There are times when being an Australian Muslim reminds me of arriving in London just as Rolf Harris's cover version of Stairway to Heaven hit the charts.
It was the most irritating recording in the history of rock and, as far as most Brits were concerned, each and every Australian passport holder on the face of the planet could be held personally responsible for it. It was useless to protest that I hadn't bought the CD, let alone recorded it. One Australian had taken a wobble board to Stairway to Heaven, so we all had to answer for it.
Of course, Taj Din al-Hilali's pronouncements are considerably more toxic than was Harris's desecration of a rock classic (although try telling that to outraged Led Zeppelin fans), but they have one thing in common: I have no more power as a Muslim to stop Hilali from making demented speeches than I have as an Australian to prevent Harris from recording crap novelty singles.
Whether or not he retains the title of mufti (and in the medium term he almost certainly won't), Hilali will say what he wants to say and the rest of us will just have to deal with the understandable community outrage that follows.
In the latest development, Iranian media reports say Hilali told a Tehran forum on Islamic unity that Muslims should "stand in the trenches" with the Iran. We could certainly do with some Islamic unity amid increasing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias in much of the Muslim world. But if unity means uniting behind Hilali or Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, most of us will settle for disunity. Iranians lost a generation of young men to the trenches during the 1980s war with Iraq. Why would they wish to return?
Like Hilali, most Iranians are opposed to the prospect of a US-led military operation against the Iranian Government. Iraq has proved a bad advertisement for regime change and even most of the Iranians opposed to Ahmadinejad dread the prospect of US military intervention.
Yet Ahmadinejad's brinksmanship, which Hilali appears happy to encourage, makes military confrontation likelier.
Ahmadinejad's opponents include devout Muslims who despair at the way his politics has dragged their religion into disrepute among many Iranians. An Iranian scholar who is researching women's rights in Islam says that studying this topic in Iran is difficult not only because of increasing government interference in universities but also because as soon as you say that your field has something to do with Islam, people assume that you are a government stooge and shun you accordingly.
If Hilali wants to display a little Islamic solidarity, perhaps he could show solidarity with Iranians such as this scholar. And if he wants to represent Australian Muslims, he ought to listen a little harder to those of Iranian background, most of whom came here because they didn't want to stand in the trenches with the likes of Ahmadinejad.
Hilali's Iranian escapades are only the latest in a series of embarrassments, ranging from racist and misogynist speeches to the alleged misappropriation of donations intended for war victims in Lebanon. Despite his august title of mufti of Australia, Hilali only represents a minority of Australian Muslims, and with each successive disaster his support base has further eroded. He retains (albeit barely) the official title of mufti only because of the chaotic state of Muslim community politics. He has been effectively disowned by almost every relevant organisation.
Yet while nearly everyone wants him gone, it seems that no one wants to be seen as the axe wielder. During the weekend, Ikebal Patel, the new president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, backed away from media reports that the AFIC had finally sacked Hilali.
The AFIC was responsible for bestowing the title of mufti on Hilali as part of an immigration rort to strengthen his case for permanent residency. Patel's reported claim that AFIC owns the title of mufti seems dubious, but because the AFIC appointed Hilali, it logically should be the organisation that dismisses him. Every time it declines to do so, it reinforces distrust among non-Muslims.
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