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

Sheikh Hilaly Controversy: Has Mufti Day ended down under? (Part II) November 24, 2006
A flag waving fanatic?

Bahasa Lakemba?

Recently I played host to some Malaysian journalists visiting Sydney under an exchange program under the auspices of the Australia-Malaysia Institute. Like all things Malaysian, the delegation was truly multi-ethnic. They consisted of one Indian, 2 Malays and 2 Chinese. They were also multi-lingual. All spoke English, though 2 blokes (an Indian and a Malay) wrote for newspapers printed in Bahasa Malaysia.

The Institute is largely funded and managed by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT). The DFAT officer wanted to make sure the journos saw the brighter side of Muslim Australia.

So on Thursday night, I invited the journos to dine with some Muslim professionals and business people. Among the crowd were former executive members of the Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA), the organisation which manages the mosque where Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly regularly preaches.

Our guest Malaysian scribes were already aware of the Hilaly story. Not content to speak to articulate middle class Muslims, the journos wanted to speak to the Sheik himself. They insisted I arrange for them to visit Sheik Hilaly, even prepared to see the Sheik at his mosque (located some 35 minutes by train from their city hotel).

I’m not sure if the journos did manage to find the Sheik. I put them onto the Sheik’s adviser and translator, an Australian Lebanese chap named Keysar Trad.

The Sheik & the uncles

Keysar Trad is a household name in Australia. He served for a number of years on the LMA executive, including at least one term as President. At the time, Trad was one of the few LMA executive members who could speak English. He was also quite well-read, and was involved in a number of translation projects.

When Sheik Hilaly was appointed Mufti back in the late 1980’s, his English-language skills remained poor. Given that most of his congregation were native Arabic-speakers, Hilaly did not require an interpreter. Though one wonders how much this largely uneducated northern-Lebanese crowd could understand the Sheik when he spoke the classical “Shakespearean” fus-ha Arabic (with an ever-so-slight Egyptian twang).

Living a culturally sheltered life solving problems of the Lebanese ghetto was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. Hilaly performed admirably well, making himself available at all hours of the day and night, attending to all kinds of domestic and not-so-domesticated disputes. The Sheik was less of a jurist and more of a social worker.

Yet media attention focussed more on events overseas involving Islam and Muslims. Hilaly could see that the Uncle Letmesplaynyoo’s running Muslim umbrella bodies were ill-equipped to face the barrage of media queries. Despite appointing him as Mufti, the uncles hadn’t bothered t provide Sheik Hilaly with the resources and support he needed to do the job.

Handling Muslim Australia’s alleged dregs

Indeed, neither the former villagers of the LMA executive nor the peak body Uncles enabled Sheik Hilaly to invest the time needed for him to learn proper English. It is easy to blame Sheik Hilaly for not mastering the language. But Hilaly clearly had the most Muslim problematic congregation in the country, a congregation characterised by high unemployment, poor educational achievement, few role models and other social problems.

The Lebanese Muslims were regarded by other ethnic Muslim groups as the dregs of Muslim Australia, a PR disaster and a burden few wanted to associate with. The snobbish middle class Pakistanis of my parents’ generation saw the Lebanese as an embarrassment. The Lebanese also looked at non-Lebanese with disdain. I remember visiting the Imam Ali Mosque in Lakemba with my family on one occasion before Sheik Hilaly arrived. I won’t forget the racist taunts we received as we walked in with our shalwar kameez outfits.

No ethnic or cultural Muslim community wanted to deal with the Lebanese. None, that is, except their newly-appointed imam. And Hilaly was well-suited to this role, having lived in Lebanon for many years and having been appointed by the LMA on the recommendation of the Mufti of Lebanon.

Looking after this highly fractured and tribalised community was a full-time job. The more recent arrivals of Australia’s Sunni Muslims hailed largely from Tripoli, Mina and surrounding districts. They were a heavily fractured community whose leadership was dominated by a number of key extended families.

Hilaly was able to rise above this Tripolian tribal politics and earn the respect and trust of the competing factions. Maintaining that trust was itself a full time juggling act. If he were to effectively operate as Mufti also, Sheik Hilaly needed support and resources.

Mis-managing the Mufti

Australian Muslim community organisations have spent little money on decent media and public relations. At the time of writing, I visited the LMA’s website. On the left hand side is a box containing the words “Public Relations”. I clicked on the box and the words “coming soom” appeared! By the time this gets published, I doubt that situation will have changed.

In Australia, we have plenty of ethnic language newspapers in Arabic, Turkish and other languages. But sadly, ost Muslim organisations were dominated by the sort of people Chicago comic Azhar Usman would describe as “Uncle Letmesplaynyoo” types.

The elderly uncles were more concerned with political infighting and earning money through donations and grants from Middle Eastern governments. They were reluctant to support a Mufti who used the pulpit to criticise Middle East governments with whom their organisations had lucrative contracts in halal meat certification.

Middle Eastern money always came at a price. The 1980’s were a time of sectarian fervour. Today’s Bush administration may regard Iraqi Shia Muslims with favour. But American administrations back then were paranoid about Shia Muslims from Iran exporting their version of revolutionary Islam.

Hilaly refused to engage with sectarian politics of the pro-Iraqi and pro-Saudi kind. He was distrustful of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, whose administration had bankrolled and armed the most radical and bloodthirsty Christian militias in Lebanon. Hilaly also was committed to greater cooperation between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and sponsored numerous joint-programs between the two communities.

Once he was appointed Mufti, Hilaly was not provided with the facilities and assistance he needed to do the job properly. Indeed, he wasn’t even provided with a job description. The peak national Muslim body which appointed him had no idea exactly what role he was going to play. Hilaly, rightly or wrongly, decided to play a very public role analogous to the often highly political roles played by senior imams in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.

There were no shortage of government and broader community institutions and groups willing to engage with Hilaly as Mufti of all Australian Muslims. The problem was that he could not speak their language (and by “their”, I mean not just broader Australia but the vast majority of Australian Muslims).

Quite a few Muslims (including myself) have been quite critical of Trad for his insistence of defending even the most indefensible statements of Muslim figures in Australia. But unlike so many other Muslims, Trad was prepared to talk to the media when no one else would.

Hilaly’s Muslim critics

At the same time, many Muslims resented the public role Hilaly played. It wasn’t uncommon to read letters to the editor published in major newspapers across Australia written by Muslims and requesting reporters not to describe Hilaly as the “Mufti” or “spiritual leader” of Australian Muslims.

Many Muslims expressed concern at the frequent reports of Sheik Hilaly’s verbal gaffes. Often these were the result of highly questionable translation by suspect groups who have their own jaundiced agendas. For such groups, any comment on Middle Eastern matters which did not involve blind acceptance of the most extreme positions of the Israeli far-Right was enough to be pilloried.

The problem with Hilaly was that his verbal gaffes and controversies were so regular, and his responses so embarrassing, that he soon became a public relations liability. The Sheik’s spin seemed to be spinning out of control, and the image of all Muslims suffered.

In the final instalment of this tale, I will discuss Hilaly and his relationship with the pro-Syria al-Ahbash cult. I will also discuss efforts by the Australian government to fund and engage with this fringe Lebanese cult at the expense of the vast majority of Australian Muslims with little or no relation to Lebanese religious politics. In this sense, the al-Ahbash’s attempts to gain government recognition are similar to those of the followers of Hisham Kabbani and Nazim Qubrussi in the United Kingdom.

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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