Sheikh Hilaly Controversy: Has Mufti Day ended down under? (Part I)

A flag waving fanatic?

This morning I joined a number of other men at the Sydney offices of advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi to launch the Australian campaign for White Ribbon Day. For those who aren’t aware, November 25 is White Ribbon Day – an annual event dedicated to campaigning for the eradication of all forms of violence against women. The event is organised by UNIFEM – the United Nations Agency for Women.

WRD is a day when men in particular wear white ribbons. The purpose is to show that violence against women is a men’s issue. A minority of men perpetrate this violence, yet all men are affected. Men are victims because it is their wives’ mothers, sisters, daughters, partners etc who are the primary victims.

My personal role was to speak for some 5 minutes about why I was part of the campaign. Joining me in the campaign as male ambassadors are a number of other prominent Muslim men, including Melbourne lawyer and writer Waleed Aly and Sydney footballer Hazem el-Masri.

Unlike the other ambassadors, I wasn’t wearing a suit. Instead, I had my unironed Wallabies rugby union jersey hidden under a jacket. The choice of clothing was deliberate.

“Some of you are wondering why I’m not wearing a suit like my other colleagues”, I began. “Perhaps it’s because I think today is Mufti Day.”

Mufti fortnight?

In actual fact, the last fortnight has been a kind of Mufti day, with all focus being placed on a Ramadan lecture of a senior imam at the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in Lakemba, Sydney.

The imam in question, Tajeddine Hilaly, also claims the mantle of “Mufti of Australia, New Zealand & The South Pacific”. He was granted this title in the late 1980′s by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, the umbrella organisation representing State and Territory umbrella bodies which themselves represent mosque management societies.

Imam Hilaly is no stranger to controversy. His time in Australian public life has had its highs and lows. His inability to communicate in English, despite living in Australia for almost 3 decades, has compromised his ability to relate to the vast majority of Australian Muslims, at least 70% of whom do not speak Arabic.

The mosque where Imam Hilaly preaches is managed by the Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA), an ethnic Muslim body which limits full membership to male Muslims eligible for Lebanese citizenship. The majority of its congregation are from Tripoli and surrounding districts in Lebanon. Most are uneducated and from working class backgrounds.

Saddam’s sheik

Sheik Hilaly became the imam of the mosque after the previous imam (the late Khaled Zeidan) was removed after allegations of financial impropriety during the early 1980′s. Imam Zeidan was closely linked to the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and bore a striking resemblance to the former Iraqi leader.

The effects of Lebanon’s civil war continued to be felt in Lebanese diaspora communities. Saddam was supporting Maronite militias, and Lebanese Maronite communities were influential in Lebanese affairs in Sydney. The sacking of a pro-Saddam imam was seen as a slap in the face to key Lebanese Maronite power brokers, who did everything in their power to oppose Sheik Hilaly.

Hilaly was appointed to the position of senior imam at the mosque after receiving a recommendation from the then Mufti of Lebanon. Sheik Hilaly lived in Lebanon and was known to have links with both moderate elements of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and the Libyan Islamic Da’wah organisation.

First steps

One of the first steps taken by Sheik Hilaly was to build bridges between Sunni and Shia Lebanese Muslims. This outraged pro-Saudi elements who regarded any friendship with Shia Muslims as tantamount to opposition to Saddam Hussein’s Western-backed war against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. The Saudi embassy were furious.

In time, other Arab embassies would join them. Hilaly cut his links with Libya and attempted to steer his congregation on a course of independence from the nefarious influence of Middle Eastern governments, their financiers and their embassies.

Hilaly made a point of using his sermons to castigate Arab governments for their suppression of political opposition, their human rights abuses and their chronic corruption. He also criticised them for taking a lacklustre approach to Muslims in Lebanon and Palestine.

Embassies and agencies frequently recruited disgruntled individuals to record the Sheik’s speeches. Eventually, some rather ugly comments about mainstream Australian culture, especially about women’s dress, also surfaced.

Troublesome congregation

It is perhaps no coincidence that Sheik Hilaly’s mosque was named after Imam Ali, the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph and the First Imam of the Prophet’s Household. Ali assumed power at a difficult time, and had to balance competing interests in a fractured and divided community. The task was enormous, and Imam Ali needed all his skills, knowledge and wisdom to face the challenge.

Far be it from me to find fault from a man of Ali’s stature, a man the dust of whose horse is worth more than my best deeds. To speak ill of Imam Ali is regarded by all Muslims, Sunni and Shia, as a sacrilege. Yet I cannot help but mention in the present context a characteristic of Imam Ali. He was a straight talker. He spoke his mind. He spoke what he believed to be the truth. And he never compromised.

Such qualities were certainly needed by anyone having to deal with the Sydney Lebanese Sunnis of Tripoli and Mena. It was hoped Sheik Hilaly could rise up to that challenge. In the end, the task proved too great for him.

Sheik Hilaly’s congregation were an exception in the rule of Muslim Australia. They were largely uneducated. Few spoke English. Indeed, the LMA executive rarely had any member of their management board who spoke passable English. They cared less for being Muslim and more for being Lebanese.

