Friday, April 13, 2007

Agonising over Hilaly's future ...

Has Mufti Day finally come to an end? It's hard to tell at this stage. Notwithstanding recent reports in the Sun-Herald, it seems Muslim religious bodies still agonise over the future of the controversial Tajeddine Hilaly.

The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) created the position of “Mufti of Australia” to provide Acting Prime Minister Paul Keating with an excuse to grant Hilaly permanent residency back in the late 1980's. Hilaly was given no duty statement, no resources and no secretariat. His only assistant was former Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA) President Keysar Trad.

Trad, who incorporated his own “Australian Islamic Friendship Society” after being voted off the LMA executive, continues to defend Hilaly. AFIC president Ikebal Patel has deferred the issue to a newly-formed Australian National Imams' Council (ANIC), which has deferred any decidion for a further three months.

Traditionally, the office of Mufti in Muslim countries was to interpret the sacred law (known as sharia) to deal with novel situations. The Mufti issues a fatwa, a non-binding yet influential legal opinion.

Yet in the Australian context, sharia limits its own jurisdiction to purely religious and ceremonial matters. One novel question which has dogged Australian Muslim communities is how to sight the new moon to determine the beginning and end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Do we use astronomical calculations? Or the naked eye? Or some combination of both?

On even something this basic, Muslims don’t feel obliged to follow Sheik Hilaly. Instead, they tend to follow the ethnic or linguistic Muslim community they feel closest to. It often happens that Sheik Hilaly celebrates the end of Ramadan while many (if not most) Muslims are still fasting.

Despite holding the grand title of “Mufti of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific”, at best Hilaly's influence is limited to a certain faction of Lebanese Sunni Muslims living in the cities of Canterbury, Auburn and Bankstown.

New Zealand's peak Muslim body issued a press release last October reiterating that Hilaly was not Mufti of New Zealand. Hilaly hasn't sent any religious delegation to the tsunami-ravaged Solomon Islands, nor have Muslims there requested one.

Even in his own backyard, Sheik Hilaly could not even manage to convince a sufficient number of Muslims to sign relevant forms to register his Peace Party in time for the NSW State Election.

In the seat of Auburn, which has perhaps the highest proportion of Muslims of any NSW state seat, Labor incumbent Barbara Perry won comfortably, even managing a swing of 2.3 percent on a two-party preferred basis. Perry managed to secure some 24,000 primary votes, her nearest Muslim rival candidate (Auburn Councillor Malikeh Michaels of the Greens) secured 1,621 votes.

High profile party-endorsed Muslim candidates (such as Michaels and the Democrats' Silma Ihram) deliberately and publicly distanced themselves from Sheik Hilaly. Even in the Premier's seat of Lakemba, home to the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque where Hilaly precahes, his impact on the result was minimal. Iemma posters could be found in the front yards of Muslim households just as they could in the front yards of other ALP-supporting households.

The LMA, which manages the Imam Ali Mosque, lists Hilaly has one of five imams serving their congregation. This organisation, like most other mosque management bodies, is an ethno-religious body. It is well known in Muslim circles that the LMA's constitution limits full membership and voting rights to men eligible for Lebanese citizenship. Sheik Hilaly isn't known to have publicly opposed this membership apartheid, which hasn't won him any friends in non-Lebanese Muslim circles.

These facts won't stop allegedly conservative politicians using the Mufti mess to focus on allegedly anti-integration Muslims refusing to adopt Australian values, deflecting attention away from their inability to act on bigger issues such as climate change, as well as providing cover for legislative and policy concessions they give to genuinely anti-integration groups such as the Exclusive Brethren.

Allegedly conservative media pundits will continue to use this incident as further evidence that Australia needs to address “the Muslim question, re-hashing conspiracy theories of Muslims conspiring to overrun Australia's “Judeo-Christian” and/or “secularism heritage by stealth.

But most Muslims aren't interested in appearing in yet another chapter of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Lakemba”. Hilaly is very much the roaring mouse that journalists love to report but Muslims choose to ignore. And with Hilaly’s chronic inability to control his tongue (and now, it seems, his purse), many Muslims will already regard Mufti day as being well and truly ended.

An edited version of this article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday 9 April 2007.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007