Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Monday, 11 June 2007 11:12 UK

Australia's controversial mufti

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali, Australia's most senior Muslim cleric
Sheikh Hilali has been criticised for comments about suicide bombers
For nearly two decades, Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali was Australia's most senior Muslim cleric or mufti.

To his supporters, he is a charismatic figure, but he has vocal critics, some of whom accuse him of extremist attitudes.

In 2006 he triggered outrage across Australia by referring to immodestly-clad women as "uncovered meat" who invited sexual assault.

In June 2007 he was replaced as mufti after a meeting of senior clerics in Melbourne.

His former spokesman, Keysar Trad, said Sheikh Hilali had been targeted by politicians.

The Anglo-Saxons arrived in Australia in shackles. We (Muslims) came as free people. We are entitled to Australia more than they are
Sheikh Hilali

"If something can be misinterpreted or carry ambiguity, they will go for the worst possible spin, so the mufti has decided to step down and let someone else take the pressure," he said.

But Rehin Ghauri, a Muslim leader from Western Australia, said the cleric was too controversial.

"Al-Hilali is very experienced, but he has caused some problems to the community," he said, "I don't like his personality, I don't like his style."

'Condemning violence'

Sheikh Hilali is the imam at the Lakemba Mosque in suburban Sydney. He was appointed mufti by the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils in 1988.

He has a history of making controversial comments, but caused a storm in October 2006 with a speech suggesting that women who dressed immodestly only had themselves to blame if they were raped or sexually assaulted.

My experiences... would tend to indicate that he represents a relatively small portion of that community at the very most
Jeremy Jones, Executive Council of Australian Jewry

"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside... and the cats come and eat it... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat?" Sheikh Hilali was quoted as asking during a sermon in Sydney.

"If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab [headscarf], no problem would have occurred," he added.

Sheikh Hilali later apologised and said his comments had been taken out of context and "misinterpreted".

But he again sparked anger earlier this year when he appeared to mock white Australians - prompting Prime Minister John Howard to call for him to step down.

"The Anglo-Saxons arrived in Australia in shackles," the cleric said. "We (Muslims) came as free people. We bought our own tickets. We are entitled to Australia more than they are."

In the past he has been accused of praising suicide bombers and claiming the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 were "God's work against oppressors" - remarks he also insisted had been misinterpreted.

"My stand is very clear. I have a long history of condemning violence and extremism," Sheikh Hilali once told the BBC.

However, he has also been a fierce critic of the Americans. "I see extremism of any sort to be just as dangerous - or more dangerous - than Aids," he said.

"One of the causes of extremism is the dictatorial regimes that the United States has created, and continues to support, in a number of different countries - and also its one-eyed stand towards Israel and its genocide against the Palestinian people," he added.

'Not representative'

There are about 300,000 Muslims in Australia. Many were born in the country, while others have come from more than 70 other nations, including Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

If something can be misinterpreted or carry ambiguity, they will go for the worst possible spin
Keysar Trad
Hilali's former spokesman

There is no real hierarchy among imams in Australia and Sheikh Hilali's position was seen by some as largely symbolic.

Jewish leaders accused him of anti-Semitism and were dismissive of his claims to represent moderate Islam.

Jeremy Jones from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry has described Sheikh Hilali as a marginal figure.

"My experiences with Muslims in Australia would tend to indicate that he represents a relatively small portion of that community at the very most," Mr Jones said.

But Kurander Seyit, the publisher of an Islamic newspaper in Sydney, said that among certain sections of the Muslim population, the Sheikh is extremely popular.

"He says what the community wants to hear. He's very outspoken in that regard, because he doesn't just take a timid role," he said.

However he believes that not all Australian Muslims saw the cleric as their spiritual leader.

"He's not really well-known outside the Arabic community, so a lot of the Indian, Pakistani - or even the Turkish, Indonesian or Bosnian communities - they know of him and have all heard about him, but really there's not much [of a] relationship there," he said.

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