Thursday, May 19, 2005

Sheik al Hilaly - From Australian Villain to Australian Hero?

Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly, Australia’s leading Muslim cleric, is attempting to secure the release of Australian hostage Douglas Wood, kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq. Wood was working in Iraq as a contractor when he was seized by a rebel group, the Shura Council of the Mujahideen of Iraq 2 weeks ago.

The usual demands for withdrawal of Australian troops was issued with a deadline. The Australian government’s policy has always been, correctly so, to ignore such demands.

Wood’s family appealed directly to the insurgents with a promise of donation to a charitable organization in Iraq. They also turned to al Hilaly for help.

al Hilaly flew immediately to Baghdad where he sent feelers through his Shiite and Sunni colleagues to the insurgents. The kidnappers have responded positively, and even permitted al Hilaly, through intermediaries, to hand over some prescriptive medication for Wood.

al Hilaly is a very controversial personality in Australia. Based in Sydney he had been accused of preaching extremist views, and widely demonised by a number of Australian politicians and journalists. There was an incident where he drove his car with an expired road registration, where the press made an issue over what was probably a personal administrative oversight – afterall, many other Australians have forgotten to renew their car road registration too.

In a more controversial incident he was accused of preaching violence against the West and Israel at a mosque in Lebanon. The accusation was based on a report by MEMRI, which claims to be a non-partisan research institute but was founded by a former Israeli Intelligence man, Colonel Yigal Carmon, now domiciled in the USA.

There have been a number of western (not Arab) allegations against MEMRI that it specializes in demonising Arab causes by cherry-picking and translating, at times creatively, only offensive Arabic news items for dissemination to western politicians and the press.

That MEMRI report was eventually acknowledged in Australia as not reliable. Later, Australia’s SBS TV showed that the sermon was actually harmless.

al Hilaly’s efforts seemed to be gaining a degree of achievement. After the successful handing over of Wood’s medication he has been allowed to talk on a mobile phone to the hostage. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, though there’s still some way to track towards it yet.

If Sheik al Hilaly pulls off the release of Douglas Wood, he’ll return to Sydney an Australian hero rather than the Muslim villain he has always been portrayed as.

That'll certainly make some Australian politicians, journalists and people choke on their beer (or chardonnay).

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