CANBERRA - Australia's top Muslim cleric riled critics on Tuesday by questioning Osama bin Laden's role in the September 11 attacks on the United States, a day after being appointed to repair strains with non-Muslim Australians.
Sheik Fehmi Naji El-Imam, a moderate member of Prime Minister John Howard's Muslim advisors' group, was named the new Mufti of Australia on Monday, replacing controversial Sydney-based cleric Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly.
"What evidence?" Fehmi said on Tuesday when reporters pressed him on whether he would drop his past reluctance to link al Qaeda leader bin Laden to the September 11, 2001 airliner attacks.
Fehmi, 79, who leads the Preston mosque in the southern city of Melbourne, was appointed for two years to replace Hilaly, who outraged Australians by comparing immodestly dressed women to "uncovered meat", inviting rape.
Calls for his replacement, backed by Howard and other lawmakers, reached a crescendo when Egyptian-born Hilaly said in an television interview that Muslims had a greater right to be in the country than white Australians of convict heritage.
Determined to skirt more controversy, Fehmi's advisors on Monday stopped the new Mufti from giving his opinion on the war in Iraq, in which around 1,500 Australian troops are taking part alongside US-led forces.
In a cautious news conference, Lebanese-born Fehmi also said Islam when interpreted properly had no place for extremism.
The Australian newspaper said Australians deserved a moderate Mufti following the "inglorious reign" of Hilaly, whose replacement would be met with "a profound sense of relief".
But Fehmi's past comments calling Lebanese Hezbollah militants "freedom fighters" and demanding removal of the group's combat arm from a government list of banned organisations supporting terrorism were cause for concern, the paper said.
"It is vital that the person holding this role truly represents the moderate, law-abiding stance of the vast majority of Australian Muslims," it said in an editorial.
Sydney lawyer and Islamic issues commentator Irfan Yusef said Fehmi would be an improvement on the polarising Hilaly.
"I think that it's important that someone be appointed Mufti who speaks the language of the broader community," he said.
Most of Australia's 280,000-strong Muslims were under 30 and born in Australia, Yuself said, raising the question of whether there should be a Mufti at all given the position's roots in the small ethnic Lebanese community.
"A lot of people really couldn't care less what the Mufti says ...," he said.