Tuesday, October 31, 2006

OPINION: Mufti of New Zealand?

Women who refuse to cover up to the level expected by Islamic teachings are comparable to meat. Men are comparable to cats that enjoy eating meat left out in the street. Women who appear in public dressed a certain way bring rape (or at least fornication) upon themselves.

You'd think these attitudes belong in the 19th century. Sadly, a Muslim prayer leader has been caught out delivering this message to some 500 Muslims at a Sydney mosque. The comments, made some weeks back during the sacred fasting month of Ramadan, are creating headlines across the world.

So why should any of this concern New Zealand readers? The prayer leader concerned, Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly, has been given the title of "Mufti of Australia, New Zealand & the South Pacific". And he has held this title for over a decade.

That means this latest case of "foot-in-mouth" disease from the Sheik may well reflect upon Muslims in New Zealand , many (if not most) of whom have probably never heard of him.

Across Australia, the Sheik's comments have been greeted with disgust and uproar by both Muslims and non-Muslims. The Chairman of the Islamic Council of Queensland has described the remarks as indefensible and that Sheik Hilaly should be “put in his place”. Waleed Aly from the Islamic Council of Victoria says the comments were “particularly inflammatory and really caused a lot of pain to a lot of people”.

Politicians have also stepped in, with Prime Minister John Howard calling upon Muslims to act decisively or risk harming relations between Muslims and the rest of Australia. The PM told ABC TV:

What I am saying to the Islamic community is this - that if they do not resolve this matter it could do lasting damage to the perceptions of that community within the broader Australian community, and that would be a tragedy.

That's all fine. But Australian Muslim leadership organisations are divided and seem powerless to act. The implications of their inaction could well be felt by Muslim communities across the Tasman and the Pacific.

New Zealand and South Pacific Muslims had little say in the appointment of Sheik Hilaly as their Mufti. The appointment was made during the late-1980's. At the time, Sheik Hilaly's immigration status was not finalised. He faced deportation after being caught out making grossly anti-Semitic remarks during a speech to students at the University of Sydney .

Paul Keating, Acting Prime Minister at the time, was keen to grant the Sheik permanent residency and so gain support from the Sheik's congregation who lived largely in Keating's electorate. Such a decision could only be made if Hilaly was given a special title. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) decided to create the position of "Mufti" and appointed Hilaly to fill the post.

The term Mufti is frequently translated as spiritual leader or archbishop. Yet Islam knows no priesthood, and the Mufti is usually little more than a legal expert able to give authoritative but not binding opinions on the application of Islamic religious law to novel situations.

The appointment of Hilaly as Mufti was done without any meaningful consultation with Muslims on either side of the Tasman. No record seems to exist of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) or any peak Muslim body in the South Pacific endorsing the appointment.

Making matters worse, Hilaly is senior imam at a mosque managed by the Lebanese Moslems Association, a body which only allows males eligible for Lebanese citizenship to be members. So the Mufti of our region is imam at a mosque whose membership structure institutionalises racism and sexism.

Sheik Hilaly's recent remarks are the most recent instalment in a chequered career of offensive remarks. Some months back, just prior to the Lebanon conflict, Hilaly questioned the numbers of European Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Given that Australia 's Jewish communities have the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel , the remarks were particularly offensive.

Sadly, Sheik Hilaly's gaffes do remove focus from some of the good work he has done over the years. Ironically, Hilaly is among the more progressive imams when it comes to women's issues. As a founding member of the United Muslim Women's Association, Hilaly was instrumental in the establishment of Australia 's first Muslim women's refuge. He was also recognised by the Australian government as playing an instrumental role in the freeing of Australian hostage Douglas Wood from his Iraqi captors.

Even in relation to his recent comments, many Muslims felt Sheik Hilaly may have been misquoted by hostile elements in the Murdoch Press. Rupert Murdoch was quoted some months back as suggesting Muslim migrants had dual loyalties, and the flagship Murdoch broadsheet The Australian has allowed openly racist and xenophobic commentary about Muslims to be printed in its op-ed pages.

But on this occasion, the newspaper did its homework and released the recording of the Sheik's speech to other competing media outlets, all of whom came up with substantially the same translation.

Even worse is that Hilaly's words reflect attitudes not limited to some Muslims. AAP reported on October 27 a study showing two fifths of Australians surveyed believed men who rape do so as they are unable to control their urges. The Violence Against Women Community Attitudes Project survey also found one in four people believe domestic violence is OK as long as perpetrators genuinely regret it afterwards.

If the Hilaly incident illustrates anything, it is that society's attitudes toward violence against women need a major re-think on both sides of the Tasman.

An edited version of this article is to appear on 31 October 2006 in the Dominion-Post published in Wellington New Zealand.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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