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Is this really a victory for ‘decency’?

‘Decency’ is one of the most overused and abused words in the English language. It is a word that has emerged in two events to capture the attention of Sydneysiders in recent weeks. One of them, a police raid on an art exhibition featuring photographs of nude adolescents, has drawn stark lines between the anti-child abuse and the pro-art camps.

I was going to blog about the Bill Henson debacle and its implications for western society and culture, also in Australia, but this article in the Sydney Morning Herald caught my eye.

It features Kate McCulloch, a woman who believes wholeheartedly in decency. Wearing a hat decorated with Australian flags, she declared that the refusal of planning permission for a 1,200 student Islamic school in the New South Wales town of Camden was a “victory for decency”.

“The ones that come here oppress our society, they take our welfare and they don’t want to accept our way of life,” she said, expressing sentiments that, when you get down to good old brass tacks, aren’t dramatically different from those expressed by the South Africans who targeted foreigners in xenophobic attacks.

The Qu’uranic Society Dar Tahfez El-Quran had purchased land outside the town and lodged a request for planning permission. In November last year, pigs’ heads on spikes were rammed into the ground on the site of the proposed institution.

Officials say that the school was rejected on planning rather than religious grounds, which is fair enough. Presumably the school would have a major impact on a small, quiet community, with most of the students having to be bussed in. But that weasel word “decency” offers a clue as to what is really at issue here. For if we’re about it in its commonly accepted sense of “morality” and “propriety”, I cannot imagine an institution in which decency will hold greater sway than a school run according to Islamic teaching.

After the 2005 riots between surfers and Lebanese youths in Cronulla, the New South Wales premier Morris Iemma (he of offers to host the 2010 World Cup if South Africa couldn’t deliver the goods) declared that the violence was triggered by “a cowardly attack on an Australian icon, a surf lifesaver”.

(So, if the victim had been a housewife or a postman, it would have been less serious? Less of an injury to the national self?)

I’ve chatted to both Australians and South Africans about this issue, from a colleague who thinks that the response at Camden was embarrassingly racist — “redneck” was the word he used — to those who feel that the residents of Camden have every right to exclude a culture at odds with the broadly Western, Anglo-Saxon worldview that holds sway there now.

I don’t know enough about the background of the issue to side with either view with any degree of confidence just yet. But I do know that Kate McCulloch is wrong. This is not a triumph for decency. Not at all.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.