It was a subdued Cardinal Pell who addressed a small group of Muslim professionals in Sydney on Tuesday night. Gone was the hubris that led him to challenge Muslims to come to terms with democracy and the separation of church and state. Pell looked tired and battle-worn, much like Sheik Hilali looked at Sydney Airport when Julian Morrow approached him with tape to keep his lips sealed during his overseas trip.
Chatham House rules forbid me from repeating what Dr Pell told his Muslim audience. However, the topic of Muslim religious leadership and media assaults on religious communities were mentioned. Forty-eight hours later, I can now understand where the Cardinal was coming from.
New South Wales Catholic MP’s continue to criticise what one junior Cabinet Minister describes as Cardinal Pell’s “emotional blackmail” over embryonic stem cell research. Out west, Perth Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey is generating a similar reaction from state MPs. At the heart of the debate is the separation of church and state.
Both Pell and Hickey must know how Sheik Hilali has felt since September last year (if not earlier) as he consistently cops flack from his flock for his public remarks. Muslim fury was let loose against the former Mufti of Australia and New Zealand. On both sides of the Tasman, Muslims wrote media releases, letters to the editor and op-eds condemning Sheik Hilali and calling upon him to resign. This writer alone wrote critical op-eds published in newspapers in Sydney, Canberra, Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland.
Muslims and Catholics know what it is like to be part of a religious faith having somewhat unfashionable views on social issues. Like most Australians, Muslims find the idea of denying termination of pregnancy for women whose lives are threatened by birth to be as abhorrent. And I’ve yet to hear an American or Australian imam oppose potentially life-saving research.
Then again, most Catholics would regard a religious code permitting a man to marry more than one wife abhorrent. Still, most Muslims are monogamists in the same manner as many Catholics are pro-choice when it comes to abortion.
Costello’s Coalition colleague, NSW National Party MP and practising Catholic, Adrian Piccoli, recently told Radio National: “I think in Australia , if Sheikh Hilali had made that same kind of declaration to Members of Parliament of the Muslim faith, telling them how to vote, I think there'd be outrage. I think it would be front page of every newspaper and there would be outrage against him.”
Sheik Hilali has tried to tell Muslims lots of things recently. Few are listening. His own colleagues at the Australian National Board of Imams have abolished his position. He has been condemned by Muslims across the ethnic, social and political spectrum of Australian Islam. He only has himself to blame.
Yet those many of those who condemned Hilali are now defending Pell. In its editorial of June 7, 2007, The Australian claimed that in “mixing affairs of church and state”, Pell was “only doing his job … to explain and uphold Catholic principles”.
Sheik Hilali also claimed he was just doing his job when addressing a small congregation last year about women’s dress. He wasn’t telling Muslim political or civic leaders how to vote or what policies to pursue. He was preaching to a largely middle-aged non-English-speaking crowd in a language most Australian Muslims do not understand or speak.
Yet in Hilali’s case, just one issue of the The Australian ran seven whole pages of broadsheet news analysing every word of Hilali’s speech. Countless op-eds and condemnatory opinion pieces were also published.
Mr Howard’s favourite columnist Janet Albrechtsen was part of the shrill chorus, condemning not only Hilali but also Australian Muslims for not acting sooner and waiting for media reports to surface before responding. Costello used the same reasons for holding Muslims collectively responsible for Hilali’s cat-meat commentary. Both claimed that nebulous blob they condescendingly describe as “moderate Muslims” were not doing enough to remove Hilali.
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