Tuesday, June 21, 2005

How an Aussie Sheik disarmed his critics

(This article was published in the Canberra Times on 21 June 2005. It can be read also at ...
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How Sheik al-Hilali has disarmed critics
Irfan Yusuf.
Tuesday, 21 June 2005

SHEIK Taj el-Din al-Hilali is a controversial figure at the best of times. He arrived in Australia to take up the position of Imam (resident scholar) at the main Lakemba mosque to replace another who had been removed under controversial circumstances. Since then, he has been frequently quoted making unfortunate (and at times, downright offensive) comments.

Around 20 years ago, in a speech at Sydney University, Sheik al-Hilali was quoted as saying that Jews controlled the world using pornography and corruption. I was at that seminar. The speech was in Arabic with simultaneous translation using overheads. No cameras were present. I was so upset at this that I complained to the organisers.

Then, hardly five months after the event, I saw on TV news reports a senior and respected Jewish community leader holding a video cassette in his hand. One of Sheik al-Hilali's enemies with close links to the Saudi Embassy had secretly videoed the entire speech.

Sheik al-Hilali and his employer (the Lebanese Moslems Association) were forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees to stop his deportation. Eventually, someone in Acting PM Paul Keating's office suggested a position be created for the Sheik. Hence the new title, Mufti of Australia.

What is a Mufti? Is he an Archbishop or Governor General of Australian Muslims as has been suggested by his former adviser, Keysar Trad? The position of "mufti" has rarely existed in Muslim minority communities. Britain does not have a Mufti. The United States has a Council of Imams, most of whom speak fluent English and are native Americans.

The mufti's role has tended to be that of a Queens Counsel. In complex or novel legal questions, you go to the mufti for legal advice. The mufti gives you an opinion which is authoritative but not binding. That advice is known as a "fatwa".

The real position of legal authority in traditional Muslim societies rests with the Qadi (Chief Justice), not the mufti. Indeed, many Muslim communities have multiple muftis to handle the large workload. In Pakistan, there is a mufti in each city for each school of thought.

The position of mufti was hastily created for Sheik al-Hilali by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. It appears not much thought went into the process. To this day, it is unclear as to exactly what the mufti's role is. Is it to tell us when we have sighted the moon correctly to identify the start of the new lunar month? Is it to provide advice on how to reach the pearly gates of Paradise? Or is it to comment on the latest Israeli incursion into Lebanon?

Sheik al-Hilali's inability to speak and communicate in English has been a huge problem, and an enormous source of embarrassment for Aussie Mossies. It is, therefore, little wonder that the Sheik is misunderstood even by his own community.

So who is to blame for this dysfunctional leadership situation? Firstly, before anyone points the finger at the Sheik, we need to understand his situation. The Sheik entered a divided congregation of highly traumatised Lebanese migrants with fresh memories of a war zone. Lebanese Muslim migration to Australia is unique in that most Lebanese Muslims have tended to come from uneducated village environments. Most are unskilled and have little English language abilities.

The Sheik has had to be all things for all these people. He has had to handle their social, economic and family crises. His time is so occupied with these matters that he has not had much chance handling the bigger issues.

When the Government and the Wood family approached the Sheik to help secure Mr Wood's release, some accused him of seeking publicity. But the sheik is an old man with a serious heart condition and a community at loggerheads. He had every reason to stay in Australia. Instead, he dropped everything and risked his life to enter a war zone. At the very least, he was able to arrange delivery of much-needed medication to Douglas Wood.

Sheik al-Hilali has many critics among Australian Muslims. I am one of them. But on this occasion, I would have to agree with the assessments of John Howard, Alexander Downer and the Wood family. Regardless of how influential a role the sheik played in the end, his very presence in Iraq speaks volumes for his commitment to his adopted country.

Mainstream Muslim Australians need to find time from managing major banks and telecommunications companies and commercial law firms and government departments to participate in community management.

We sit back on our laurels and do nothing. And we get the result predicted by the Prophet Muhammad 14 centuries ago: "You will get the leaders you deserve from amongst yourselves".

The author is a Sydney employment and industrial lawyer and a former legal adviser to the Islamic Council of NSW. iyusuf@sydneylawyers.com.au

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