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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
Australia's Muslims fear backlash
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali
Sheikh Hilali's remarks come at a sensitive time in race relations
A few weeks ago, I happened to interview Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali outside the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney where he delivered his controversial sermon.

A softly-spoken man, who clearly commands both enormous respect and affection within his community, the Egyptian-born cleric discussed the government's recent proposals for an Australian citizenship test - an examination which many Muslim immigrants believe is targeted at them.

His English is poor, and it was difficult at times to make out precisely what he was saying.

But he told me he was keen to encourage the greater use of English in mosques and for Imams to gain a much greater understanding of Australian history and culture.

'Aussie imam'

Though he did not agree with Prime Minister John Howard's contentious view that sections of the 300,000-strong Muslim community are not doing enough to integrate themselves into the mainstream of Australian society, he seemed prepared at least to address the criticism in a constructive way.

Sheikh Hilali referred more than once to the idea of "the Aussie imam", as he called it - model clerics with a broad knowledge of Australian culture and history.

I am expecting people to get abused in the street and get abused at work
Walid Ali
Islamic Council of Victoria
Neat, snappy and eminently quotable. Just the kind of epithet which sticks in a journalist's mind.

Now some of the cleric's fellow Muslims, including the Islamic Council of New South Wales, are calling his comments comparing immodestly dressed women to "uncovered meat" as "unIslamic, unAustralian and unacceptable."

Far from building bridges with the wider community, he seems to have dug himself an almighty hole.

'Values debate'

Senior figures in the governing Liberal Party have seized upon his remarks, citing them as proof that John Howard's criticisms of sections of the Muslim community are founded in fact.

Treasurer Peter Costello, a critic of what he calls "mushy multiculturalism" and a prime ministerial hopeful, was strong - and early - in his condemnation.

Pru Goward, the country's outgoing Sex Discrimination Commissioner, also weighed in, calling for the cleric to either be deported or prosecuted for incitement to rape.

Born in Egypt
Aged 64
Imam in Sydney
Appointed mufti of Australia in 1989
A leading light in the Liberal Party, Ms Goward is a parliamentary candidate and is said to harbour prime ministerial ambitions of her own.

She will not have done her chances any harm by speaking out so forcefully on this issue.

By drawing attention to what it regards as instances of Islamic extremism, the Liberal Party clearly believes it is on the right side of the "values debate" and speaks for a large section of the electorate.

The Labour leader Kim Beazley also demanded a retraction.

Backlash feared

Sheikh Hilali has not only given his critics ammunition. His remarks seem all the more extraordinary given the sensitive nature of race relations in Sydney right now.

Sydney's Bondi Beach
Last year saw race riots at some Sydney beaches
The city is approaching the first anniversary of the ugly race riots on Cronulla beach last December, when white youths attacked people of Middle Eastern background - sparking a number of retaliatory attacks.

Only this month, the New South Wales police launched "Operation Beachsafe," assigning a flying squad of some 80 officers to patrol known trouble-spots in the hope of averting further trouble.

The fear in Sydney is that rising summer temperatures could be accompanied by a rise in racial tension.

Certainly, many Muslim leaders fear a backlash.

"I am expecting a deluge of hate mail," said Walid Ali of the Islamic Council of Victoria. "I am expecting people to get abused in the street and get abused at work."

Analysis of the cleric's controversial comments

Australia fury at cleric comments
26 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia's controversial Mufti
10 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Is cleric's apology enough?
26 Oct 06 |  Have Your Say
Country profile: Australia
17 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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