SYDNEY, Australia – Australia’s most prominent Islamic cleric vowed Thursday to stand strong against widespread outrage over his description of women who don’t wear head scarfs as “uncovered meat” who invite rape.
Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, long a lightning rod in strained relations between the government and the Muslim minority, apologized for any offense he caused women in making the comments a month ago during a sermon marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
But he said he had no intention of stepping down. Instead, al-Hilali will not give sermons for two or three months, though he will not face censure for his comments, a spokesman for the governing association of his mosque said.
The decision prompted further condemnation.
“I think this is a slap on the wrist,” Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Sue Goward said today, a day after she accused al-Hilali of inciting rape.
Prime Minister John Howard and others denounced al-Hilali’s remarks as blaming women for rape, and there were calls for the cleric to quit or be removed from his role as mufti in the faith.
The controversy comes amid tense relations between Australia’s estimated 300,000 Muslims and the rest of the mostly Christian-heritage population of about 20 million. Last December, the nation was gripped by riots that often pitted gangs of white youths against youths of Middle Eastern descent.
Howard recently offended parts of the Muslim community by singling out some Muslims as extremists who should adopt Australia’s liberal attitudes to women’s rights.
After last year’s deadly London transit bombings, Howard accused Australian Islamic leaders of not doing enough to condemn extremism and offered government money to train local imams and reduce dependence on migrant clerics.
Al-Hilali, 65, 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.
His remarks about women drew national attention after they were printed Thursday in a national newspaper, the Australian.
In a translation from Arabic by the newspaper, later verified by other media, al-Hilali was quoted as saying in the sermon: “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside … and the cats come to eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s?
“The uncovered meat is the problem. 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 head scarf worn by some Muslim women.