Sydney-siders woke up on Easter Sunday (April 8, 2007) with the following front page headline screaming out from the Sun-Herald newspaper: “MUFTI SACKED.” Finally, it seemed the 360,000-odd Australians who tick “Muslim” on their census forms would be free of perhaps the biggest cause of their collective embarrassment. Finally, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), the peak body representing the management committees of many Australian mosques, had removed the position it created with little or no idea what kind of PR monster they had unleashed on the communities they claimed to represent.
Sadly, it seems the powers-that-be at AFIC got cold feet and are now denying the sacking. The new leadership of AFIC now denies ever sacking Sheikh Taj el-din Al Hilaly from the post of Mufti. Instead, AFIC President Ikebal Patel has once again deferred the matter to a new umbrella body of Australian Imams.
Continuing Institutional Confusion
You have to feel sorry for Australian journalists trying to report on Australian Islam. The first hurdle they must face is deciding who actually speaks for Islam. Then they must ask whether this is the same authority or person who speaks for Muslims. Believe it or not, the two can actually be different.
They certainly are different in the Australian context, where Islam is more an ethno-religious than religious phenomenon. The vast majority of Australian mosques operate along ethnic lines. The mosque where Sheik Hilaly preaches is managed by a body whose constitution only allows full membership and voting rights to men eligible for Lebanese citizenship.
To make matters worse, Muslim religious leadership in Australia involves no clear hierarchy. Only recently have Australian Imams managed to organise themselves into an Australian National Imams’ Council (ANIC) under the leadership of an academic from Griffith University, Dr. Mohamad Abdallah.
Dr. Abdallah recently spoke to Radio National and said that ANIC members had decided that the position of mufti would inevitably have to be replaced by a sub-committee of ANIC dealing with fatawa (or non-binding opinions on the position of the Islamic sacred law on novel issues). Dr. Abdallah said that ANIC “has elected its executive members in a democratic fashion and also will move forward to elect a council of fatwa, and not necessarily a mufti, to look at the affairs of the Australian Muslim community.”
Not necessarily? Abdallah continues: “There was a general feeling amongst the majority of the 60 imams who were present in the meeting on Sunday that it would be more conducive and productive for Australian Muslims to have a Council of Fatwah, which will be basically made of scholars, reputable scholars from Australia who are in their own capacities, are imams xC9 The role of this will be to take the burden of responsibility off the shoulders of one person who says he’s a mufti, and to take the responsibility as a council, as a collective body, to examine issues that affect the Australian Muslim community, particularly things that relate to legal aspects of Islamic law and Australian law.”
Dr. Abdallah quite clearly encapsulated the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the role of Australia’s mufti. “One of the suggestions that were made in the meeting was to define a mufti xC9 So there is certainly no clear definition of a mufti, but certainly the unanimous opinion of the imams who were present, that the mufti does not need to be, and should not be the spokesperson of the Muslim community.” Making matters even more confusing, Dr. Abdallah expressed the view that the federal umbrella body AFIC was increasingly seen as redundant.
Stephen Crittenden: Mohamed, is another part of this story that the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, AFIC, which started out as the body that certifies Halal meat, but somehow created this honorary title of mufti of Australia for Sheikh Hilaly, and of course which has been in utter disarray in recent times, that we’re seeing in the creation of this new body of imams, AFIC’s influence effectively disintegrating?
Mohamad Abdallah: Certainly. I think that is the case.
Stephen Crittenden: It will no longer be the body people come to for political comments?
Mohamad Abdallah: Well personally I hope so, I hope that might be the case. This was the feeling that we got from many of the Imams. One thing they asserted for sure, that we are independent of AFIC, and now that it is a Council of Imams, who are scholars in their field, they will be able to handle issues, particularly we’re talking about legal issues or Islamic issues, much better than AFIC or any other organisation.
Sheik Hilaly and Lebanese Sunni sectarian politics
Despite holding the grand title of “Mufti of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific,” Hilaly’s influence is limited, at best, to a faction of Lebanese Sunni Muslims living in the Canterbury, Auburn and Bankstown regions of South Western Sydney. Though Lebanon has a large and influential diaspora living in various parts of the world xD0 the United States, Brazil, Argentina, France and countries in the Middle East, the bulk of Australia’s Lebanese migrants came during and after the civil war and the Israeli invasion.
