Taking a stand for moderate Islam
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — As often as he can find time, Australia's senior Muslim cleric, or "Mufti," takes a religious journey of sorts to a Sydney dump. With him he brings handfuls of pamphlets, fliers, and books filled with Islamist messages and personally disposes of them.
As head of a popular mosque in Sydney's suburbs, Sheikh Taj Din Al Hilaly has lately been on a mission to steer the younger generation of Australian Muslims growing up in the shadow of Sept. 11 away from what he believes is the biggest danger to his community: fundamentalist literature. To set an example, he has taken it upon himself to gather the inflammatory writings from wherever he can - sometimes from neighbors, sometimes from shops, and many times from his own mail box.
"It's so easily available and often these pamphlets are left on your doorstep," says the affable man of Egyptian origin, speaking through an interpreter in his vast book-lined office, which prominently displays both the Islamic and the Australian flags. "There is no other way of getting rid of this stuff. Otherwise, it keeps coming back into circulation - it's like nuisance junk mail, but more dangerous."
The Mufti represents what many in the West have yearned to see: A moderate Muslim willing to aggressively fight extremism. But some in his community feel that he has overstepped his authority, and deny that his voice speaks for Australia's Muslims.
Sheikh Hilaly's latest target is "Jihad and Jurisprudence," a book that became available earlier this year at the main Islamic bookshop in Sydney's Lakemba neighborhood. Written in Arabic by Abu Qatada - suspected of being Al Qaeda's leader in Europe and now under arrest in Britain - the book exhorts Muslims to violence. Joining a jihad group, Mr. Qatada writes, is "not a seasonal choice" but a divine order.
"Infidel Christians and Jews who live on Muslim lands can be considered protected people, but those who are not in Muslim lands can have no protection and cannot be protected; they are war infidels," Qatada writes.
The book, Hilaly says, encourages Muslims to shed blood and says it is sinful to live in Western countries.
The Mufti and his family have prospered since coming to Australia in the 1980s. His four children are studying economics, law, and medicine, and one of them works part-time for Qantas, the national airline.
"We are all happy here, but people like Qatada are trying to make things difficult for us," he says.
Hilaly has seen such material lead to the breakdown of some Muslim families within his own community.
"In a recent case a 23-year-old man suddenly decided after being influenced by this sort of book that no one in his family would be allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio. He terrorized his family in this way until they called me in to try to help," he says.
Much of the most controversial literature is Wahhabi, including the works of Sheikh Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia. But Hilaly refuses to blame any particular country for the spread of radical Islamic theology.
The Australian government has expressed its concern regarding the dissemination of literature to Saudi embassy officials, but there is little more it can do short of banning the distribution of such publications.
Hilaly's detractors question his role as spiritual head of the Islamic community.
"We don't have any connection with this so-called Mufti," says Ahmed Shah, the imam of the Doncaster mosque in Melbourne. He disagrees with the choice of the Imams of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, who gave Hilaly his honorary title. "How can he guide us if he doesn't speak English when so many of our people are from countries like Turkey, Lebanon, [and] Pakistan," asks Mr. Shah.
Others question the Mufti's methods.
"There are plenty of websites for extremist Islamic thinking. Books on the other hand are very hard to find," says Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Public Affairs Committee in Melbourne, who sees his main purpose to correct misapprehensions about Islam that appear in the Australian media. "I don't believe that the Mufti is achieving very much."
There are also allegations that the Mufti tailors his message to his audience. On a recent trip to Lebanon in February, he allegedly called for an Islamic revolution and Islamic ideology in Western countries during a sermon. He is even alleged to have said, "September 11 is God's work against oppressors."
Outraged, Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer called the remarks "appalling and provocative."
However, Hilaly's spokesman, Keysar Trad, insists that his words had been taken out of context and changed during the Arabic-to-English translation.
"The Mufti never gave a call to arms or any of the things that the media is saying right now. That's rubbish," he insists.
Despite the kerfuffle that ensued, many Australian leaders remain convinced that Hilaly is someone they can deal with. He has had close relations with the former immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, known for his stern, uncompromising stance, and Hilaly has albums of pictures of meetings with other senior politicians.
Mr. Trad dismisses the rumor that there is a move to replace the Mufti with younger, more hotheaded Muslim leaders in upcoming local community elections.
"The Mufti will stay on as long as he has the support of the Federation," he says.