Politics & Policy

Not Lost in Translation

A Grand Mufti's not-so-grand statements.

“Don’t be surprised if one day you hear the muezzin calling for praying and saying ‘Allah Akbar’ from the top of the White House. September 11 is Allah’s work against oppressors,” stated the mufti of Australia and New Zealand, Sheikh Taj Al-Din Hamed Abdallah Al-Hilali. The mufti, who had enjoyed a reputation for being a liberal, had been exposed when a series of his interviews and sermons over the past two years were translated from Arabic into English in a February report by MEMRI. His statements were supportive of jihad and martyrdom operations as well as terrorist organizations with which he met, such as Hezbollah. Al-Hilali also explained that the “Axis of Evil” really consists of President Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Following the translations of Al-Hilali’s statements, the Australian government was highly critical of the country’s leading Muslim religious authority. Prime Minister Howard condemned his remarks, saying that “incitement to a jihad” is “utterly unacceptable.” In another interview Howard added, “What he has said deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.” Australian parliamentarians also reacted strongly to Al-Hilali’s statements. Senior Liberal MP Christopher Pyne called on the government to consider opening an investigation, and explained: “I am appalled, horrified and shocked…by this newest example of Sheikh Al-Hilali’s extremism, which has no place in this country.” Opposition Labor-party senator Michael Forshaw was quoted on February 18 stating: “Any calls like that would be very, very serious and very damaging to the nature of society.” Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer added, on February 29, that Al-Hilali’s statements were “appalling,” “provocative,” and “stupid.”

Canada’s National Post reported on March 6 that Al-Hilali’s spokesman and other prominent Australian Muslims, including Amir Ali–leader of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils–challenged the accuracy of translations of the mufti’s remarks, and claimed that this was a further case of Western mistreatment of Muslims. In response, the Australian foreign ministry authorized an independent translation of Al-Hilali’s remarks and, as the National Post wrote, “predictably, it discovered MEMRI was accurate.”

Member of Parliament and Opposition Whip Michael Danby, who was quoted on February 19 saying, “Hilali’s presence in Australia is a mistake,” issued a later press release disputing the argument by Al-Hilali supporters that his statements had been taken out of context. He wrote:

It is not true that this remark was “taken out of context.” There is no “context” for it to be taken out of. Everyone…knows that “martyrdom operations” is code for terrorist bombings against civilian targets. A Shahid is a “martyr,” one who dies carrying out one of these bombings. During his visit to Lebanon, Sheikh Hilali also gave a clear and unambiguous endorsement to the terrorist organization Hizbullah. He said that Hizbullah had “become a model for all Mujahideen in the world.” This remark was not taken out of context. Sheikh Hilali’s comments were made at a meeting with the infamous head of Hizbullah, Sheikh Nasrallah.

On February 20, the Australian government announced that the federal police would investigate Sheikh Al-Hilali. A spokesman for Attorney General Philip Ruddock stated: “Meeting Hizbullah is probably not the most prudent thing to do. If his comments about violence are as reported, that would be of concern.”

After being exposed as a supporter of terrorist movements and jihad against the West, Al-Hilali made a point of criticizing al Qaeda in English. However, during a subsequent interview on Al Arabiya TV (Dubai) on March 9, in Arabic, the mufti reiterated his previous controversial statements, modified to the new circumstances:

When I make Islamic legal statements, I stand behind them, and I fear no rebuke concerning my duty to Allah. Anyone who supports the abhorrent crime that took the lives of thousands of innocent civilians on September 11, 2001, in America understands nothing of his religion, and it is inconceivable that anyone who understands his religion would justify such a barbaric deed… Yes I do support the Palestinian Resistance… And I welcome the national and Islamic resistance efforts in Lebanon…

[This is] a tempest in a teacup, and these statements [against Al-Hilali] have no effect. Australia is a multicultural society, and is not the property of Howard or of the foreign minister. I am an Australian citizen like him. If he thinks the Lebanese Hizbullah, that defended the Lebanese land by means of the Lebanese resistance and with the blessing of the Lebanese, and whose actions have the support of the U.N., of the Secretary Council, of human rights legislation, of revealed religious law and of the man-made laws–if he thinks Hizbullah is a terrorist organization then I disagree with him…

A further development is a report that an umbrella group of Australian Muslim organizations has been waiting for Al-Hilali to clarify his statements in support of jihad. If they are unhappy with his response, there is talk of stripping him of his title of Grand Mufti.

Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

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