Why Hilali must go, and go now
Surely no sensible person would speak in favour of a DVD that urges children to martyrdom, calls for a war between Islam and the West, and labels Jews “an army of pigs”.
Imagine this scene. John Howard rises before the dispatch box, takes stock of a baying Opposition, and clears his throat. “Mr Speaker, I acknowledge that the Minister has been caught red-handed, and not for the first time, in an egregious financial impropriety. Immediate and decisive action is required. I will appoint a panel to look into the matter and then I might sack him. Or perhaps I won’t. Either way, I’ll get back to you in a few months.”
Absurdity has turned into reality in the serial drama that envelops Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, the holder of the pre-eminent clerical post in the Australian Muslim community.
In a consummate example of having your cake and eating it too, the Australian National Imams Council, made up of the country's most senior Muslim clerics, has placed Hilali’s survival as mufti of Australia well and truly on the agenda … well, at least maybe.
According to spokesman Dr Mohamad Abdulla, the conference has formed an executive board of 15 members which will consult with the wider Muslim community and then make a decision on the position of mufti in about three months time. A decision that achieves nothing and everything, depending of course on how you spin it.
Not that any amount of community consultation is needed to shed light on Hilali’s credentials. His latest foray into the headlines concerns the destination of thousands of dollars in donations from the Sydney-based Lebanese Muslim Association, intended to aid victims of the recent war between Lebanon and Israel.
Now significant questions have been raised concerning the whereabouts of that money, together with allegations that it may have partly ended up in the hands of terrorist organisations. This has understandably altered the interest of the Federal Police, and forced the Lebanese Muslim Association to repay $10,000 to donors that was misappropriated to a Lebanese radio station operated by propagandist Bilal Shaaban, head of the Islamic Unity Movement - well known for his support of suicide bombers and insurgents.
As always Hilali will no doubt deny any wrongdoing, and although the Lebanese Muslim Association has responded swiftly, this latest scandal begs the question, yet again, as to why Hilali remains in his post.
Long before the latest incident Hilali had accumulated a remarkable record of offences. A quick inventory of Hilali’s infractions is more than enough.
"September 11th is God's work against oppressors", he said, but only if you believe a translation made by the Australian Embassy in Lebanon. Quizzed about this by Geraldine Doogue on ABC Radio, Hilali explained it away as “poetry and in poetry we go a little bit into the imagination of presentation".
Then there was the notorious comment that women who do not wear the hijab, or head-dress, are like uncovered meat, and another that appeared to excuse pack rape. Pru Goward, Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner went further and accused Hilali of inciting rape.
On the Egyptian television show Cairo Today, Hilali branded Australians inveterate liars and again excused convicted gang rapists. On women as victimisers: “When it comes to adultery, it’s 90 per cent the woman’s responsibility. Why? Because a woman owns the weapon of seduction.”
Go back to 1988 and we recall his infamous accusation that Jews are the root cause of all wars. John Howard saw the light. He dumped Hilali from the Muslim Community Reference Group over his blatantly anti-Semitic sermon which labelled the Holocaust a Zionist fraud.
This catalogue of bigotry is not the issue here, at least not on this occasion. The National Imams Council’s sidestep reminds us that every defence of Hilali relies on equivocation: yes, he’s the mufti of Australia, but no one really has to do anything he says, despite his enormous following and his imprimatur as a religious leader. Sure, he speaks for some Muslims, but not the entire community, as though anyone speaks for all in even the most perfectly represented group. Okay, he’s misogynistic and labels Jews a global threat, but hey, so much is lost in the translation. But then even his own translator is caught fudging his responses to the ABC’s Monica Attard earlier this year.
And now the final insulting equivocation. Yes, agrees the Muslim leadership, he really should go, but just give us a few months to think it over. This is not decision-making: it’s pure diversionary tactics.
The problem with this latest equivocation is that it undermines us all, not just the leadership of the Muslim community. It invites the slander that so often shadows the debate about multiculturalism; that ethnic groups prefer to isolate themselves and will not willingly adopt the norms of their new home. Or worse, that they impose their values on the rest of us, protected behind a veil of multiculturalism.
The National Imams Council had an opportunity to take a stand against Hilali, not as a person, but as someone who does not represent their views. It had the opportunity, and muffed it. The message was heard clear enough in other parts of the world. Qatar’s largest selling English language newspaper, the Gulf Times, trumpeted the headline, “Australian Muslims endorse controversial cleric al-Hilali”. There’s real admiration there, and certainly a reasonable interpretation.
No one is suggesting that all Australian Muslims are anti-Semitic misogynists, but Hilali is precisely that. His own words tell us so. And the National Imams Council’s prevarication sends just as clear a message that leaders of their community can attack Australian values, not once but repeatedly, and the worst that can be expected is a lukewarm rebuke and a few months in the naughty corner. In truth the Gulf Times had it just about right.
Hilali should have been dismissed from his position a long time ago, but it wasn’t done. It should certainly have been done when the opportunity presented itself to the Imams Council. His bigoted tirades are not only insulting to members of other religious and ethnic groups directly affected by them and diminish cohesion in Australian society generally, but also taint his fellow Muslims.
A multicultural society can thrive only if all its members are prepared to take a strong stand against racism and bigotry. Hilali must go. Now.
This opinion piece was originally published in the 5 April 2007 print edition of The Canberra Times.