It might sound improbable, but Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali is hoping to sneak back into Sydney next week quietly and without fuss.
Not much about Australia’s senior Muslim cleric has been quiet or fuss-free since his comments last year comparing immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat, and last week’s remarks to Egyptian television that Australians were liars.
Fearing another media circus greeting his return from his two-month self-imposed exile to Mecca and Egypt, the sheik is even keeping the date of his arrival from his closest advisers.
His absence from Sydney, however, has not dulled debate on his contentious role as the spiritual leader of Australia’s 300,000 Muslims, with rival Islamic factions still divided over his future.
The newly established Australian National Imams Council has given itself the task of uniting the Islamic community’s fractured leadership and will discuss the sheik’s position as grand mufti at its first conference in April, after rescheduling it from
But rival groups in the splintered community dispute the authority of the council which is made up of 77 imams from around Australia, including Alhilali.
The controversial Islamic Charity Projects Association (ICPA) – an organisation with a long history of antagonism with Alhilali and his followers – says the National Imams Council is a whitewash group hand picked by Alhilali.
The ICPA has been a long-time opponent of Alhilali, and his followers have accused the organisation of being associated with the group Al-Ahbash, which was linked to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association and one of Alhilali’s strongest allies and his regular spokesman and defender, said the mufti has huge support among the Muslim community in Australia.
He said the broader issues will test the credibility of the unproven Australian National Imams Council at its first conference.
“If the first thing this council does is deal with the mufti in a negative way, then it has lost its credibility in the Muslim community, it will lose its support,” Mr Trad said.
“Because we have bigger issues than this.”