Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Australia's New Mufti

Australia has a new mufti. This matters.

A mufti as an Islamic scholar who is an interpreter or expounder of Islamic law (Sharia), capable of issuing fataawa (plural of "fatwa"). He is the most important Muslim in Australia.

In the UK, such a position does not exist. There are a bunch of Muslim organisations that compete for the attentions of their followers, but no one single 'leader' of the Muslim community. The mufti in Australia is such a person. Amir at Austrolabe is convinced of the need to have this position abolished but for now it exists, and the new guy, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, will now come under intense media scrutiny, his every utterance poured over.

As the guys at Austrolabe correctly predicted some months ago (and The Australian got wrong in its editorial this morning), the National Imams Council have provided the previous mufti, the notorious Sheikh Taj ad-Din al-Hilaly, with a face saving exit. Whilst they officially elected to keep him on as mufti, a deal was cut several months ago to have him removed, mainly thanks to the sterling work of Dr. Tom Zreika, President of the Lebanese Muslim Association, and easily the most impressive of Australia's leading Muslim figures.

First things first. Let's take a moment to celebrate the fact that one of the most despised and ridiculed figures in Australian life is no longer in a position of such authority. Sheikh Hilaly's tirades have become the stuff of legend. Whether you are Jewish, female, gay, a rape victim or Western he has some comforting words for you all. He also proved to be a highly effective recruiting sargeant for Islamophobia, converting 10,000 agnostic Australians to the cause every time he opened his poisonous mouth.

So, i am pleased to discover and hear it on good authority that Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam is rather different. His fans describe him as 'moderate', 'low-profile', 'consensual' and a 'peace-loving man of God'. He cannot do a worse job than his predecessor so it's with minimal expectations that he begins his two year term.

Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam first came to Australia from the Lebanon in 1951 as a newly-trained imam and has since built up a large and loyal following in Victoria. I would love to hear from people who know him and who have worked with him as i have a few reservations about his appointment, namely

i) He is 79 years old and apparently in terrible health
ii) Despite having lived in Australia for 56 years, his English is poor. The Imams Council have not exactly shown their concern for integration with his appointment.
iii) He has made some worrying comments about Hizbollah, describing them as 'freedom fighters' and arguing to have them removed from the proscribed list of terror organisations (he lost his appeal).
iv) He foolishly supported the citizenship application of terrorist, Abdul Nacer Benbrika, though he immediately regretted this decision as the latter's extreme views became apparent.

His inaugural press conference over the weekend contained few surprises. Understandably reluctant to elicit strong views on any subject at this point, he has already infuriated the local press by refusing to condemn suicide bombings or to comment on Iraq. But in my view, this is a misguided attack on him, designed solely to sell newspapers (note to the ABC - 'proscribe' and 'prescribe' are two very different words).

Fingers crossed.

Update 1 - Andrew Bolt reports that the new mufti is a '9/11 conspiracy theorist'.

Update 2- thoughts on the new mufti from Amir here