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a tale of two muslims: hilaly vs. hage-ali (editorial)

November, 2006

Over the past few months, the Australian media has focused a fair deal on Muslims in the news. It is a change from the lull where most were afraid to comment on any topic related to the Muslim community, fearing a repeat of the violence in Cronulla that marred the holiday season in December 2005.

The fears still exist, but the complacent attitude has long since disappeared. The newspaper reports are still restrictive, trying – and sometimes, failing – to stick to the basic facts, but more stories are being published about important Muslims than before.

Muslims being in the news is no big news. The reasons – and the reactions – are.

In October this year, we were treated to the spectacle of one Sheik Hilaly of Lakemba likening uncovered women to “meat” and suggesting that it was their own fault if they ended up being a target of rape. Not the most eloquent analogy, we admit. The backlash was tremendous; all of Australia was in an uproar, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Only a few agreed with the Sheik’s sentiments, and these were drowned in the general sea of disapproval that was brewing in the nation’s media outlets.

At one point, a woman stood up and said loud and clear for Hilaly and everyone else to hear, “I am no one’s meat.” This was Iktimal Hage-Ali, a prominent spokesperson for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the youngest member of Prime Minister John Howard’s Muslim community Reference Group at 22.

We applauded her for her stand, and when she later won the Young Australian of the Year award for New South Wales, it seemed as if we had finally found the solution: A moderate Muslim who espoused true-blue Aussie values… including not covering her hair and drinking in public, as she demonstrated when she sipped from a glass of champagne to celebrate her award.

When she was first ‘attacked’ for this by posters on the forum at MuslimVillage.Net, Hage-Ali made the headlines of the Daily Telegraph (a tabloid published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and a far cry from its respectable British namesake). Responses from the public descended into verbal fisticuffs, her supporters vigourously defending her right to do whatever she wanted to while her antagonists shouted for everyone to hear that the problem was not drinking or leaving her hair uncovered, it was being a Muslim representative while prancing around in a most un-Islamic manner.

Notice, then, the silence from Hilaly’s side. Not even a peep from his camp, although there were plenty of reminders thrown in from Hage-Ali’s supporters about the earlier comments that provoked an extreme reaction from the public. Some went as far as to say that the entire forum was made up of people from Hilaly’s congregation and the ‘villification’ was a smear campaign, never mind that Hage-Ali openly did and admitted to all the accusations, brushing them off with a brusque “So what?”

However, now that it has been let out that she was arrested on drug-related suspicions, a mere week before receiving her award, there is silence. She may not have been charged, as she tearfully maintained while she announced her decision to return her award, but she did lie about the incident, conveniently forgetting to mention it when someone asked her if she had ever visited a police station. Her numerous defenders have disappeared, but just as strangely, so have her critics.

What remains are the ghosts of Hilaly’s comments, and a spotlight on his Lebanese-Muslim congregation. Anything goes wrong, all fingers point to Lakemba. It is a question to be asked as to why Hilaly’s words are still being bandied around every time there is a problem concerning Muslims, women, or both, when Hage-Ali’s case has been conveniently buried under stories of strange weather and pompous declarations of Australia’s prowess at cricket.

Double standards? Perhaps so. Hage-Ali was, after all, rumoured to have been hand-picked to be on John Howard’s team. But it is more than politics playing here. It is an odd coincidence that a number of people on that particular team have been condemned or disowned by the Muslim community as a whole in Australia for misrepresenting the religion, but any subsequent misdeeds get the barest of mandatory mentions before being forgotten. John Howard’s team is full of mis-representatives, which is why their scandals are suppressed – there are enough people angry with them already. On the other hand, clerics like Hilaly, as conservative and unbelievable as their views may be, are largely supported by the people but put under close scrutiny so that anything even slightly provocative may be propagated far and wide to try and undermine the stability of the Muslim community.

Maybe if Hilaly had been given an award, who knows. We might have been hearing more about a young woman caught up with the wrong crowd while a preacher’s message of conservatism would have been smoothed over like a slip of the tongue, shocking at first but soon forgotten.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013