There was something deeply unsettling about Tony Jones’s Lateline interview last night with Sheikh Mohamed Omran about whether suicide bombers go to heaven – or go straight to hell without collecting their 72 virgins. Partly because the stilted conversation was open to any number of different interpretations, some more malevolent than others. Partly because the usual shock jocks will make merry with the Sheikh’s clumsily expressed views. And also because it illustrates the gulf separating Islam’s public leaders and the mainstream – just as racial intolerance simmers uncomfortably.

The sheikh’s interview was about damage control, and he succeeded up to a point, softening his praise earlier this week for Osama bin Laden.

But theology and politics mix in this climate as subtly as Iraqi crude oil and water. And like a politician walking on both sides of the street, the Sheikh was reluctant to give straight answers to some of the blunt questions posed by Jones. Will you now tell your students that Osama bin Laden is not a good man? Would you say it’s right to fight a Jihad in Iraq? Will suicide bombers end up in hell?

    It was confronting television and in the end Jones got what he wanted: admissions from the sheikh that he’d made a mistake in boosting Osama. But framed in the kind of equivocating language the likes of Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman will lap up: “Look, again, my philosophy behind that is not to praise Osama bin Laden as much as to take him out of the action,” the Sheikh said. “And I’m trying to say, no, he didn’t do that, he’s nothing but a normal man and the media make something out of him.”

    While Jones and the Sheikh debate angels on pinheads, dissent rumbles all around. It’s bubbling away on Bolt’s blog. Even right wing US columnist Mark Steyn – on whose words the likes of Bolt and Piers Akerman dote – got into the act locally yesterday with this attack in The Australian on leftie Age columnists Pam Bone and Terry Lane:

    Piers usually follows Steyn’s lead. But yesterday, the American was stealing Akerman’s lines, bashing up the same Age columnists Piers had shredded a week before in this column: “London forces a Liberal rethink.”

    And today, Akerman cranks up the heat with this venomous attack on moderates like former anti-discrimination commissioner Chris

    Peter Fray

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