Sheik Al-Hilali due back as controversy continues in Australia



It might sound improbable, but Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali is hoping to sneak back into Sydney next week quietly and without fuss. 

Not much about Australia's senior Muslim cleric has been quiet or fuss-free since his comments last year comparing immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat, and last week's remarks to Egyptian television that Australians were liars. 

Fearing another media circus greeting his return from his two-month self-imposed exile to Mecca and Egypt, the sheik is even keeping the date of his arrival from his closest advisers. 

His absence from Sydney, however, has not dulled debate on his contentious role as the spiritual leader of Australia's 300,000 Muslims, with rival Islamic factions still divided over his future. 

The newly established Australian National Imams Council has given itself the task of uniting the Islamic community's fractured leadership and will discuss the sheik's position as grand mufti at its first conference in April, after rescheduling it from January. 

But rival groups in the splintered community dispute the authority of the council which is made up of 77 imams from around Australia, including Alhilali. The controversial Islamic Charity Projects Association (ICPA) - an organisation with a long history of antagonism with Alhilali and his followers - says the National Imams Council is a whitewash group hand picked by Alhilali. 

The council's secretary, Sheik Shady Alsuleiman, is one of Alhilali's deputy imams at the powerful Lakemba Mosque in Sydney. "The (council) of imams has been selected by Alhilali himself so it doesn't represent the public interest of Muslims in Australia," said Bill Homaisi, an imam at Bankstown Mosque and a member of the ICPA. "Shady Alsuleiman is one of his colleagues, you could say his right hand.

Others are also his colleagues and they can't reject what he says to them. "So, we cannot believe this board is representative of the Muslim community in Australia because they are powerless to do anything to oppose him. 

"That's why they delayed the conference, waiting for his return back to Australia." 

The ICPA has been a long-time opponent of Alhilali, and his followers have accused the organisation of being associated with the group Al-Ahbash, which was linked to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association and one of Alhilali's strongest allies and his regular spokesman and defender, said the mufti has huge support among the Muslim community in Australia. 

Despite opposition from the ICPA and other groups, particularly of younger Muslims who question the need for a mufti, Mr Trad believes Sheik Alhilali will keep his position. "It's irrelevant if these types of people try to strip him of his position," Mr Trad said. "The man still enjoys a great deal of international support and grass roots support, and the grass roots that support him, their numbers are really great. 

"He will never be asked to step down because he always says: 'I'm happy to step aside - you decide whether you want me to stay or not'. "He says: 'Advertise the position, let's see someone else apply for it'. He's not the sort of person you could ever ask to step down because he's not holding on to the position, it's the community saying: 'Stay in there, stay in there'." Mr Trad says the mufti is a peerless Islamic scholar, and admits the similarly-schooled imams on the council are likely to be swayed by his presence and opinion. 

"They're people who understand where he's coming from," Mr Trad said. "They might not all agree with his comments but they understand what message he was trying to deliver. 

"In all likelihood, if the issue is raised then he will be (retained) unless he says he wants to step aside." 

Following the nationwide furore last October when the sheik's uncovered meat sermon was made public, Mr Trad said Sheik Alhilali had asked Sheik Alsuleiman, as the council's secretary, to declare the position of mufti open and call for nominations. "He's done that.

I don't know if they've received any applications yet," Mr Trad said. "Those people criticising him, put your applications in and let's measure your qualifications against his. "This is one of the realities. Not many people in the world are at that level of qualifications and certainly not many people in Australia have that level of qualifications. 

"He's in a unique position where he does command that level of respect because of his knowledge." But many of those criticising him don't believe there is a need for a mufti in a community riven by factions and different strands of the religion. 

"There are a lot of organisations saying we are the real representative of the Muslim community," Mr Homaisi said. 

"I cannot say my organisation is the real representative of the whole Muslim community in Australia because this is not the case. No one can claim this. "No one can claim: 'I am the real representative of Muslims Australia-wide', Alhilali included. "He does not represent us.

We do not need a mufti and he does not deserve the title anyway.

" Mr Trad says he believes the issue of the mufti is minor compared to the marginalisation of the Muslim community as a whole, unemployment and the lack of government support which he says is turning the Muslim stronghold in south-west Sydney into an "underprivileged ghetto". 

He said the broader issues will test the credibility of the unproven Australian National Imams Council at its first conference. 

"If the first thing this council does is deal with the mufti in a negative way, then it has lost its credibility in the Muslim community, it will lose its support," Mr Trad said. "Because we have bigger issues than this."  

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