In late October last year, I was in Canberra for a multicultural festival marking the end of Ramadan. I was helping a friend tape kids’ posters to a wall for the festival poster competition when we were approached by Ikebal Patel.

At the time, the Hilaly scandal was at its peak. Mr Patel took the opportunity to criticise some pieces I’d written in the newspapers.

“Irfan, I heard his entire speech. All he said was that women should wear the hijab [head scarf]. You know that the media are out to get us with this. We should be supporting the Sheik, not rushing to the media.”

Or something to that effect. My friend was angered by what she heard and walked off in disgust.

It’s therefore interesting that Patel has now been elected to the presidency of Australia’s peak Muslim body, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC). It was AFIC which created the position of Mufti of Australia and then appointed Hilaly to that position.

Patel has promised that AFIC will now enter “a new chapter of inclusiveness”. It’s pleasing that the AFIC executive consists of persons from numerous ethnic and linguistic groups and includes at least one female.

But it’s concerning that Mr Patel doesn’t wish to deal with the urgent issue of the ongoing Hilaly crisis. Patel has suggested the matter be left to the National Board of Imams which doesn’t meet until April.

Patel must understand that this is an election year (twice for NSW voters). If the performance of Kevin Rudd and/or Maxine McKew starts to worry the PM, or should there be an upward adjustment in the reported national security threat level, there’s every possibility Howard and other ministers will raise the Muslim bogeyman. Howard has done this in the past, and there’s little to stop him doing it again.

For that reason, Patel needs to act fast. He doesn’t need to wait for an Imams’ Board that didn’t exist when AFIC first created the mufti position.

Patel’s executive has the power to act. They must act now so that a key conservative wedge is removed and mufti day is brought to an end once and for all.

Peter Fray

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