SYDNEY, Australia – Australia's top Islamic cleric said Friday he will resign if an impartial panel rules that he was inciting rape in a recent sermon by suggesting that women who don't wear Islamic head scarves encourage sexual assault.
Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, mufti of Australia since 1989, took indefinite leave on Monday after he fainted at his Sydney mosque, saying that the furor over his sermon had taken its toll on his health.
He then issued a statement saying he would make a decision that would "lift the pressures" on Australia's Muslim community — which many observers interpreted as a hint the Mufti was about to quit.
But he returned to the Lakemba Mosque Friday, basking in the applause of hundreds of Muslim supporters who gathered there for noon prayers.
Police with sniffer dogs searched the area for bombs as the 65-year-old Egyptian-born Sunni cleric delivered his sermon in Arabic, disregarding his pledge last week to refrain from preaching for three months.
He also issued a media statement that called for a panel of one judge and two lawyers to investigate claims in the media that his September sermon amounted to incitement to commit rape.
"Any person, whatever his position may be, who justifies the crime of rape or encourages it under any circumstances, or whoever degrades Australian women for their dress, is nothing but an ignorant, foolish and crazy person who does not deserve to hold any position of responsibility, be it public or private, in our Australian society," the statement said.
Among the measures the sheik said he would take if the panel found his comments could incite rape were retiring from all religious work and positions.
Suggesting he might not be entirely serious, he also offered to "place masking tape on my mouth in public places for six months" to "discipline" it.
If exonerated, the sheik said he would make a decision about his future to "serve democracy" and enhance "coexistence and harmony between the Muslim community and its Australian society away from extremism and racial fanaticism."
In his sermon Friday, al-Hilali invited Australia's imams to nominate themselves this week if they wished to replace him, although he did not suggest he would step aside for them.
Australian political leaders and some Muslim groups have called for the cleric to resign or be fired over the religious instruction he gave in Australia's largest mosque on Sept. 22, excerpts of which were translated from Arabic and first published in a national newspaper last week.
In the September speech, he described women as being soldiers of Satan who were responsible for 90 percent of adultery.
He also quoted the 12th century Islamic writer Sheik Amed ar-Rifa'i as saying he would imprison a woman for life if she were raped.
"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it?"
"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.
In his statement Monday announcing he was taking leave from his duties at the mosque. al-Hilali said the uncovered meat analogy "is inappropriate and unacceptable for the Australian society and the Western society in general."
Al-Hilali gained support of 34 Islamic organizations that signed an open letter Thursday stating that "certain sections of the media and political establishment have used this incident as an opportunity to vilify the Australian Muslim community."
Prime Minister John Howard renewed his warning Friday that al-Hilali's continuing leadership could do lasting damage to the image of Australia's 300,000 Muslims within a mostly Christian population of more than 20 million.
"Unless this issue is resolved in a way that is seen as appropriate by the majority of the Australian community, it could do lasting damage to relations between Islamic Australians and the rest of the community," Howard told reporters.
"Australian governments, generally, don't appoint people to religious positions in this country, it is a matter for the flock to decide who its shepherd will be," he added.