Australia: Controversial Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali steps down from Australian Muslim council

Australia's top Islamic cleric, who came under fire last year when he likened women without head scarves to ''uncovered meat,'' stepped down Sunday. Muslim leaders appointed a new mufti.
Australia's council of Muslim leaders appointed Sheik Fehmi Naji El-Imam as the nation's senior cleric after months of criticism over the previous mufti, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali.
The council initially offered al-Hilali another two-year term in the post, but he ''gracefully declined,'' according to a statement released by the Australian National Imams Council. ''We recognize the great services that Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali has provided over the years and we pray for his good health,'' the statement said. The sheik declined to say why he stepped down.

Rehin Ghauri, a senior Muslim leader from Western Australia state, said moderate Muslims would be glad to leave behind the friction of al-Hilali's 18-year tenure. ''Al-Hilali is very experienced, but he has caused some problems to the community,'' Ghauri said. ''I don't like his personality, I don't like his style ... pulling punches gets you nowhere, you bring controversy instead of friends.''

In September, al-Hilali blamed scantily clad women for tempting men to rape them, saying, ''If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it?''

Al-Hilali apologized for the comment, but soon afterward caused further anger by saying Muslims have more right to live in Australia than the descendants of convicts.

Prime Minister John Howard then urged the national council of imams to fire al-Hilali, saying Muslim leaders were out of touch with the wishes of most Australians. Muslims are a minority of about 300,000 among Australia's mostly Christian population of more than 20 million, and relations between the two religions are sometimes tense.

June 10, 2007