Sheik Likely to Stay As Islamic Leader

By Drew Warne-Smith

SHEIK Taj Al-Din Hilali is unlikely to be deposed as the leading Muslim cleric in Australia despite the fallout over comments attributed to him praising acts of terrorism and supporting a holy war against Israel.

Speaking on return from a pilgrimage to the Middle East, Sheik Hilali, who has held the honorary title of Mufti since 1989, claimed his words had been wrongly translated.

He created a furore when, in a disputed translation, he praised the September 11 attacks on the US as "God's work against the oppressors" and supported Arab martyrs.

Sheik Hilali told ABC Radio last night that anyone who rejoiced in or supported "the 9/11 event knows nothing about the Islam teachings".

"What is truth? Actually it was a poetry and in poetry we go a little bit into imagination of presentation. I'm fully for the Palestinian intifada which is people resisting with small stones, they are resisting rockets, there are guns. Their case has been supported by the United Nations and by human rights and I do fully support it."

But the chief executive of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Amjad Mehboob, said many Muslims were concerned Sheik Hilali's speech had been interpreted as a radical call to arms.

There was growing resentment that the Mufti was seen as the sole spokesman for Islam in Australia, he said.

While Sheik Hilali could be stripped of his position in a vote at the annual congress next month, he retained wide support and such a move was "highly unlikely", Mr Mehboob said. "It's never happened before and I don't think it will happen now.

"He's done a tremendous amount of good in the community. He has a very wide following. He's well-liked, he's down-to-earth and he's certainly not a radical."

The Mufti title was bestowed on Sheik Hilali in recognition of his leadership, but it does not make him the spiritual leader of Islam in Australia, Mr Mehboob said.

Sheik Hilali, imam of the Lakemba mosque in Sydney's southwest, was also criticised for meeting the leader of the political wing of the banned terrorist group Hezbollah during his trip to Lebanon.

Sheik Hilali's spokesman, Keysar Trad, said he had consistently denounced violence against civilians and he was confident the Mufti would retain his position.

The interpretation that the Mufti supported suicide bombings had been wrongly based on his recital of an Arabic poem about a boy who confronts a tank with a stone, he said.