Australia's Sheikh Hilaly: Winning hearts at the heart of controversy

Australia's Sheikh Hilaly: Winning hearts at the heart of controversy June 15, 2005
Hostage no longer

In Egypt, he was known as Tag al-Moulk Abdallah. After moving to Lebanon, Tag became Taj. And during the early 1980’s when a Sydney Lebanese Muslim community needed an Imam, the Mufti of Lebanon recommended this Egyptian-born Shaykh known as Tajeddine el-Hilali.

The man we now know as the Mufti of Australia had a rocky start to his time down under. He entered a divided congregation which had expelled its previous imam after allegations of fraud and dipping into Friday collections.

In an era when expatriate Arab communities maintained close ties with Arab governments, and when petrodollars were used to manipulate Muslim minority communities, it was not surprising to see Arab politics behind Shaykh Taj’s entry into the fray of the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in Sydney’s Arab heartland of Lakemba. Shaykh Taj was then associated with the Libyan Islamic Dawah Society. The man he replaced was closely associated with religious and political authorities of Iraq.

Shaykh Taj’s past frequently had an awful habit of catching up with him. His verbal indiscretions are still raised by critics. In 1988, he gave a lecture to a group of Muslim students at a seminar entitled “Jihad-Intifada, the Struggle for Palestine”. I recall attending that lecture, and complaining to the organisers that they had not bothered to have video cameras recording the speeches.

I also recall 6 months later seeing a local Jewish leader holding a copy of a video recording of the Shaykh’s speech. How did he get hold of that when no video was taken?

It seems that a person associated with the pro-Saudi faction attended the lecture with a camera hidden in a briefcase. Since then, media reports of the Shaykh consistently make reference to his 1988 comments in which he is alleged to have said that “Jewish people control the world using money, pornography and corruption”.

The Shaykh’s inability to communicate fluently in English has also been a problem. He has had to rely on a succession of translators and interpreters, few of whom were qualified to perform the role effectively.

Shaykh Taj rose to prominence when the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), an umbrella body representing various state Islamic councils, appointed him to the position of Mufti. The position was created at the recommendation of the office of the then acting Prime Minister Paul Keating. Some excuse was needed to formalise the Shaykh’s immigration status by awarding him permanent residency (roughly the equivalent of a green card in Australia), a decision the Government took on 29 June 1993.

The attitudes displayed by many neo-Con writers in Australia are aptly displayed by neo-Con wannabe, Dr Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute. Before having his column unceremoniously removed from the prestigious Melbourne Age newspaper, Henderson wrote this scathing article on March 9 2004. The same article was also published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the provocative headline “Think murder and then call it poetry”.

The writer wrote a response which was published as a letter to the editor on March 10 of the Sydney Morning Herald as follows:

Lost in translation

The day Gerard Henderson can show me a qualification in Arabic language and literature is the day I will take his assessment of what constitutes Arabic poetry seriously (“Think murder and then call it poetry”, Herald, March 9). Then again, the day the Mufti learns to speak English is the day most Aussie Muslims may consider recognising him as having any authority in political and foreign policy matters.

I. Yusuf, Sydney, March 9.

But in recent times, the Shaykh has blown Henderson, myself and other critics away with an extraordinary act of courage. Despite his advanced years and poor health (he has had at least one heart bypass operation), the Shaykh responded favourably to a call from the family of Australian hostage Douglas Wood.

The Wood family visited Shaykh Hilali at the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in early May 2005 seeking his assistance. The choice of Hilali was an obvious one for the family to make. Australian intelligence and foreign affairs establishment have little understanding of the Iraqi situation, notwithstanding the continued deployment of Australian troops to Iraq. What few contacts they have in the country are probably the types whose very involvement could lead to Mr Wood’s execution.

If Mr Wood’s kidnappers have any religious inclinations, it would be with the Sunni school. Shaykh Hilali has a well-publicised history of advocacy on behalf of Sunni communities across the Arab world. He is also highly respected in Muslim circles of all denominations. His Arabic is flawless. He is also a charismatic figure, capable of gaining almost instant appeal to Arab audiences.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the Australian government approached the Shaykh secretly for assistance. Yet government allies in the media and some elements of the Jewish community have been at the forefront of a continued ferocious attack on the Shaykh, digging up comments he made in 1988. In doing so, they have been risking the Shaykh’s mission and the life of a fellow Australian. One can hardly expect the hostage-takers to take the Shaykh seriously when they read pro-Government columnists in Australia attacking the Shaykh’s credibility.

Of course, all this neo-Conservative sabre-rattling must have been awful for the Wood family. It soon ended, perhaps after the publication of this article in the Sydney Morning Herald concerning a meeting between the Attorney General and some Muslim community figures in Sydney on how best to have Mr Wood released.

Some Iraqi Australians such as law academic Hossein Esmaeili have made more balanced assessments of the situation.

Meanwhile, most Australians have watched in admiration as an Australian religious leader announces that he is prepared to risk his life and fly to a war zone to free another Australian. Perhaps an apt way to end this would be to quote one of these Australians whose letter to the editor was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 21, 2005�

Whatever the outcome of his endeavours on behalf of Douglas Wood, Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly has shown himself to be a man of faith, hope and charity. There will be detractors standing on the safe ground of their alternative views of the world. However, the sheik has seen an opportunity to be of service to an endangered Australian, his own community and Australia at large.

Richard Manning

POSTSCRIPT: The Australian Foreign Minister has just announced that Mr Wood has been released following an operation by Iraqi security forces. He paid tribute to Shaykh Hilali and the entire Australian Islamic community, commenting that Australia’s multiculturalism has again been shown to be one of its strengths.

The Wood family have also released a statement. Wood family spokesman Neil Smail thanked the Australian government, Australian officials and agencies in Iraq and Shaykh Hilali. “The family are most grateful for his efforts � He was not well himself and put himself in considerable personal danger”, Mr Smail told reporters.

It remains to be seen if Shaykh Hilali’s critics will make any comment.

Irfan Yusuf, an Australian industrial and employment lawyer, is a freelance writer whose interests include law, gender issues, international relations, spirituality and conservative politics. His writings can be seen online at Planet Irf and Madhab Irfy.

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