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Hilali ridicules nation of convicts

Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali has ridiculed his adopted country on Egyptian television, dismissing the furore over his insults to women and defence of gang rapists while claiming Muslims had more right to live in Australia than the descendants of convicts.

The latest outburst by Australia's chief Muslim cleric came during an interview as he enjoyed what was meant to be a self-imposed exile in the Middle East to duck the national outrage he sparked late last year.

But rather than douse the controversy, which divided Muslim Australia and further strained relations with the broader community, the imam of Sydney's Lakemba Mosque has inflamed it.

"The Western people are the biggest liars and oppressors and especially the English race," the Mufti of Australia said in Arabic during the extensive interview in Eqypt, his birthplace. "The Anglo-Saxons who arrived in Australia arrived in shackles. We paid for passports from our own pockets. We have a right in Australia more than they have."

Having last year suggested victims should share the blame for being sexually assaulted, Sheik Hilali used the interview to blame the September 11 attacks on the US for influencing lengthy sentences given to Sydney's notorious Lebanese Muslim gang rapists.

"Up until then the worst crime in Australia had received seven years' jail," he said.

He told the two interviewers during the wide-ranging discussion that his time in Australia since the early 1980s had given him a great insight into the Australian way of life and the Western mentality, which he labelled "oppressive".

But then, referring to gay unions, Sheik Hilali said: "I understand the mentality of the West and especially the Australian mentality and I understand that the Australian law guarantees freedoms to the point of insanity."

Having held on to his title as Mufti of Australia and survived widespread calls last year for him to be sacked as Lakemba's religious leader, Sheik Hilali will come under renewed pressure to stand down when he returns to Australia.

The Australian in October last year revealed Sheik Hilali's inflammatory sermon - in which he likened immodestly dressed women to meat and suggested rape victims were as much to blame as their attackers.

The remarks in the sermon - translated by The Australian and independently verified by two Arabic language experts - prompted outrage among moderate Muslims and the mainstream community.

Sheik Hilali sparked the controversy by telling hundreds of worshippers about adultery: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard 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."

Invited on to Egyptian television to explain his sermon, the mufti, who last year had repeatedly insisted that he was taken out of context, defended the remarks and blamed the media for the uproar.

"This is a calculated conspiracy aimed at terrorising our Islamic community, aimed at me first in order to bring the Islamic community to its knees," Sheik Hilali said.

At the height of the "uncovered meat" furore, John Howard called on Muslims to denounce their leader and remove him fromoffice, but yesterday the Prime Minister was more circumspect on Sheik Hilali's comments about convicts.

"It will bring a wry smile to the face of many Australians who sort of don't actually feel the least bit offended that many of our ancestors came here as convicts," Mr Howard said.

Keysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, said that while some of Sheik Hilali's comments were controversial, the cleric deserved a chance to explain himself upon his return to Australia.

Mr Trad said while he did not want to be seen defending the imam, Sheik Hilali's comments about convicts were in response to a provocative question by his interviewer.

"He was angered when his right to live in Australia was questioned, because he sees himself as an Australian who has contributed to Australian society," said Mr Trad, who is a close friend and former spokesman to the mufti.

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