Many were quite literally plucked from their small town and village environments. Few had work skills relevant to Australia. Most were uneducated. Among these were Sunni Muslims from Tripoli, Mena and surrounding districts. These migrants were extracted from some of the lowest socio-economic strata of Lebanon. They brought with them sectarian conflicts unique to their region.
Among these conflicts was the presence of the followers of one Ethiopian Sheik named Abdullah Hareri al-Habashi, whose followers became known as al-Ahbash. Remnants of the movement exist in the United States, and are known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects The Australian branch of the Ahbash exist in large numbers only in Sydney.
The Australian wing of the Ahbash have a limited focus. Their activities are conducted mainly among persons of Lebanese and Syrian background, and have little interest in Muslims from other ethnic backgrounds. Further, their activities are almost exclusively confined to the Sydney metropolitan area. Apart from management of a mosque, the Ahbash also run a school with two campuses in south western Sydney.
Within Lebanese politics, the Ahbash are known to be close to the Syrian government. Their opposition to Sheik Hilaly has its roots to his years spent in Lebanon before he arrived in Australia. Though Egyptian-born, Sheik Hilaly spent a number of years working with Sunni Muslim communities in Lebanon. One of his children was born in Lebanon, and he was employed by the Lebanese Moslems Association on the recommendation of the then Mufti of Lebanon, Sheik Hassan Khalid.
Hilaly & Ahbash sectarianism
Apart from the Syrian government, the Ahbash also have a cosy relationship with sections of the Australian government. This seems largely related to their very strong anti-Wahhabi stance.
The Australian government has a love-hate relationship with the Wahhabi sect. On the one hand, the Prime Minister regularly visits a school managed by a Wahhabi foundation and headed by an allegedly Wahhabi financier with close ties to the Attorney-General.
On the other hand, the government seems to subscribe to the new neo-Conservative orthodoxy which regards Wahhabism as the source of jihadi terrorist violence. Hence, the Ahbash tailor their rhetoric to suit this orthodoxy, focussing on their opposition to Wahhabi theology.
Then again, the same trick is used by opponents of the Ahbash sect, such as the followers of Nazim Qubbrusi and Hisham Kabbani, leaders of a Naqshbandi order. Some followers of Qubrussi and Kabbani recently set up a Sufi Muslim Council which uses virtually the same anti-extremist rhetoric as the Ahbash sect and which was recently backed by a senior Minister of the Blair government in the UK.
The moderate credentials of the Ahbash have been questioned by those who have had dealings with this fringe Lebanese sect. The Ahbash prohibit Muslims from assisting non-Muslim communities in pursuing their lawful rights to build houses of worship, and are not known to be involved in any inter-faith activities.
Lebanese sectarianism setting the Muslim agenda
This intra-Lebanese dispute between the supporters of Sheik Hilaly and the Ahbash has featured heavily in reporting of Muslim affairs, especially in national broadsheet The Australian, owned by US citizen Rupert Murdoch. The Oz (as it is known in Australian media circles) has employed an Arabic-speaking reporter of Lebanese Druze extraction named Richard Kerbaj.
Kerbaj has broken numerous stories about Sheik Hilaly, many of them based on material provided by members of the Ahbash sect. Unfortunately, in the past, much of Kerbaj’s reporting has focussed on the Sydney Lebanese Sunni sector, leaving the broader Australian community with the impression that Lebanese affairs and Muslim affairs are one and the same. Hence, the ongoing battle of words between Hilaly and the Ahbash is often projected as affecting Muslims of all ethno-religious backgrounds, including the vast majority of Muslims who have little time for either side of the conflict.
Despite their best efforts, it seems the Ahbash will play only a minor role in the removal of Sheik Hilaly. The new Australian National Imams’ Council’s fatawa sub-committee will more than likely render the position of mufti redundant.
And so it seems inevitable that Mufti Day will inevitably come to an end. For many Australian Muslims, it ended years ago.
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. He also writes regularly online for NineMSN.com.au, NewMatilda.com, Malaysiakini.com and Crikey.com.au.