Modernist Extremism: Camden and the Quranic Society

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Douglas McDonald


This paper examines the 2007-2008 controversy regarding the proposed construction of a ‘Muslim school’ outside Camden, NSW, through reference to the values of ‘tradition’ and ‘Modernity’.

The Camden controversy provoked substantial public debate on what role ‘traditional’ Australian perspectives and mores should play in a multicultural society, and the prospects for harmonious relations between Muslim and Christian communities in Australia. This paper argues that prevailing media discourses on the dispute, presenting the school’s opponents as sentimental ‘traditionalists’ without ideological content, unnecessarily simplifies the real issues in dispute. Instead, this paper argues that the ‘traditional’ values of Camden defended were the values of ‘Modernity’, as understood within a particular cultural paradigm. The protagonists of the anti-school movement did not solely see themselves as defending ‘tradition for tradition’s sake’. Rather, opponents of the school drew upon the ideologies of Modernity, with particular reference to Enlightenment perspectives on secularism and religion in the public sphere.

Furthermore, this paper argues that the Camden dispute, and the role of ‘culturally-specific Modernity’ in the perspectives of the school’s proponents and opponents, indicates the subjectivity and non-universality of Modernity. Instead of an ‘objective’ series of values and methodologies for assessing worth, Modernity must be understood as a philosophical creation of 19th-century Europe, and inextricable from Christianity. When integrated into the traditions of a society, Modernity may prove as hostile to ‘change’ and ‘progress’ as any other value system. ‘Progress’ is valued, within Modernity, merely as a means by which non-Modern values and beliefs may be replaced with the secularism, development, and empiricism which characterise Western Modernity.

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