Over the weekend, I joined people from a range of backgrounds and faiths in the heart of Canberra for the annual Eid Mela which celebrates the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This year, the festivals of Eid and Divali (the Hindu 'Festival of Lights') took place within days of each other, and the Hindi word Mela (which means 'festival') was used to provide a peculiarly sub-Continental flavour to the event.
In Canberra, Muslims gathered to celebrate the multicultural, multilingual and multi-confessional nature of our great capital city. Two Sikh gentlemen started the day, entertaining guests with a gorgeous rendition of traditional sitar music. This was followed by prayers and songs by performers of Sri Lankan, Chinese and Spanish origins without forgetting a group of young children singing the Australian national anthem.
And why shouldn't she and the other faith leaders be pleased? Ordinary Canberrans are happy to celebrate multiculturalism, as were Sydney-siders attending the Multicultural Eid Festival and Fair at the Fairfield Showgrounds.
It seems the only people unpleased with Australia's multicultural reality are a minority of pseudo-conservative politicians and commentators determined to impose their own version of a mono-cultural revolution on Australia. Unfortunately, the words of Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali in an address given in Sydney's Lakemba Mosque some weeks back have provided them with plenty of fuel.
Sheik Hilali's remarks were first reported in The Australian a newspaper which many Muslims regard as conducting a vendetta against their community. It is impossible, of course, to make sweeping generalisations about any newspaper sure, The Oz has provided space for commentators to sprout their conspiracy theories about the alleged threats posed by Muslim migrants and their children, but similar theories are also published in the Fairfax Press.
For its Muslim critics, however, what makes The Oz different is the frequency with which such views are published. Many Muslims see this in the context of reported comments made some months back by Rupert Murdoch when he suggested that Muslims weren't to be trusted as they always put faith over loyalty to the nation.
In relation to Sheik Hilali's comments, the Friday 27 October 2006 edition of The Oz carried a full 8 pages of broadsheet material on the issue. Yes, you read it correctly. Eight pages! You'd think the Sheik had just completed 10 years as Prime Minister or delivered his 10th budget!
John Howard, in particular, has shown a startling level of hypocrisy and double standards in his comments on the Hilali case.
He has placed the onus on Muslims to deal with Hilali. Ultimately, the only bodies that can control Sheik Hilali are the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) and the Lebanese Moslems Association (LMA). AFIC created the position of 'Mufti of Australia' and immediately appointed Hilali to fill it. Howard is aware that AFIC is currently under administration. I doubt any court-appointed administrator would be prepared to take so sensitive a decision as to sack the nation's most senior Islamic religious jurist, notwithstanding the outrageous nature of his remarks.
That leaves the LMA, which owns and manages the Imam Ali ben Abi Taleb Mosque in Lakemba, where Hilali generally preaches. Hilali is not employed by the LMA as an official resident religious scholar (or 'Imam'). Indeed, one former LMA Vice President has advised me that Hilali has never been on the payroll. Even before he was appointed Mufti, his wages were paid from a combination of sources the Libyan Islamic Call Society and private individuals.
A few years ago, Howard clearly showed his views on sexual assault victims in his response to comments made by a former Governor-General of Australia. Readers will well remember this saga, and I do not wish to repeat details which could cause further distress to the parties directly affected. The point is that on that occasion, Howard could have pressured (and maybe even forced) the Governor-General to stand down. He chose not to.
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Indeed, Howard's cheer-squad from the allegedly conservative commentariat claimed at the time that the entire campaign against the Governor-General was a huge conspiracy by republicans to discredit the Vice-Regal office just as today, Hilali's supporters claim the attack on the Sheik is a conspiracy by News Limited and elements within the Sydney Lebanese community.
Conservative politicians and commentators critical of Hilali should recall their own refusal to deal with the gross offence caused to all victims of child sexual assault. That offence and hurt was compounded by the refusal of the conservative establishment to act on the matter. Indeed, far from acting, conservatives ignored loud protests from across the Australian community for the then Governor-General to resign.
Today, the LMA and many Sydney Lebanese Muslims seem to be playing the same game of strident defence that the PM and his allies did. In this sense, the LMA's approach is perfectly in accord with the PM's precedent and hence with the his vision of 'Australian values.' The PM has no right to criticise those who effectively follow his example.
Of course, the Governor-General on that occasion showed more decency than his conservative supporters. Notwithstanding the shield he received from their moral and political support, he resigned.
Contrary to claims from some media quarters, Hilali is not being shielded by those he claims to lead. Across Australia and New Zealand, Muslim leaders and community members are up in arms over the Sheik's comments. Muslim women have expressed particular disgust. Even members of the PM's Muslim Reference Group have expressed outrage.
Sheik Hilali should follow the example of our former Governor-General and resign of his own accord.
But this seems unlikely. His followers are already planning a rally to show their support for him this Saturday. Their antics are orchestrated by a small minority of die-hards who rely on Hilali's status as Mufti to gain some notoriety of their own. These people wish Mufti-day would never end, regardless of how much damage it causes to the image of Muslims or the person of Sheik Hilali himself.
Hilali was handed the mantle of Mufti-hood to suit the politics of then Acting Prime Minister Paul Keating, who felt nervous that his backyard was turning Liberal after the NSW State seat of East Hills was lost to the Liberals in 1986 following a by-election swing of 17.5 per cent. It was a short-term decision with long-term consequences.
What the broader community knows about the Sheik are his frequent gaffes and his refusal to learn English. But many in his Lebanese Muslim congregation love him dearly. Even his Muslim critics have had no hesitation in acknowledging the good that Sheik Hilali has done over the years.
The Sheik has made himself available to people of all ages and ethnic groups and at all hours of the day and night. In most Muslim-majority countries, people holding the title of Mufti live like Governors-General, residing in palatial homes and attended to by servants. Their relationship with law-making is certainly similar to those holding Vice-Regal address. Often the Mufti has his fatwas (or religious decrees) written for him by government officials, and he merely rubber-stamps it.
To his credit, Hilali has not been owned by any government. He has been critical of all Arab governments, and he has steered his large congregation away from the nefarious influence of Middle Eastern governments that are ever-ready to provide short-term funding in return for long-term influence.
(It's interesting to note that the man Hilali replaced as Imam of the Lakemba Mosque went onto form his own splinter group and established the Markaz Saddam Hussein Islami The Saddam Hussein Islamic Office!)
And if Hilali goes, who will take his place? For many Muslims living outside the Lebanese ethno-religious 'ghetto' of southwest Sydney, the position of Mufti means nothing. But if there is going to be a Mufti, they believe they would be better off having someone who will not do such damage to the image of Muslims in Australia.