To adapt the now well reported statement of the embattled Mufti of Australia, 90 percent of Muslim PR disasters usually start with a cleric: He makes some remark; then a seductive headline; then a denial; then a claim that it’s taken out of context; then a media pack that has no mercy; and then an apology. And meanwhile Muslims, to borrow another analogy, become the meat in the sandwich.
Whilst people, clerics included, are free to say whatever they wish, the problem here is that a diverse community of 300,000 Muslims is being made accountable for the pronouncements of anyone that the media anoints as a “Muslim cleric”. There seems to be the understandable belief that any statement issued by a man in a turban or, in this most recent case, a man identified as Australia’s Most Senior Cleric carries the same spiritual weight as a Papal decree. However, this is far from the truth.
Sunni Islam is one of the world’s few laissez-faire religions: there is no clerical class, hierarchy, or Supreme Leader. Each individual Muslim is responsible for the practice and interpretation of their own faith. Although they may refer to scholars, no individual scholar holds absolute authority over the interpretation of the religion; and for most Australian Muslims, the scholar they refer to is the Imam of their local mosque or some other respected figure in their community or sect.
Despite that, the inflammatory or incorrect statement of one imam is often interpreted and reported as though it is the incontrovertible Islamic truth. This happened when Sydney’s Sheikh Faiz offered his views on rape last year; when Melbourne’s Abu Bakr Benbrika expressed his disrespect for other beliefs; and it is occurring again with Sheikh Taj’s reported comments. However, the views of one individual cannot represent the entire Muslim community it all its heterogeneity and ideological disunity.
For this reason, if there is one lesson to be learnt from the current controversy, it is this: the idea that one man can represent the views of Australia’s diverse and divided Muslim community is, to put it delicately, nonsense. And the Lebanese Muslim Association seems to implicitly support this view. If the sheikh had really been the spiritual leader of Australia’s Muslims, as some are wont to assert, then the decision as to whether he should remain would have been made by a group more diverse than the Lebanese chieftains of Sydney’s south west.
The controversy has, however, raised two important questions: should the office of Mufti of Australia continue; and should Sheikh Taj continue as Imam of Lakemba.
The first issue is the office of Mufti. Rather than being a source of unity, the unjustified elevation of one man — any man — and his opinions above all others has led to major problems. It has harmed the sheikh by subjecting him to a level of scrutiny that is, to be fair, not warranted by his power within the broader Muslim community. It is doubtful that his comments would have sent politicians into paroxysms of outrage had they not seen him as a totemic representative of Australian Islam. It has also affected the Muslim community by allowing controversy surrounding one man to become a controversy engulfing an entire religion. As Muslim talking heads are fond of saying, it’s all about context; and abandoning the office of mufti would achieve some much needed context in reporting of future Islamic issues.
Secondly, despite the gnashing of teeth from government, media, opportunistic former friends and Sheikh Taj’s sectarian rivals, the LMA — his employer — must decide alone as to whether he remains the imam of their mosque. The sheikh has since offered an apology, made three attempts to explain himself, and stood aside. The reported comments have offended many people and have clearly harmed relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim community. However, it is only the LMA, like any other employer, that can decide whether they wish him to continue. If the tremendous outpouring of support for the sheikh is any indication, many Muslims have accepted his explanation, and want him to remain. If the LMA sack him, it will not be to satisfy the demands of their constituents but to appease the demands of the state and media. And in these politically charged times, setting such a precedent requires careful consideration.