Australian Muslim leader refuses to resign

Australia’s most prominent Islamic cleric, widely condemned for suggesting that women who don’t wear head scarves invite rape, implied today he would not resign as long as the White House continues to influence the world.

Australia’s most prominent Islamic cleric, widely condemned for suggesting that women who don’t wear head scarves invite rape, implied today he would not resign as long as the White House continues to influence the world.

The board of Sydney’s Lakemba Mosque Association met last night with Sheikh Taj Aldin al-Hilali and decided to accept his apology for comments comparing women who fail to wear the scarves to “uncovered meat”, but banned him from giving sermons for two to three months.

Asked if he would resign, al-Hilali told reporters outside Sydney’s largest mosque: “After we clean the world of the White House first.” He did not elaborate.

Supporters cheered and applauded the comments.

The cleric was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war and has previously described Bush, Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard – the three leaders who declared war on Saddam Hussein’s regime – as an axis of evil.

Al-Hilali welcomed worshippers to Friday prayers at the mosque but, in accordance with his ban, did not deliver a sermon.

He triggered a storm of protest with his remarks about immodest dress, which were made a month ago but were first published yesterday in The Australian newspaper.

Howard, who has condemned al-Hilali’s remarks, said Australia’s Muslims would be perceived as supporting the 65-year-old Egyptian-born Sunni cleric’s views if he remained a religious leader.

“What I am saying to the Islamic community is this: If they do not resolve this matter, it could do lasting damage to the perceptions of that community within the broader Australian community,” Howard told Southern Cross Broadcasting.

“If it is not resolved, then unfortunately people will run around saying: 'Well, the reason they didn’t get rid of him is because secretly some of them support his views',” Howard added.

The Mosque Association president, Toufic Zreika, said the board was “basically satisfied with the notion that certain statements made by the mufti (were) misrepresented and the mufti was misinterpreted”.

“Obviously those comments have been made, but he provided us with an unequivocal apology for saying so,” Zreika told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

Al-Hilali apologised for any offence he had caused in making the comments during a sermon marking the holy month of Ramadan.

In a translation from Arabic by the newspaper, later verified by other media, al-Hilali was quoted as saying: “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside … and the cats come to eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s?

“The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred,” he was quoted as saying, referring to the head scarf worn by some Muslim women.

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, who accused al-Hilali of inciting rape, said the temporary ban on preaching was inadequate punishment.

“I know how strongly many Islamic community people felt about those comments yesterday, how damaging they saw them in terms of Australian-Islamic relations, and I think the pressure should not be taken off just because he has agreed to be silent for three months, which we have also seen before,” she told ABC radio.

Al-Hilali also faced pressure from within Australia’s Muslim community, which numbers nearly 300,000 in a mostly Christian-heritage population of around 20 million.

Islamic Council of Victoria state spokesman Waleed Aly said the sheikh should have resigned.

“It would seem to us that the comments … have really caused a lot of pain to a lot of people, and in those circumstances we would have thought resignation was the appropriate course of action,” Aly told ABC radio. “We would have liked to have seen some form of fairly strong censure just given the magnitude and the gravity of the comments.”

But a supporter said al-Hilali had argued that his comments were misinterpreted in the same way as earlier comments by Pope Benedict XVI, who outraged Muslims last month with a speech in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and violence.

“He keeps harping on the fact that he was quoting some ancient scholar – and he was – and compares it to the situation with the Pope,” said Abdul El Ayoubi of the Lebanese Muslim Association.

Al-Hilali is considered the most senior Islamic leader by many Muslims in Australia and New Zealand, having been appointed mufti by Australia’s leading Islamic body.

In 2004, al-Hilali was criticised for saying in a sermon in Lebanon that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States were “God’s work against the oppressors”, though he later said he did not mean he supported the attacks or terrorism.

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