CANBERRA, Australia, Friday, Oct. 27 — Australia’s top Muslim cleric has been barred from preaching for three months after he compared women who dress immodestly to meat that is left uncovered and then attracts cats. But the government on Friday denounced the punishment as too lenient.
The comments by the cleric, Sheik Taj el-Din Hamid Hilaly, the mufti of Australia’s biggest mosque, outraged many Muslims and other Australians and prompted calls for his firing and deportation.
On Thursday night the Australian Lebanese Muslim Association, which owns the mosque, suspended him.
On Friday, Prime Minister John Howard said that was not enough.
“I believe that unless this matter is satisfactorily resolved by the Islamic community, there is a real worry that some lasting damage will be done,” Mr. Howard told Australian radio. “We do not want the Islamic community isolated. We do not want the Islamic community to be an object of criticism and derision.”
Mr. Howard said that Mr. Hilaly, who was born in Egypt and courted controversy two years ago by glorifying martyrdom and calling the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States the work of God, was now an Australian citizen and could not be deported.
Mr. Hilaly has apologized for his recent comments, which he said had been misinterpreted and taken out of context. He attended prayers at his mosque, the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, on Friday, but did not give the sermon.
In a Ramadan sermon last month, he said sexual assaults might not happen if women wore a hijab and stayed at home.
“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,” he said, according to the translation, “whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem.”
His sermon has again strained relations between the conservative government and sections of Australia’s Muslim population, constituting 1.5 percent of the 20 million Australians.
Tom Zreika, president of the Australian Lebanese Muslim Association, said the three-month suspension was intended to give Mr. Hilaly time to consider his future and the impact of his comments.