Five of Australia’s most powerful Islamic clerics have reportedly been banned from speaking to the media in an attempt to stop local imams inflaming anti-Muslim sentiments with controversial comments.
The nation’s Muslims say they feel under pressure after a number of radical clerics inflamed tensions earlier this year by airing extremist views about women, jihad and Jews.
The Lebanese Muslim Association has gagged the imams from Lakemba Mosque in Sydney to stop them delivering “anti-Australian” messages, the Australian newspaper reported on Friday. The association was unavailable for comment.
The daily said the association had sent a letter to the imams demanding they “pause and desist” from talking to the media, especially Arabic-speaking outlets.
It said the imams had been warned they could lose their positions as spiritual leaders at the nation’s largest mosque if they defied the association.
Association president Tom Zreika told the newspaper that the letter had been issued to end “perceived un-Australian viewpoints given by some clerics.”
“Most of our clerics are selected on the basis that they have Australian values and Australian characteristics ... Some of them haven’t (lived) up to that,” he said.
“We want (clerics) to stay apolitical,” he said.
Zreika, who did not return telephone calls, mentioned no clerics by name.
In January one of Australia’s top Muslim clerics, Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly of the Lakemba mosque, was accused of justifying rape in a 2006 Ramadan sermon in which he said unveiled women were like uncovered meat.
A week later came news of an Australian Muslim cleric urging children to be martyrs for Islam and referring to Jews as pigs in a series of DVDs, sparking government condemnation and further straining tensions between the nation’s Muslims and non-Muslims.
The widening gulf between Australia’s small, mainly Sunni, Muslim community of some 280,000 people and the rest of the country is making many Muslims feel under siege and young Muslims trapped between two cultures—Islam and Australia.
The Iraq war and nightly television news reports of death and mayhem in Baghdad only exacerbate the tensions.
Muslims have been in Australia for more than 200 years, initially arriving as camel drivers to help open up the vast outback. Today there are about 280,000 Muslims in the 20 million population, living predominantly in Sydney and Melbourne.