Lebanon has a fine culture. Lebanese migrants in France, the UK, North America and Brazil are known to be educated, upwardly mobile and model citizens. However, the Lebanese Sunnis who migrated to Australia during and after Sheik Hilaly’s assumption of imam-hood in the early 1980′s were from less educated and more working class backgrounds. Many were heavily traumatised from the civil war and the subsequent Israeli invasion.

Loose lips

There’s an old saying ᠬose lips sink ships. Unfortunately, Sheik Hilaly has not always been known for exercising caution in his speeches and sermons. On numerous occasions, he has been caught out making offensive and completely inappropriate remarks. When faced with negative publicity, Hilaly then claims he was misquoted, mistranslated or misunderstood.

One such occasion almost led to his expulsion from Australia. At a seminar on the first Palestinian Intifadeh organised by a small group of intellectuals calling themselves the Senior Usrah Group, Sheik Hilaly was quoted as saying that Jews used sex and corruption to control the world.

How such statements could benefit the Palestinians is anyone’s guess. They certainly didn’t benefit Sheik Hilaly. Within a few months, his face was on every TV news bulletin and newspaper. Jewish community leaders and politicians expressed their outrage, and pressure was placed on the Immigration Minister for Hilaly to be deported.

Politics saves the day

Somehow, political trends in Australia ensured that the acting Prime Minister, Paul Keating, deemed it in his political interest to grant Hilaly permanent residency. At the time, a large chunk of Hilaly’s congregation lived in Keating’s federal electorate. Part of his electorate formed the state seat of Bass Hill, and had just been lost by Keating’s Labor Party in a state by-election.

Keating was desperate. So were the LMA. They approached him and sought his assistance. His office suggested they create a position for him which reflected his filling an essential niche within the broader Muslim community.

But the LMA was ill-equipped to provide such a platform. The LMA was an openly ethnic organisation with little support or influence among the broader Muslim community. Many non-Lebanese Muslims saw Hilaly as an irrelevant firebrand, an imam who refused to learn English and an embarrassment. Hilaly surrounded himself with bodyguards and seemed to spend more time talking Middle Eastern politics than developing Australian Islam.

The LMA executive themselves were hardly model citizens. Most were unemployed, uneducated and unable to speak English. Their community was an embarrassment, and were known more for appearing on Criminal Court lists and for receiving large personal injury compensation payouts.

Middle class educated Muslims from Turkish, Bosnian, Pakistani and other culturally Muslim communities saw Lebanese Muslims as an embarrassment. The LMA’s membership rules and the rhetoric of many of their executive members also gave them a reputation for being openly racist.

On its own, the LMA could do nothing. They therefore approached the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC). After much cajoling and arm-twisting, AFIC decided to create the position of “His Eminence, The Mufti of Australia, New Zealand & The South Pacific”. Sheik Hilaly was appointed to that position. It was a purely political move, designed to give the Keating government the trigger to grant Hilaly permanent residency.

Hilaly’s women

Hilaly’s appointment was resented by other imams, especially the Turkish imams who were associated with the Diyanet Vakfi (Religious Trust) associated with the Turkish Presidency for Religious Affairs. Turks are among the largest and oldest cultural Muslim communities in Australia. Many arrived during the mid-1950′s, during the notoriously racist White Australia Policy.

Hilaly also became a hated figure among chauvinistic Lebanese men. When the LMA refused membership to women, Hilaly encouraged women in his congregation to organise themselves. And so was born the United Muslim Women’s Association (MWA).

Hilaly was a passionate advocate for women’s involvement in Muslim community management. He spoke powerfully against domestic violence, and gave his blessing and support when the MWA opened its first Muslim women’s refuge in Sydney. The MWA is often criticised for being dominated by Lebanese women from select families. However, the bulk of women using the refuge facility are from non-Lebanese backgrounds, including a fair proportion of non-Muslim women who find the MWA’s crisis accommodation more culturally appropriate.

Hence, when the most recent case of foot-in-mouth disease afflicted the Sheik, the MWA were the first to castigate the comments but also to defend the man. They paid tribute to Sheik Hilaly’s historical role in founding and supporting the MWA’s activities.

Hilaly has other supporters. But after his recent comments about women’s dress, he also has gained numerous critics. Hence, debate rages within the Muslim community about what his future role (if any) should be in the Muslim community. Many (including the writer) believe that the time has come for Hilaly to resign or retire gracefully.

At the same time, elements of the Australian media and pseudo-conservative establishment have used the Hilaly controversy to paint Muslims in a certain light to suit their mono-cultural revolutionary agenda. We are told conservatives believe in maintaining the status quo. But some Australian conservatives want to tear down the Australian multicultural status quo. They see Muslim-bashing as their surest road to success.

Interested readers should watch this space.

Third in a series – also see:

Has Mufti Day Ended
Down Under? (Part II)

Has Mufti Day Ended
Down Under? (Part III)

Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney, Australia. He is also an occasional lecturer at the School of Politics at Sydney’s Macquarie University. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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