Cleric under fire for remarks

SYDNEY, Australia – Amid intense public criticism, Australia’s top Islamic cleric yesterday repudiated remarks he made likening women without head scarves to “uncovered meat,” and he temporarily gave up mosque duties after a fainting spell left him hospitalized.

The 65-year old Egyptian-born cleric, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, was admitted to a Sydney hospital after collapsing during a meeting with mosque administrators following days of criticism over comments that also blamed immodestly dressed women for rape.

In a statement later yesterday, Al-Hilali said he was temporarily giving up his duties at Australia’s largest mosque and acknowledged that the “uncovered meat” analogy was a mistake.

“I confess that this analogy is inappropriate and unacceptable for the Australian society and the Western society in general,” he said.

Al-Hilali has rejected calls for his resignation since a newspaper reported last week that he compared women who do not wear head scarves to “uncovered meat” in a sermon at Lakemba mosque in Sydney.

But he said he had a duty to advise Muslim women to adhere to the strict Islamic dress code and that his comments, apparently secretly tape recorded by a critic, was not intended for the general Australian public.

“I am deeply saddened and distressed by the acts of some devious groups which lurk in the dark watching me and who cannot tolerate the moderate, balanced way which I adopt to advocate for women’s issues, national harmony and coexistence,” he said, without identifying the groups.

Al-Hilali described women as “cherished pearls” and rape of a woman an “abominable crime” that had no justification.

The intense pressure on Al-Hilali to resign heightened yesterday when a national newspaper reported that he had recently used an interview on Arabic radio to endorse militants in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.

Prime Minister John Howard said the man who holds the title of mufti of Australia, the most senior cleric in the nation, might have broken counterterrorism laws which prohibit incitement of violence against Australian soldiers deployed overseas.

Australia, a staunch ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Howard warned Australia’s 300,000 Muslims that al-Hilali’s continuing leadership would damage their reputation among their 20 million fellow Australians, who are predominantly Christian.

Female Muslims have been among the most vocal in calling for the cleric’s resignation over references in his sermon to women being soldiers of Satan who were responsible for 90 percent of adultery.

“In due course, I will take the necessary decision that will lift the pressures that have been placed on our Australian Muslim community and that which will benefit all Australians,” said al-Hilali, who has survived four strokes and recently underwent double heart bypass surgery. He didn’t elaborate.