Australia's top Muslim cleric plans to ride out a storm over a sermon that blamed women dressing immodestly for rape despite government leaders warning that the furor risks dividing Australian society.
Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali has agreed to stop preaching at Australia's largest mosque in Sydney for three months because of the public backlash over a sermon that compared women who do not wear head scarves to "uncovered meat."
The sermon was given a month ago but triggered demands for his resignation from Muslims and non-Muslims alike when The Australian national newspaper reported excerpts translated from Arabic on Thursday.
Al-Hilali dismissed the controversy as "a storm in a teacup" in a conversation with Islamic leaders Friday at the Lakemba Mosque where his apology for any offense caused by his remarks has been accepted, the same newspaper reported Saturday.
But Prime Minister John Howard was among national leaders who warned that the 65-year-old Egyptian-born Sunni cleric risked doing damage to the 300,000 Muslims among Australia's population of more than 20 million.
"If this matter is not properly resolved, it could do lasting damage to the perception of the Islamic community within the entire Australian nation and that would be a great tragedy because I want Islamic Australians to feel as much a part of this nation as anybody else," Howard told reporters Friday.
"He's driven a wedge within the community and the Muslim community itself is demanding that he be sacked," government lawmaker responsible for multicultural issues, Andrew Robb, told Nine Network television news Friday.
In an editorial Saturday, The Weekend Australian newspaper described al-Hilali's views as "primitive and completely unacceptable in a modern, tolerant society."
"Which is why it is so disappointing that given his refusal to resign, Sheik al-Hilali has not been summarily booted out of the Lakemba Mosque," it said.
The cleric had "disgraced himself and his community and the sooner he retreats from public life, the better," the editorial concluded.
The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said it was gratifying that many Muslim women had reacted with outrage.
"They are proof that there is nothing incompatible in being an Australian and a Muslim," the influential newspaper said in its editorial.
"The great shame is that Sheik al-Hilali and his apologists at the Lakemba Mosque have created exactly the opposite impression: that Australian values and Islam are incompatible," it concluded.
But Toufic Zreika, president of the Lakemba Mosque Association, said sacking al-Hilali could also divide Muslims.
"The problem is we risk dividing the community further and that's my main aim, to keep this community together," he told Ten Network television news Friday.