Australia's most senior Muslim cleric has been forced to apologise after provoking widespread outrage with a speech in which he appeared to blame women for rape, comparing them with "uncovered meat" that attracts animals.
Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali reportedly made the remarks in a religious address to 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, during Ramadan. The speech was translated by The Australian newspaper, which ran excerpts yesterday.
Sheik Hilali, Australia's Mufti since 1989, was quoted as saying: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the back yard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem."
He added: "If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab [Islamic headscarf], no problem would have occurred."
The Egyptian-born Sheik also appeared to refer to a series of notorious gang rapes in Sydney by a group of Lebanese Muslim men who received long prison sentences. He said there were women who "sway suggestively", and wore make-up and immodest dress, "and then you get a judge without mercy [who] gives you 65 years... but the problem all began with who?"
The Mufti's spokesman, Keysar Trad, said the remarks had been taken out of context. He had been talking not about rape, but about adultery, and the danger posed by "people who prey on others". Mr Trad did not, however, challenge the accuracy of the translation.
Community leaders distanced themselves from the speech, and some said the Sheik should step down if the quotations were correct. "His comments are absolutely repulsive, and offensive to me as a woman," said Shereen Hassan, of the Islamic Council of Victoria.
In the past, the 64-year-old Sheik has been accused of praising suicide bombers, and of claiming that the September 11 attacks on New York were "God's work against oppressors".
He was also denounced by John Howard yesterday. The Prime Minister called his remarks "appalling and reprehensible", and "quite out of touch with contemporary values in Australia".
In a statement yesterday, Sheik Hilali apologised to "any woman who is offended by my comments," adding: "I had only intended to protect women's honour." He said "women in our Australian society have the freedom and the right to dress as they choose".