Sheik Fehmi Naji el-Imam is one of Australia’s most respected religious leaders. He has served Melbourne’s Muslim communities for over four decades, and has been imam at over 20 Muslim youth camps. His role in helping young Muslims navigate through Islamic theology while avoiding the traps is something this writer himself can attest to.
Sheik Fehmi has always encouraged Muslims to become part of the mainstream. By and large, media and politicians have welcomed his appointment. As expected, The Oz found excuses to manufacture controversy about him, again in stark contrast to their second consecutive editorial supporting Cardinal Pell, an editorial whose grovelling tone makes Keysar Trad’s defences of Sheik Hilaly almost sound objective.
So why did Fehmi get the nod? More importantly, why is the role of Mufti still in existence when spokesman for the Australian National Imams’ Council (ANIC), Dr Mohamad Abdalla, was so adamant back in March that it would be replaced by a committee of imams?
Sheik Hilaly continues to insist that when it comes to Muslim religious issues, “control will always be in Lakemba”. In reality, power never really resided in Lakemba. By far the biggest bloc of Australian imams are those serving mosques managed by Turkish-speaking congregations. And yes, the Turks literally operate as a bloc, having their own imams’ council and taking positions on key religious issues among themselves.
Turkish imams and their congregations never saw Hilaly as playing any leadership role. In fact, like many other Aussie Muslims, they saw him more as an embarrassment. A large number of Turkish imams have their bread buttered by the Turkish Presidency for Religious Affairs, and many have acted as Muftis of entire provinces in Turkey, with populations running into the millions (compared to Australia’s 360,000-odd Muslims).
What makes Turkish imams even more powerful is that their mosques are scattered across almost every state and territory of Australia, including regional cities and towns such as Wollongong. My sources tell me that the Turkish bloc threatened to walk out of ANIC if Sheik Hilaly was re-appointed as Mufti.
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Sheik Hilaly perhaps would be better advised to join the ranks of other former larrikin leaders and spend time writing his (what surely will have to be best-selling) memoirs.