Australian Cleric’s Words Expose Divide

Australian Cleric's Words Expose Divide

Published: November 5, 2006
Filed at 2:33 p.m. ET

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) — A senior Islamic cleric's comments comparing unveiled women to ''uncovered meat'' could widen a cultural divide between the majority of Australians and the country's Muslim minority, which has been criticized for failing to suppress its extremist fringe.

Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, the mufti of Australia since 1989, apologized last week for any offense he caused by saying during a sermon that women were soldiers of Satan and comparing women without headscarves to ''uncovered meat'' who invite rape.

However, al-Hilali has defied demands to stand down, insisting he was misinterpreted, while calls by Prime Minister John Howard and other outraged politicians for the Muslim community to remove him from his post have been ignored.

Howard, who stresses that Islam is a faith of peace and says he has no problem with the majority of Muslims, has warned of a cultural divide between the broader community and followers of the version of Islam reflected by al-Hilali.

''Unless this issue is resolved in a way that is seen as appropriate by the majority of the Australian community, it could do lasting damage to relations between Islamic Australians and the rest of the community,'' Howard said Friday.

Al-Hilali's comments have split Muslims, with some groups joining the demands for him to quit. But 34 Islamic groups issued an open letter last week accusing the media and political leaders of using the uproar ''as an opportunity to vilify the Australian Muslim community.''

Some leaders in the Muslim community, which has no national hierarchy, concede views like those expressed by al-Hilali are held by some Australian Muslims, though they are a minority. His remarks have triggered a debate about how to formalize the faith's leadership structure to better reflect the moderate majority's views.

''We have to do something to tackle these sort of medieval views about the women, which is not good in a country like Australia,'' Ameer Ali, a prominent cleric who heads a group that advises the government on Muslim issues, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. ''We have to have more liberal-minded people taking the leadership in Islam.''

Racial tensions between Australia's 300,000 Muslims and the wider population of more than 20 million have been rising in recent years, partly because of anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and the October 2002 bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

Howard also sent Australian troops to join the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, contributing to a feeling among many Muslims that Christians are against their faith.

In addition, Howard has angered many by locking up illegal immigrants while their asylum applications are processed, which often takes years. In recent years, many illegal arrivals have fled violence or persecution in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Australians generally consider their society — built initially on immigration from Europe and more recently from Asia — to be egalitarian, but many people react angrily to any group that resists integrating with the broader community.

Open ethnic or religious conflicts are rare in Australia, and the country was shocked by days of street brawling last December between white and mostly Lebanese gangs in suburban Sydney.

The fighting was fueled by accusations the gangs were roughing up people on a beach and authorities had failed to provide enough security, but many believed it exposed an undercurrent of racism.

There have been no demonstrations in the aftermath of al-Hilali's comments, though a rally in support of the cleric was planned until he urged people not to turn up.

Howard has said that moderate Muslim leaders must do more to stamp out extremism or risk being ostracized from the broader community. His government has launched plans for a citizenship test for immigrants that would include basic standards of English and Australian values and customs.

Some observers have accused Howard of trying to marginalize Muslims by taking a tough stance as he eyes a historic fifth term in office in next year's elections.

''I'm concerned that the government believes that it can win the next election best by … trying to make the majority of Australians believe that Muslims are different and don't really fit in,'' said former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, an ex-leader of Howard's own party.