The voices coming over Australian radio the other night were new to me and the names they mentioned were strange, but the story they told was painfully familiar. Once more an imam living in a Western country was preaching Islamic terrorism, and once more his supporters were insisting that he could never have said such things and must have been misunderstood, quoted out of context, or wilfully mistranslated.
Sheik Taj el-Din Al Hilaly, an Egyptian-born Australian citizen, is imam at the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney and since 1988 has been the Grand Mufti of Australia, leader and defender of the country's 300,000 Muslims.
In Australia he claims to support peace and democracy, expresses great affection for his adopted country, and of course insists on his democratic rights. But if he's a dove in Sydney, he's a hawk elsewhere. Abroad, he reveals himself as a champion of Islamic terrorism. As Canada has recently learned in the bizarre case of the Khadr family, isolation and language can hide from a democratic country the dangerous politics of even its own residents and citizens.
In February, preaching at the al-Quds Mosque while on a visit to Sidon, Lebanon, Hilaly praised the nobility and heroism of suicide bombers, endorsed Hezbollah's murderous struggle against Israel, claimed the West is making war on Islam, and suggested that the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 were an expression of divine will. "September 11 is God's work against oppressors," he said. "Some of the things that happen in the world cannot be explained; a civilian airplane ... if we ask its pilot who reached his objective without error: 'Who led your steps?' ... God is the answer."
In various other contexts he said that Hezbollah has become the model for holy warriors everywhere, that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are doing good work, and that the world media, including the Australian media, are under Zionist hegemony.
The invaluable Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI) acquired a recording of the sermon in Lebanon and circulated a translation from the Arabic. But Amir Ali, head of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, claimed that MEMRI, based in Washington, "is known for twisting and turning what the Muslims say." Burning with indignation, Ali made it plain that Muslims were again being unfairly criticized. "Who made the transcript? What's the whole source of this transcript, I want to know."
So the Australian foreign ministry did its own translation.
Predictably, it discovered MEMRI's was accurate.
Australia brings to such matters a directness that many Canadians and Americans would find astonishing, refreshing, and enviable. Prime Minister John Howard took public note of Hilaly's statements, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer condemned them ("For an Australian to go overseas and make these sorts of comments is appalling") and Chris Pyne, the parliamentary secretary to the minister for family and community services, suggested that the Muslims find a new Mufti.
Pyne said that moderate Muslims, who want to live as full members of Australian society, are embarrassed by Hilaly and aware that his behaviour affects the way Australians see Muslims. He made it clear that Hilaly will not be welcomed the next time he represents his community before the government. "In terms of the government's response to Sheikh Hilaly, it's very clear that we view him with great scepticism, and our relationship with Sheikh Hilaly is very tenuous."
The Australian Broadcasting Commission was no kinder. On ABC's excellent program, The Religion Report, Stephen Crittenden responded to Amir Ali's claims of misunderstanding with a harsh question, the kind of question that you'll not hear on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation if you listen day and night for years: "Hasn't the time come where the Muslim community has to stop saying that his comments are being misinterpreted or taken out of context?"
Ali, undeterred, went back to the same theme, and Crittenden rephrased his question: "Are we going to keep on with this thing of arguing that it's the veracity of the reports that's the issue? It does seem to me that there's a great unwillingness on the part of the Muslim community, certainly the Muslim media, to openly debate this issue."
Australia did hear, indirectly, from Hilaly. It appears the misunderstanding was purely literary. As Robertson Davies used to say when he made a mistake, "I was speaking in the figurative sense." After seeking clarification from Hilaly in Egypt, Keysar Trad, his spokesman, said the Mufti was using excerpts from poems, as he often does, and that the media had misinterpreted his comments. "I believe the context has been lost in the translation," Trad said. "He's really condemning these atrocities."
Many religious communities produce zealots, but most find a way to contain and isolate them. The Roman Catholic Church, to take a spectacular example, puts a lot of space between itself and the people who murder in the name of the right to life. This is something Islam has not so far managed. As Daniel Pipes says, radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution. But what if moderate Islam remains silent or defensive while radical Islam runs a world-wide hate campaign?