“I’ve got more freedom now” … Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly yesterday at his office attached to Lakemba mosque.
Photo: Bryan O Brien
Linda Morris Religious Affairs Writer
Sydney Morning Herald
And if anyone thought the power base of Muslims might shift to Melbourne, the home of Australia’s new mufti, Fehmi Naji el-Imam, they might better think “Lak-Canberra”.
“Control will always be in Lakemba,” Sheik Hilaly said from his office attached to Lakemba Mosque, where he remains imam and very much the centre of his own empire.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, said the sheik had done “a very bad job”. “I know many Muslims who have been embarrassed by him and have felt he hasn’t done Islamic Australia any good at all. Him standing down and a new mufti taking over, it has to be a step forward,” Mr Downer told Sky News.
* Downer’s ‘Islamic Australia’ will soon rise up and bite him in his tender ass.
But 24 hours after the leadership reshuffle, Sheik Hilaly was in fighting spirit. Remaining in the honorary position had become almost impossible for the sheik after he compared immodest women to uncovered meat, a quote he said was taken out of context.
Speaking through an interpreter, he accused unnamed federal and state politicians of orchestrating his exit, and said his stance on Israel and the US had conflicted with “Zionist-inspired interests”.
He vowed to “be more staunch against hypocrites and liars.”
Describing his new pursuits as “soccer, volleyball, fishing and politics”, he pledged to dedicate his time to cleaning up local Islamic groups and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, which have been criticised as unrepresentative. And he would have “no mercy” on any group misusing Muslim money, an allegation of which he was recently cleared by federal police.
Sheik Fehmi, his successor, needed to be “superhuman” to cope with the stressful role. “My heart goes to him for taking this suicide mission.”
Despite the face-saving story that Sheik Hilaly stepped down graciously for the sake of unity, he did not deny he was voted out five to two in favour of Sheik Fehmi, whom he had backed as a compromise candidate.
It is believed Sheik Hilaly stepped down expecting the Australian National Imams’ Council to insist he stay. Instead, Sheik Fehmi was elected. “You can’t look at it as casting votes because some of the people who were there were not fit to cast votes on this position … and we will be looking to rectify these matters in the future. What happened was what I wanted to happen.”
Sheik Hilaly portrays himself as a selfless leader wishing to spare the community further pain. He accuses federal politicians of blocking his participation in interfaith and religious conferences in retribution for his refusal to co-operate with the Prime Minister’s Muslim Reference Group.
“I’m hoping this will be enough to stop the pressure of the federal and state governments against the community and to stop the threats of taking away grants. Maybe now they will give us some burial grounds because we’ve run out of space at Rookwood cemetery. Maybe they will give us a permit to bury our dead in our backyards.”
Ahmed Kilani, the co-founder of Islamic Sydney, a website said to receive a million hits a week, argued that people outside the community did not realise what a stabilising force the imam was. Sheik Hilaly had his own independent grassroots following.
“In Islam, people are free to follow any religious imam based on his knowledge and the work he does with the community.
“Regardless of what title he wears, Sheik Taj will always be highly respected and followed because of his Islamic knowledge, first and foremost, and the service and work he has been doing for the past 20 years at a grassroots level and continues to do.”