CANBERRA, Australia – Australia's most prominent Islamic cleric declared Friday that he would not resign for suggesting that women who don't wear head scarves invite rape, saying he would only leave his post "after we clean the world of the White House first."
Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali apologized Thursday for comparing women who fail to wear scarves to "uncovered meat." He has been banned from giving sermons for two or three months by the governing association of his Sydney mosque.
Al-Hilali's remark about the White House was his only comment to reporters outside the mosque who asked whether he would resign. His words drew cheers and applause from supporters.
His spokesman later said al-Hilali was making the point that President Bush's foreign policy and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq were more deserving of criticism than a sermon.
"He says he's just a frail, old cleric, not the president of the United States, and the media should not be so pedantic about his words," Keysar Trad said.
Al-Hilali, an Egyptian-born Sunni cleric, welcomed worshippers to Friday prayers at the mosque but did not deliver a sermon. The decision to ban him from giving sermons prompted more criticism from Australians who said he should resign or be removed from his post.
Prime Minister John Howard warned that Australian Muslims could be perceived as supporting al-Hilali's views if he remained a religious leader.
"If it is not resolved, then unfortunately people will run around saying: 'Well, the reason they didn't get rid of him is because secretly some of them support his views,'" Howard told Southern Cross Broadcasting.
Al-Hilali's comments, made last month during a sermon marking the holy month of Ramadan, provoked widespread outrage when they were published Thursday by The Australian newspaper.
In a translation from Arabic by the newspaper, later verified by other media, al-Hilali was quoted as saying: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's?"
"The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred," he was quoted as saying, referring to the head scarf worn by some Muslim women.
The controversy comes amid tense relations between Australia's estimated 300,000 Muslims and the rest of the roughly 20 million of mostly Christian background. Last December, the nation was gripped by riots that often pitted gangs of white youths against youths of Middle Eastern decent.
Howard recently offended parts of the Muslim community by singling out some Muslims as extremists who should adopt Australia's liberal attitudes to women's rights.
Al-Hilali, 65, is the top cleric at Sydney's largest mosque, and is considered the most senior Islamic leader by many Muslims in Australia and New Zealand, having been appointed mufti by Australia's top Islamic body.
Toufic Zreika, the president of Sydney's Lakemba Mosque Association, said al-Hilali "provided us with an unequivocal apology" for his comments. But Zreika also told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio that "certain statements made by the mufti (were) misrepresented."
A supporter said al-Hilali argues his comments were misinterpreted in the same way Pope Benedict XVI was misunderstood after giving a speech last month quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and violence.
Abdul El Ayoubi, of the Lebanese Muslim Association, said al-Hilali was quoting an ancient scholar called al-Rafihi.
"They weren't his words; he was quoting an ancient scholar and that's exactly what happened with the pope," El Ayoubi said.
The Australian's translation showed al-Hilali quoted the scholar as saying that he would imprison a woman for life if she were raped.
"Why would you do this, Rafihi? He says because if she had not left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn't have snatched it," al-Hilali told worshippers in Arabic, citing the scholar's writing.
Australia's Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, accused al-Hilali of inciting rape and said the temporary ban on preaching was inadequate punishment.
"I know how strongly many Islamic community people felt about those comments yesterday, how damaging they saw them in terms of Australian-Islamic relations, and I think the pressure should not be taken off just because he has agreed to be silent for three months," she told ABC radio.
Al-Hilali also faced pressure from within Australia's Muslim community.
Waleed Aly, a spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria state said the sheik should resigned.
"It would seem to us that the comments ... have really caused a lot of pain to a lot of people, and in those circumstances we would have thought resignation was the appropriate course of action," Aly told ABC radio.
Al-Hilali has been a staunch critic of Australia's alliance with the United States in the Iraq war. In 2004, he was criticized for saying in a sermon in Lebanon that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States were "God's work against the oppressors," though he later said he did not mean he supported the attacks, or terrorism.