Shaikh Taj al-Din al-Hilaly, the imam of Sydney's Lakemba mosque, which is the heart of Australia's 300,000-member Muslim community, has been condemned by the government and numerous commentators over remarks attributed to him while he was in Lebanon last month.

Al-Hilaly, who carries the honorary title of Grand Mufti, has insisted that he was misinterpreted, but a translation of his speech by Australian diplomats in Beirut quoted him as referring to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York as "God's work against oppressors".

The chief executive officer of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, an umbrella group of Australian Muslim organisations, Amjad Mahboob, said he would be seeking an urgent meeting with al-Hilaly to ask him to clarify his views and the federation could discuss stripping him of his title.

"It would be up to the members of our community to decide that," Mahboob said.

"He could have, in hindsight, probably used different words to describe what he was trying to say or not used some of the poetry that he was trying to recite."

Hizb Allah 'misunderstood'
 
In his reported comments, al-Hilaly also poured scorn on some Arab leaders whom he described as "trash" with pro-American policies and, in a reference to Muslim martyrs, said: "The true man is the boy who opposes Israeli tanks with strength and faith."

"We say that whoever is defending himself or his land or his honour against an army - not against civilians - they are martyrs"

Shaikh Taj al-Din Al-Hilaly
Honorary Grand Mufti, Australia

Egyptian-born al-Hilaly, a resident and citizen of Australia for 20 years, was accused of defending resistance fighters by saying: "We say that whoever is defending himself or his land or his honour against an army - not against civilians - they are martyrs."

Just returned from the Middle East at the weekend, al-Hilaly told ABC television that the Lebanese movement Hizb Allah was misunderstood and should not be outlawed.

"All the agreements, all the covenants and the Lebanese people are behind them, so it's not a terrorist party," he said, adding that his speech had contained poetry that was misinterpreted.

Condemnation

"I was shocked with this misunderstanding of words that was said," he said.

Prime Minister John Howard last month condemned the remarks, saying al-Hilaly had behaved insensitively towards many Australians. Howard told parliament that while Hizb Allah had not been banned in Australia, its military wing had.

"Given the person in question, Shaikh Al-Hilaly, is an Australian citizen and the leader of a community of some 300,000 Australian citizens, he has therefore behaved with incredible insensitivity towards the feelings of many Australians," he said.