Sheik Hilali has forfeited the right to lead Australia’s Muslims
The ongoing conversation about Australia’s values has, up until now, been characterised largely by motherhood statements about tolerance, mateship and a fair go. But instead of looking to define ourselves by what we are, it might be helpful to take a moment and examine what we are not. And it would be hard to find a better example of ideas that go against the grain of Australia’s shared values than those expressed in a Ramadan sermon by Australia’s supreme Muslim cleric, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, and reported by Richard Kerbaj in yesterday’s The Australian. For in likening immodestly dressed women to “uncovered meat” that can be dragged away and eaten by cats, the nation’s Mufti appalled both Muslim and non-Muslim Australians alike. Certainly Australians of all creeds reject the idea that if a woman is not, as Sheik Hilali put it, “in her boudoir, in her house and … wearing the hijab” then she has only herself to blame if she is sexually assaulted. Nor is there any room in the broad spectrum of our shared thinking for the idea that women are “90 per cent” responsible for adultery because they possess “the weapon of seduction”. And the less said about Sheik Hilali’s declaration that women are weapons used by Satan to control men, the better. All of these comments and many more which were part of the sermon are completely beyond the pale of acceptable speech and demonstrate that there are limits to how tolerant a society can be. Perhaps most offensive was Sheik Hilali’s allusion to Sydney’s infamous gang rapes and his suggestion the perpetrators were not to blame because a woman “puts on makeup and powder and takes to the streets”. Hearteningly and with few exceptions, Australia’s Muslims seem to agree that Sheik Hilali’s comments were vile. The Islamic Council of Victoria’s Waleed Ali called the sermon’s contents repugnant while the most prominent female Muslim leader, Aziza Abdel-Halim, said there was no connection between a woman’s morality and her private decision to wear or not wear a head covering. One of Sheik Hilali’s few defenders is his spokesman, Keysar Trad, himself no stranger to controversy.
This is not the first time Sheik Hilali’s words have gotten him into trouble. Two decades ago Chris Hurford, immigration minister under Bob Hawke, rejected the cleric’s application for permanent residency and attempted to deport him because of his divisiveness. Yet this would not deter Sheik Hilali from attempting to spread his own brand of rhetorical poison across a country settled largely by people who came here to abandon the enmities of their home countries, not stoke them. In 1988, he infamously told Muslim students at Sydney University that Jews used “sex and abominable acts of buggery, espionage, treason and economic hoarding to control the world”. Despite this, in 1990 Sheik Hilali was granted permanent residency by the Hawke government, thanks to heavy lobbying by senior ALP figures including Paul Keating eager to secure votes in western Sydney and burnish their multicultural credentials. In 2001, after 353 people drowned in the Siev X disaster, Sheik Hilali said the Prime Minister had “opened the gates to death”. In 2004, he visited Lebanon and described the September 11 terrorist attacks as “God’s work against oppressors” and said that “good lies in evil”. Sheik Hilali would later defend himself to the ABC’s Geraldine Doogue, saying that the controversy stemmed from errors in translation from his florid, High Arabic style. As he put it weakly at the time, “it was poetry and in poetry we go a little bit into the imagination of presentation”. The Mufti has since showed no desire to abandon these ancient themes of virulent anti-Semitism. In the midst of a sermon last November criticising anti-terrorism laws, the sheik complained that the Holocaust was a “Zionist lie” and asked, “What’s that six million all about? Is there six million?”. This past winter he described Israel as a “cancer” in the heart of the Muslim world. Yet despite all the evidence against him, Sheik Hilali has been able to rehabilitate himself time and time again in the public eye, whether by pleading errors in context and translation or by wrapping himself in the Australian flag, sometimes literally, and declaring himself an AFL fanatic or condemning other radical clerics or agreeing that, yes, some Lebanese-Australian parents need to keep better control of their kids. This two-faced deception must go on no longer, and the apology he offered yesterday for his remarks should be taken in light of his past behaviour.
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The time has come for the sheik to be stripped of any and all offices that suggest that he in any way speaks for Australia’s 300,000 Muslims. He has already lost his position on John Howard’s Muslim advisory board for his comments about the Holocaust. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils should demonstrate its disagreement with the sheik’s views and void his appointment as Mufti. Likewise the Lakemba Mosque should remove him as imam. But although it is easy to sympathise with Pru Goward’s wish that Sheik Hilali should be kicked out of the country for his comments, such a move would be as legally impossible as it would be reactionary. Sheik Hilali’s words unquestionably breeched all boundaries of taste and good sense. And they showed that even the much-vaunted values of multiculturalism and tolerance have their limits. Like it or not, Sheik Hilali is a citizen, and he has every legal right to stay – no matter how offensive his conduct is. At the same time, there is little evidence he would be much missed in his adopted homeland of Australia were he to return to his native Egypt of his own accord, a place where social conventions might be more to his liking. For more than 20 years, Sheik Hilali has tried to stir up division, hatred and anti-Semitism in Australia while cagily presenting himself as a mainstream friend of the nation. Thankfully, the darker side of his mission has largely failed – a fact that stands as great credit to Australia’s moderate Muslims, especially its new generation, who have by and large integrated successfully into mainstream society while rejecting anti-Semitism and retrograde strictures on women. Sheik Hilali’s extreme views have no application in modern Australia and do nothing but harm to relations between Muslims and the rest of the country.