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Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Muddle Headed Mufti - The Drama Continues

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This cartoon by Sturt Krygsman was very eye catching.

Sheik Hilali is a man of controversy and contradictions

e is revered by the Muslim community almost everywhere he goes in Sydney's southwestern suburbs, the nation's Arab heartland.

Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, the 65-year-old spiritual leader of Muslims in Australia, is so popular he is never allowed to pay for a meal when he eats in Muslim restaurants. When others offer to pay for him, they are also politely refused. "He is the Mufti and we are happy to provide for him," says the owner of La Roche, a Lebanese restaurant in Lakemba.

The sheik - often seen tearing around the streets in his white Ford Falcon and being mobbed by followers, including women - has an enormous power base of supporters among the Muslim communities in Sydney.

He is renowned for his kindness, charity and support for women's movements. He helped establish the Muslim Women's Association and he runs classes for Muslim women every Thursday at Auburn.

Hilali offered to help Australian model Michelle Leslie, who was jailed in Bali for drug possession, after she converted to Islam. He also offered her support after she decided to return to the catwalk, modelling swimwear.

[Click Read More to...]

He has won praise for encouraging inter-faith dialogue and for keeping a lid on tensions in the Muslim community.

But the man known as the nation's most senior Muslim cleric has created enormous controversy in the 20 years since he was appointed the leader of Australia's Muslims, a position that carries the title of Mufti. His critics are as strident in their condemnation as his supporters are devoted.

He was pilloried this week for a sermon delivered at the Lakemba mosque during Ramadan, which compared women who don't wear hijab-style dress to meat left out for cats. "If one puts uncovered meat out in the street, or on the footpath, or in the garden, or in the park, or in the backyard, without a cover and then the cats come and eat it, is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem ... If she was in her room, in her house, wearing her hijab, being chaste, the disasters wouldn't have happened. The woman possesses the weapon of seduction and temptation," he said.

Following a nationwide outcry, he issued a statement saying that any form of harassment of women is unacceptable. "I fully respect women. Any degrading conduct towards or disrespect to women is degrading conduct and disrespect for my mother, my sister, my wife and my daughter."

His 25-year-old daughter Asma al-Hilali defended him, saying "he has probably spent more time working for women's rights than for his own family. And he has upheld the values of all women, no matter what they wear." But it was too late. There were widespread calls for him to be stripped of his title and citizenship, and deported.

Hilali's leadership of Australia's Muslims has always been disputed by sections of the Islamic community.

He was appointed to the honorary position of Mufti with the support of the country's peak Islamic body, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, in 1989. But there is no formal hierarchical structure for the Muslim faith in Australia, although there have lately been moves to set up a board that registers Muslim leaders.

And there have always been some Muslim leaders who say he has no right to use the title of Mufti or to say he is Australia's most senior Muslim cleric.

Some Islamic leaders in Victoria do not recognise his claims to national leadership, and much of this can be sheeted home to the wide ethnic differences between Muslims across the country.

Hilali is Egyptian-born and most of his followers in Sydney are Lebanese. Yet in Victoria, many Muslims are of Turkish or Albanian background and disagree with some elements of Islam in the Arab world.

Controversy has dogged the university-educated sheik since his days in Egypt, where he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood is one of the most influential Islamist movements in the world. It was founded in Egypt in 1928, and Egypt is still considered the centre of the movement. It promotes an Islamic state through non-violent means. But breakaway members of the group have gone on to establish terrorist groups, including al-Qa'ida.

Hilali arrived in Australia in 1982 and overstayed his tourist visa. He came to the attention of the authorities in 1988 when he gave an anti-Semitic lecture to a group of Muslim students at the Universisity of Sydney. It was titled The Disposition of Jews in the Light of the Koran, and he was quoted as saying: "Judaism controls the world by secret movements (and) destructive doctrines and groups such as communism, libertinism, Freemasonry, Baha'ism, the Rotary clubs, the nationalistic and racist doctrines. The Jews try to control the world through sex, then sexual perversion, then the promotion of espionage, treason, and economic hoarding."

Following this speech, federal immigration minister Chris Hurford attempted to have him deported for inciting hatred and being against "Australian values". He survived the push and was granted permanent residency in 1990, and eventually citizenship.

Efforts to deport him failed because of the large support he had within the Islamic community in Sydney and from Labor politicians including, according to reports, Paul Keating when he was treasurer in the Hawke government.

Hilali, who now holds joint Australian and Egyptian citizenship, has since been regularly accused by Australian Jewish organisations of anti-Semitism, an accusation he denies.

Hilali was born in Egypt into what he says is an environment of knowledge and scholarship. "My father, my grandfather (and generations of forefathers) were scholars who were inheriting the teachings," he said in a radio interview. "My mother died when I was a child and the one who raised me was my aunt, who actually recited the whole Koran by heart. And she used to teach me. I learned to recite, to memorise the whole Koran, when I was 10 years old. She also taught me a lot of poetry, which I still remember."

After getting married in 1975, he and his wife Souhair travelled extensively, and their four children were born in Egypt, Lebanon and Australia. They settled in Sydney and led a quiet life for almost a decade before Hilali was arrested in 1999 on trip to Egypt after allegedly buying pharaonic antiquities from a smuggling ring for $192,000.

He was charged with smuggling antiquities. Egyptian prosecutors alleged Hilali had conspired with Egyptian priest Nassid Elias Michael and his son Bassem Michael to buy the artefacts. He was sentenced to one year's jail but the case was overturned on appeal.

Then, in 2003, he was stopped by police in Sydney and charged for driving an unregistered and uninsured vehicle. He was charged with assaulting and hindering police, which lead to reprisal attacks and public condemnation of the police action. Although charges of assaulting and hindering police and resisting arrest were later dropped, he was fined $400.

In 2004 he created another furore with a speech he gave in a mosque in Lebanon. It was claimed he praised the September 11 attacks on the US as "God's work against the oppressors" and supported Arab martyrs and a holy war against Israel.

Hilali said the translation was out of context and that anyone who rejoiced in or supported "the 9/11 event knows nothing about the Islamic teachings". He denies he supports terrorism and has put out numerous statements condemning acts of terror.

Earlier this year Hilali split from AFIC, the group that supported him as the Mufti, saying he no longer wanted its "money or sympathy". Hilali warned the council to stop feuding. "I would like it to be known that for what is left of my life, I have taken the decision to take my stipend from God and will not accept a salary from any organisation, whether Islamic or otherwise," he said.

Hilali's split from AFIC came after the embattled group had to apologise for saying his $40,000-a-year salary would be stopped because the council's accounts were frozen. They had suggested he apply for the dole.

Hilali warned the leaders of AFIC - which had been ethnically divided since its April elections, when a group of Pakistanis took control from Fijian Indians - that they should not squander the community's money on court brawls.

"There is no place in our society for these ethnic groupings that only produce grudges and personal score-settling," he said.

His split with AFIC did not affect his standing in the community and he continued to hold the position of Mufti.

A month ago he was dumped from John Howard's Muslim Community Reference Group after denying the Holocaust and calling it a "Zionist lie". He also referred to Israel as a "cancer".

Yesterday, Hilali was busy apologising for any offence caused by his remarks about immodestly dressed women and saying he had been misunderstood.

He said in a public statement that "women in our Australian society have the freedom and right to dress as they choose; the duty of man is to avert his glance or walk away".

[Developing story more updates to come]

Article written by Natalie O'Brien,
Taken from the Australian:

Muddle Headed Mufti

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