The Australian Muslim community’s misfortune is that it will operate in the shadow of Sheikh Taj a-Din al-Hilaly for many years to come.
In addition to his recent public notoriety for comments regarding women, his seeming contempt for Australian sensibilities and his apologies for anti-Western extremists, he never resiled from, let alone apologised for, obscene anti-Jewish rhetoric and hostility to other non-Muslims. This has complicated the already complex area of interfaith dialogue.
The circumstances under which he became mufti and then maintained the title for the best part of two decades also raised questions as to the goodwill and/or good judgement, of the Islamic community’s leadership.
During times of high tension, such as the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Australia would have benefited greatly from an Islamic authority figure who could relate to the broad community. While individual Muslim figures, some with constituencies far larger than that of Sheikh Hilaly, worked hard at showing leadership and building bridges, the former mufti always lurked on the public stage.
After the controversial decision of two Sydney Jewish leaders to sign a joint declaration with Sheikh Hilaly in an effort to nip in the bud anti-Jewish violence by supporters of the Palestinians, the number of attacks sky-rocketed. Evidently, the Mufti either could not, or would not, influence extremists.
While muftis in some other countries are figures of authority and general respect, Australia’s first mufti was unwelcome in both the corridors of political power and at the round tables of dialogue. Religious leaders, regardless of denomination, face public scrutiny and sometimes vigorous criticism, from their own co-religionists, members of other faiths and the media, particularly when they enter debate rather than explain their beliefs to others.
The new mufti, Sheikh Fehmi Naji al-Imam, is already under scrutiny, primarily for comments which appeared to support the custom of female genital mutilation, his presentation of Hezbollah as a legitimate and worthy political party and his quasi-apologies for the Sept. 11 murderers.
If he is able to satisfactorily explain his stance on these matters, it is to be hoped that he will play a role in adding impetus to the forward-thinking and constructive endeavours by some of Australia’s most important Muslim organisations in building bridges with other faith communities.
In late May, I was a member of the Australian delegation to the Third Asia-Pacific Regional Interfaith Dialogue, entitled “Building Bridges”. I had the opportunity not only to contribute to a variety of regional initiatives but also to work with representatives of other faiths from Australia, ASEAN and major Pacific nations.
As the Jewish participant in the interfaith prayer service, I was asked, and was happy to answer, countless questions about Jews and Judaism from Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others, many of whom had met very few, if any, Jews before.
The Australian delegation included three prominent Muslim Australians, all of whom approached the “bridge building” with commitment and vigour. Ameer Ali, Ikebal Patel and Sheikh Shafiq Khan understand that sage leadership of their communities includes helping others understand Muslims and have Muslims understand others.
Indeed, within days of the Regional Conference concluding in New Zealand, I spoke at the Peace and Harmony Conference organised by Shafiq Khan, where I was treated to intelligent, thoughtful questions and both warmth and respect.
At that conference, with featured addresses by senior federal ministers and other politicians, educationalists, diplomats and religious leaders, I witnessed first-hand the intellectual vibrancy of a community growing, if slowly, in the confidence which allows honest, transparent debate of issues of serious public concern. Sheikh Hilaly was not at either of the conferences. In fact, his presence would have had a negative impact on their work.
It is not possible as yet to comment on Sheikh Fehmi’s likely contribution to interfaith dialogue. However, the simple fact that Sheikh Hilaly is no longer mufti offers a chance for positive momentum towards Australia showing the way to the rest of the world in interfaith relations.