Exclusive: Australia's most senior Muslim cleric, Sheikh Abdel Aziem Al-Afifi, talks to SBS News during an interfaith dinner hosted by his predecessor.
Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric has vowed to do his “best to benefit the Muslim community and the broader Australian community”, during an interfaith Iftar dinner hosted by his predecessor in Sydney.
In an exclusive interview with SBS News - his first major English-speaking interview since being announced as the new Grand Mufti in March - Sheikh Abdel Aziem Al-Afifi outlined his priorities.
"I'll be very happy if I can do something to save our kids, and to keep them away from any bad idea, and to teach them how to be good Australians and to represent their country, and to serve our nation,” Sheikh Al-Afifi said.
Sheikh Al-Afifi believes the key issues facing young Muslims are the threat of extremism, the dangers surrounding social media, and drugs.
"It is our duty to work hard and to stop any harm and to keep Australia safe and secure,” he told SBS News.
“Because we're all one family and we all have to help each other and work together.”
A united interdenominational front
The incoming President of Australia’s Uniting Church, Deidre Palmer, said she is excited to work alongside Sheikh Al-Afifi, adding that she also thinks it's vital to engage disenfranchised youth from religious and non-religious backgrounds.
“I'd like to work alongside them in supporting them because I think they're the ones that are going to build an Australian society that's respectful and can live at peace and openness with one another,” she said.
“I'm really keen to build those kinds of understanding, accepting relationships between us.”
The Anglican Archdeacon for the NSW Central Coast, Father Rod Bower, said his first meeting with the new Mufti at the interfaith dinner was a “great opportunity for political and religious leaders to celebrate diversity (and) to show we’re all Australians together”.
"When we're serving the community, it's aided when we've built bridges and we have deep relationships,” he told SBS News.
Fellow Iftar attendee, Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, agreed a united front on a range of issues was crucial.
"In a country like Australia where we pride ourselves on religious freedom, but with religious freedom also comes tolerance and understanding and respect and respect within the law and of the law.
“That's where I think interfaith and interfaith dialogue has been very important.”
Who is the new Grand Mufti?
Sheikh Al-Afifi was elected by the Australian National Imams Council Executive Committee - made up of 18 eminent Imams across Australia - in March. He will hold the position for at least one three-year term.
An Egyptian-born academic and scholar, Sheikh Al-Afifi first arrived in Australia in 2000 to lead a Ramadan sermon, fell in love with the country and decided to stay. He is based in Melbourne, having taught at Islamic schools and serving as president of the Australian National Imams Council between 2010-2015.
The cleric told SBS News he hopes to impart his learnings to the wider Australian community, in a bid to mend any fractions that have deepened over recent years.
"It's a big responsibility, and I will do my best,” Sheikh Al-Afifi said.
He replaces former Grand Mufti Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, who again hosted his annual interfaith Iftar dinner featuring an array of political and religious leaders. The fellow Egyptian-born scholar experienced some tumultuous times since the commencement of his tenure in September 2011.
Highly respected within his community for his politically moderate views, he faced heavy criticism for his response to the 2015 murder of NSW Police worker Curtis Cheng by radicalised teenager Farhad JabAr.
In the immediate aftermath, Dr Ibrahim called for extremists to “stop messing with Australia”, but did not immediately call the shooting an act of terror – saying at the time there was “not enough evidence”.
Dr Ibrahim was also lambasted for only responding to the fallout in his native Arabic, with some circles stating that his stance on combating radicalisation was underhanded. Conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt also criticised his tendency to communicate in Arabic over English.
Dr Ibrahim, who is fluent in English, said he speaks in Arabic so he is not misquoted by the media.
“It was a very trying and challenging time,” he told SBS News in his native language.
“This is a society where you don't need to rely on translating yourself. So long as you are respectful, educated and giving, this is what is important to people. There is no need to translate. But my biggest regret was that I responded to my critics.”
Sheikh Al-Afifi believes speaking English can be crucial for connecting with young Muslims and the wider Australian community, explaining that “99 percent” of his and “many, many other” Imam’s Friday sermons are delivered in English.
“We have a big number of Imams who are young, and they speak English and they are able to engage with the younger ones,” he explained.
“We do activities, we sit with them, and we get closer to them as much as we can, and by doing that we try to send the right message to try to understand, and to keep them away from the wrong.”
Sheikh Al-Afifi praised Dr Ibrahim, who will return to his scholarly work but remain in a mentor role for both the new Grand Mufti and the general community, for his dedicated service to help improve relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
“He doesn’t give up, and that’s the kind of leader that we need, and that’s how we succeed,” Sheikh Al-Afifi said.
How is a Grand Mufti elected?
The Grand Mufti is the highest official of religious law for Sunni Muslims. In Australia, the position can only be held for a maximum constitutionally permitted two full terms of six years.
Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohamed said the Council of Imams offered to change the by-laws to allow him to stay on for longer, but he refused. He hopes it will set a precedent for future clerics.
"I told them I wasn't Robert Mugabe,” Dr Ibrahim laughed.
“And this was the most beautiful moment, the most wonderful decision I made in my tenure."
Dr Ibrahim hopes he also leaves behind three key legacies.
“First that we protect Australia, because it is our country, we were all born or raised here. The second is that our contributions as a Muslim community are seen as relevant and significant to the current climate that we are in. And finally, to protect our youth to ensure they embrace their identity and find a middle ground with their faith,” he said.