Government and Muslim leaders sent controversial cleric Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali an unequivocal message yesterday: if you don’t like it here, don’t come back.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said it, NSW Premier Morris Iemma echoed her, and Muslim leader Kurander Seyit — formerly a staunch defender of the sheikh — suggested he should be “put out to pasture”.
The Mufti of Australia was an increasingly isolated figure as Muslim leaders distanced themselves from his latest indiscretion: an interview on Egyptian television in which he claimed Muslims were not free in Australia and Anglo-Saxons were unjust and dishonest.
In the program Cairo Today, shown in Australia on satellite TV, Sheikh Hilali said that Muslims, who paid their own way to this country, were more Australian than Anglo-Saxons, who came in chains.
Senator Vanstone said on radio she was annoyed that someone who had been given citizenship could continually “bag” Australia. “I remind Sheikh Hilali that if he doesn’t like Australia or our heritage or our way of life, he doesn’t have to come back,” she said.
Acting Prime Minister Mark Vaile asked why the sheikh would live in a country he apparently disliked, but Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he didn’t think people took the sheikh seriously.
Many Muslim leaders rejected the new remarks strongly. “They were ill-thought out, unwarranted and unnecessarily provocative,” said Ameer Ali, former chairman of the Prime Minister’s former Muslim advisory group. “He’s kindling a bushfire that he put out only a couple of months ago. It seems this man wants to live in controversy, and no one can help him.”
Dr Ali said the sheikh showed total ignorance of how a democracy functioned, and if he had said the same things about Egypt he would have been jailed.
Islamic Council of Victoria spokesman Waleed Aly, who has previously urged the sheikh to resign, said the controversy tarnished the image of the Muslim community. He said there were Muslims among convicts sent out in the first dozen years of settlement.
The council’s women’s officer, Saara Sabbagh, said Muslim women would bear the brunt of any backlash because they were visually identifiable. “Statements like that set us back 10 years, but I think the wider community doesn’t take him too seriously any more — we certainly don’t.”
Kurander Seyit of the Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations suggested the Lebanese community, which runs Lakemba Mosque, should “send him (Sheikh Hilali) out to pasture”.
Islamic Friendship Association president Keysar Trad, a close friend and former spokesman, said the mufti was asked why he stayed in Australia, and was defending the country. He said opponents were waiting with malicious intent to misrepresent his comments.
“But I, as a Muslim Australian, do feel the need to apologise to anyone who is offended by these comments,” he said.