Cleric 'meat' remarks spark fury


October 26, 2006

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Australia's most prominent Islamic cleric will not give sermons for two or three months, but will not face censure from his mosque for a sermon comparing women who do not wear head scarves to "uncovered meat," the mosque's spokesman said Friday.

The board of the Lakemba Mosque Association met late Thursday with Sheik Taj Aldin al Hilali and decided afterward to accept his apology for the comments, which triggered a storm of protest.

Association president Toufic Zreika said the board was "basically satisfied with the notion that certain statements made by the mufti was misrepresented and the mufti was misinterpreted."

"Obviously those comments have been made, but he provided us with an unequivocal apology for saying so," Zreika told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

The decision prompted further condemnation. "I think this is a slap on the wrist," Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward said on Friday, a day after she accused Hilali of inciting rape.

Hilali triggered outrage after comments reported Thursday comparing women who do not wear a headscarf to "uncovered meat" who invite rape.

Hilali denied he was condoning rape when he made the comments in a sermon last month, and said Australian women were free to dress as they wished.

Other Muslim leaders, Australia's sex discrimination commissioner and political leaders condemned the comments.

Hilali was quoted in national newspaper The Australian as saying in the sermon: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... without cover, and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's?"

"If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred," he was quoted as saying, referring to the headdress worn by some Muslim women.

Goward said Thursday that Hilali's comment was an incitement to rape and that Australia's Muslims should force him to stand down. She also called for the Egyptian-born cleric who arrived in Australia in 1982 from Lebanon to be deported.

"This is inciting young men to a violent crime because it is the woman's fault," Goward told television's Nine Network. "It is time the Islamic community did more than say they were horrified. I think it is time he left."

Prime Minister John Howard also rejected the comments as unacceptable.

"They are appalling and reprehensible comments," Howard told reporters. "The idea that women are to blame for rapes is preposterous."

Earlier controversy

Hilali is the top cleric at Sydney's largest mosque, and is considered the most senior Islamic leader by many Muslims in Australia and New Zealand.

He has in the past served as an adviser to the Australian government on Muslim issues, but triggered a controversy in 2004 for saying in a sermon in Lebanon that the Sept. 11 attacks were "God's work against the oppressors." Hilali said later he did not mean that he supported the attacks, or terrorism.

The latest furor comes at a time when relations between Australia's almost 300,000 Muslims and the majority Christian-heritage population are tense following riots last December that often pitted White gangs against Muslim youths of Middle Eastern decent.

Howard offended some Muslims recently by singling out segments of their community as extremists who should adopt Australia's Western liberal attitudes to women's rights.

Many Muslims say they are increasingly treated with suspicion since the Sept. 11 and other terrorist attacks. Waleed Aly, a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria state, said Hilali's comments would result in more antagonism towards Muslims.

"I am expecting a deluge of hate mail," he said. "I am expecting people to get abused in the street and get abused at work."

Hilali said in a statement he was shocked by Thursday's reaction to his sermon.

"I would like to unequivocally confirm that the presentation related to religious teachings on modesty and not to go to extremes in enticements, this does not condone rape, I condemn rape," he said.

"Women in our Australian society have the freedom and right to dress as they choose, the duty of man is to avert his glance or walk away," he said.