By ROHAN SULLIVAN
The Associated Press
SYDNEY, Australia -- Australia's most prominent Islamic cleric vowed Thursday to stand strong against widespread outrage over his description of women who don't wear head scarfs as "uncovered meat" who invite rape.
Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, long a lightning rod in strained relations between the government and the Muslim minority, apologized for any offense he caused women in making the comments a month ago during a sermon marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
But he said he had no intention of stepping down. Instead, al-Hilali will not give sermons for two or three months, though he will not face censure for his comments, a spokesman for the governing association of his mosque said.
The decision prompted further condemnation.
"I think this is a slap on the wrist," Australia's sex discrimination commissioner Sue Goward said today.
Prime Minister John Howard and others denounced al-Hilali's remarks as blaming women for rape, and there were calls for the cleric to quit or be removed from his role as mufti in the faith.
The controversy comes amid tense relations between Australia's estimated 300,000 Muslims and the rest of the mostly Christian-heritage population of about 20 million. Last December, the nation was gripped by riots that often pitted gangs of white youths against youths of Middle Eastern descent.
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.
After last year's deadly London transit bombings, Howard accused Australian Islamic leaders of not doing enough to condemn extremism and offered government money to train local imams and reduce dependence on migrant clerics. The government has also introduced tough counterterrorism laws and is proposing tighter citizenship rules.
The issue of how Muslim women should dress has caused debate in Britain since former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, said this month that Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils. Similar passions raged when France banned head scarves and other religious symbols in public schools two years ago.
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.
His remarks about women drew national attention after they were printed Thursday in a national newspaper, The Australian.
In a translation from Arabic by the newspaper, later verified by other media, al-Hilali was quoted as saying in the sermon: "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.
Goward said al-Hilali's comments encouraged rape and that Muslims should force him to step down.
"This is inciting young men to a violent crime because it is the woman's fault," Goward told television's Nine Network. "It is time the Islamic community did more than say they were horrified. I think it is time he left."
Howard said the comments were "appalling and reprehensible."
"The idea that women are to blame for rapes is preposterous," he told reporters.
Al-Hilali also faced pressure from within the Muslim community.
"Whether he steps down or not, I think it's time for Australia's Muslim faith to have a religious leader who has a better understanding of Australian laws, Australian values, and the Australian way of life," said Alia Karaman, a female member of a leaders' group at a Sydney mosque.
Al-Hilali issued a statement Thursday saying The Australian had selectively quoted from the sermon, and that he was shocked at the reaction.
"I would like to unequivocally confirm that the presentation related to religious teachings on modesty and not to go to extremes in enticements," the statement said.
"This does not condone rape, I condemn rape," he said. "Women in our Australian society have the freedom and right to dress as they choose, the duty of man is to avert his glance or walk away."
Asked if he would quit his senior post, al-Hilali told Seven Network television news: "No, no, no."
Al-Hilali is an Egyptian-born Sunni who has been a staunch critic of Australia's alliance with the United States in the Iraq war. He triggered a controversy in 2004 for saying in a sermon in Lebanon that the Sept. 11 attacks were "God's work against the oppressors." Al-Hilali said later he did not support the attacks, or terrorism.
Last year, al-Hilali traveled to Iraq to help negotiate the release of an Australian engineer from kidnappers, winning thanks from the hostage's family.
Many Australian Muslims say they are increasingly treated with suspicion since the Sept. 11 and other international terrorist attacks.
Waleed Aly, a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria state, said al-Hilali's comments would result in more antagonism toward Muslims.
"I am expecting a deluge of hate mail," he said. "I am expecting people to get abused in the street and get abused at work."