, but the new movements which I prefer not to name which in the recent decades have been somewhat rigid in their views.

There are numerous verses in the Qur`an that encourage education and there are numerous Ahadeeth which do the same.

Education, science and learning flourished during the golden era of Islam, but, unfortunately, the past 300 years saw something inexplicable.

I put to the following:

God tested people with Islam in different points:

A – when it was renewing as a fresh idea.
B – When it was strong.
C – When it was scientifically dominant.
D – Today, when we are weak and scattered and to some extent retrograde.

Will you (as in a person in present day society who may be Muslim or non-Muslim) be able to see the message through the facade?

The external condition of the adherents of the message changes, but the message is still discoverable in its purity.

Reply on 5/6/09 (edited)

Thanks for reference to web-sites which respectively provide insights into scientific achievements and inventions by Muslims - especially during Islam's 'golden age'. One key question that needs to be confronted is why that potential has not been able to be realized so that now (in your words) 'we are weak and scattered and somewhat retrograde'.

You referred to 'something inexplicable' 300 years ago and to 'new movements which in recent decades have become somewhat rigid in their views'. It seems that there is a need to: (a) try again to explain the 'inexplicable'; and (b) be able to name and blame the 'rigid' new movements.

The present writer is not an insider to Islam and simply doesn't know the answers to these questions. However as an outsider, it seems that problems may lie in a rigidity that has surrounded the 'message' from the very beginning. It is noted that:

  • the 'message' had originally involved a renewed emphasis on the requirements for human behaviour laid down in the Law and teachings of the Hebrew prophets. However, though the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were emphasised, the freedom from rigid legalism which was also his legacy did not seem to be;
  • Islam emerged in an Arabic cultural context, which seemed to contain authoritarian features that were grafted onto and influenced the broader social and cosmological world-view that has been elaborated around the 'message';
  • Islam was spread through the use of force, which created an empire of conquest. This made it somewhat like the Roman empire which, though it had a very positive feature (namely a system of civil law), eventually failed when its scope for conquest was exhausted;
  • progress made in science / invention did not translate into widespread successful application. The development of institutions which allowed economic change in response to individual enterprise was central to successful application initially in Britain and Europe at the time of the industrial revolution.

In 2002 the present writer was privileged to be able to make suggestions about economic advancement to a forum in Indonesia, which included individuals trying to find a path to that country's modernisation under the direction of the Sultan of Yogyakarta (Indonesia's traditional 'cultural' leader). This included further comments on the difficulties created by social and cosmological rigidity, because of the economic importance of flexible change (see Comparative Development Theory: Indonesia / Australia).