THE apology from the sheik was profuse. He had verbally attacked
women, endorsed suicide bombings in Lebanon and declared that Jews were
plotting world domination.
"The two cheapest things in Australia are the flesh of a woman and the meat of a pig," he said.
Taj Din al-Hilali accepted his words were offensive. "I genuinely believe that I have changed for the better," he insisted.
Nothing, it seems, has changed in the last 20 years. The nation's
most senior Muslim cleric was not responding to public damnation over
his Ramadan sermon last month in which he blamed women for inciting
rape and likened them to abandoned "meat".
Chris Hurford, immigration minister in the Hawke Labor government,
tried in 1986 to have him deported after Hilali had overstayed a
tourist visa in 1982 and settled in Sydney.
Hurford wanted the sheik sent home to Egypt because his reported utterances were dividing the Muslim community.
But Hilali had two powerful Labor supporters on his side - Paul
Keating and Leo McLeay - who would ultimately help him win his quest
for permanent residency.
Keating, then federal treasurer, and McLeay, an influential
backbencher from his party's Right faction, made no bones about their
belief that Hilali should stay and lobbied on his behalf.
They were under pressure from the growing local Muslim community in
their neighbouring western Sydney seats of Blaxland and Grayndler.
The Lakemba mosque where Hilali was the spiritual leader was in McLeay's electorate.
"It was a local political issue for people who lived in the electorate," said one observer.
"They took the philosophical view that if people in this religious
group wanted Hilali to be their spiritual leader, why should they say
But Hurford and other players close to the action take a different view.
They believe that Hilali was ultimately granted permanent residency
by the Labor government in 1990 - in a decision made by Keating himself
as acting prime minister while Bob Hawke was away - because the
decision could help Labor in federal and state politics.
Barrie Unsworth, who was NSW premier from 1986 to 1988, confirms he
and Hilali knew each other but denies he stood to benefit if the sheik
was given residency.
"I didn't actively do anything to keep him here," Unsworth toldThe Weekend Australian yesterday.
"I had been to the Lakemba mosque and taken my shoes off and gone
in. I met Hilali, I had to deal with him, but I also went to a
synagogue in the eastern suburbs and met the head of the Coptic
(Egyptian Orthodox) Church at the airport."
Keating did actively try to help Hilali stay.
He led a delegation of Muslim community leaders to see Hurford in
his Canberra office in 1986, attempting to persuade the minister to
reverse his opposition to the Muslim cleric.
Hurford wouldn't budge and continued to fight Hilali's application
for residency in the Federal Court. But he didn't last much longer as
Hawke moved Hurford out of immigration a year later and gave him the
community services portfolio of retiring senator Don Grimes.
The move was sold to Hurford as a promotion, but Hurford is
understood to believe it was linked to his support for a "good
settlement policy" - a view that did not sit well with Labor's version
In Hurford's mind, Hilali was a classic case of someone who should
be rejected because he refused to integrate into Australian society.
But Hurford's replacement as minister, the late Mick Young, was much more receptive.
Tony Harris, then deputy head of the Immigration Department, recalls
that it was Keating who ultimately allowed Hilali to stay in a decision
he made as acting prime minister when Hawke was away.
Harris says he and then Immigration head Bill McKinnon believed that Labor had good reasons for giving Hilali residency.
"We surmised that Hilali came from that part of Sydney which was
important to several Labor electorates, state and federal, that
included Keating's electorate," Harris said.
"It was important to Labor because the party was very close to the Lebanese community.
"The view was that the Lebanese community was influential in
selecting Labor candidates and had a heavy presence in electorates in
the south and west of Sydney."
Hurford may regard himself as a casualty of refusing residency to Hilali but so, it appears, was the head of his department.
According to McKinnon's son, The Weekend Australian's freedom of
information editor Michael McKinnon, his father's position cost him his
McKinnon says his late father told him he left the department
involuntarily and was offered the job of high commissioner in New
"I know he vehemently opposed granting permanent residency to the sheik," said McKinnon.
"My father paid with his job for putting national interest before the political interests of the ALP."
Longtime Labor adviser Richard Farmer says he and then fellow Hawke
staffer Bob Sorby were sent to Unsworth's office to help with the NSW
Labor government's campaign for the state election in 1988 because of
their success with federal Labor the previous year.
Unsworth had only recently switched from the upper house to the
lower house, in the southern seat of Rockdale, at a by-election and was
very concerned not to lose it.
According to Farmer, the premier wanted to keep Hilali onside and have him take up residency to appease local Muslims.
"I have absolutely no doubt, because there was a big Lebanese
community in that electorate and Barrie Unsworth wanted to make sure he
was re-elected," Farmer said.
Unsworth rejects Farmer's claim as nonsense, saying the Muslims in
his electorate were Shi'ites and attended the Arncliffe mosque, whereas
Hilali was a Sunni and the leader of the Lakemba mosque.
"If Farmer says I was looking after Hilali in Rockdale it's nonsense
- he fails to understand the structure of Muslim society," said
Unsworth lost the 1988 election and says he gained little campaign
help from Farmer, now a winemaker and writer in South Australia, and
Sorby, now a NSW judge.
"They were a couple of gunslingers imposed upon me by (NSW general secretary) Stephen Loosely," he said.
"They were uncontrollable."
Other senior Labor sources from that time say that Labor politics
was very much mixed up in Hilali's battle to get permanent residency.
"Officially our policy was to send Hilali back but there were
stacking wars going on among the Lebanese Muslims and (Christian)
Maronites," said one source, who declined to be named.
"It was going on in the seats of St George, Barton and the inner city."
Keating yesterday declined to return The Weekend Australian's call.
But he was pitched at the time against another powerful figure,
Lebanese Christian community leader Eddie Obeid, who wanted Hilali out.
Obeid, who owned the El Telegraph newspaper and later became a state
Labor MP and minister, lobbied the NSW regional manager of the
immigration department to have Hilali deported.
His newspaper printing press in Marrickville was burned down just
days after El Telegraph published a story based on a taped recording of
an inflammatory sermon by Hilali in 1982, likening the flesh of women
to pig meat.
Obeid yesterday declined to comment but a source close to him said:
"It was war out there. Burning down that building was the first
terrorist act in Australia".