Australia’s most senior Islamic cleric sparked uproar on Thursday after describing immodestly dressed women without headscarves as “uncovered meat” inviting sexual attack.
“They are appalling and reprehensible comments,” Prime Minister John Howard told reporters. “The idea that women are to blame for rapes is preposterous.”
The government’s sex discrimination commissioner called for the cleric, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, to be sacked and deported from the country, where bikinis and miniskirts reflect a sun-drenched lifestyle.
Al-Hilali made the comments in a Ramadan sermon to 500 worshippers last month in which he criticised women who “sway suggestively”, wear make-up and no hijab or Islamic headscarf, The Australian newspaper reported.
Women compared to meat
“If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?” he said.
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“The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward said Al-Hilali, who has the title Mufti of Australia, had a history of making such comments and should be thrown out of the country.
“It is incitement to a crime. Young Muslim men who now rape women can cite this in court, can quote this man, their leader in court,” she told Australian television.
“It’s time we stopped just saying he should apologise. It is time the Islamic community did more than say they were horrified. I think it’s time he was asked to go.”
Goward said she was not aware of the citizenship status of the Egyptian-born cleric who arrived in Australia in 1982 from Lebanon.
Al-Hilali later issued a statement apologising for any offence caused by his remarks.
“I unreservedly apologise to any woman who is offended by my comments,” he said. “I had only intended to protect women’s honour, something lost in The Australian presentation of my talk.”
Islamic groups quickly disassociated themselves from Al-Hilali’s remarks.
Comments ‘un-Islamic and un-Australian’
The Islamic Council of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the capital, dubbed the comments as “un-Islamic, un-Australian and unacceptable”.
Islamic Council of Victoria spokesperson Waleed Aly predicted a backlash against Muslims, saying: “I am expecting a deluge of hate mail. I am expecting people to get abused in the street and get abused at work.”
Australia last month announced plans to toughen its citizenship policies but denied that new demands requiring immigrants to pledge allegiance to “Australian values” were aimed specifically at Muslims.
Under the government blueprint immigrants will have to sit a 45-minute test covering competency in English and issues such as democracy, the rule of law and the equality of men and women.
The move came after repeated complaints by Howard that some members of Australia’s 300 000-strong Muslim community refused to fully integrate into society.
Howard has expressed fears that Australia could face an attack by local Muslims similar to the July 2005 London suicide bombings by young British Muslims that killed 56 people.
Like Britain, Australia contributed troops to the US-led invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, and has been vilified by Islamic militants.
More than 20 Muslims are facing charges under anti-terrorism legislation adopted after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.