Howard's Muslim advisory team split

Sydney, Australia - JOHN Howard's hand-picked Muslim advisory body is in danger of imploding after the nation's Islamic spiritual leader threatened to break up the group unless a member with links to a radical organisation was removed.

Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali told The Australian yesterday he would write to the Prime Minister to express grave concerns about the presence on the 14-member Muslim Community Reference Group of Mustapha Kara-Ali, one of three youth representatives.

"If the Government wants to set up a group, as it has, it should invite members of the Muslim community who we acknowledge," Sheik Hilali said.

"We as a Muslim community know who belongs and works for the community and who works against it."

In the interview, conducted in Arabic, the Sheik warned that Mr Howard's advisory body could "break up" if Mr Kara-Ali were not removed. Sheik Hilali said five of the 14 reference group members, including chairman Ameer Ali, would refuse to attend meetings at his request.

This would be a severe embarrassment for Mr Howard, who set up the group to build dialogue with the Muslim community.

"If the group breaks up for the sake of Kara-Ali, then congratulations to the (Government)," he said. "I will then call it Kara-Ali group, Kara-Ali committee."

Sheik Hilali claimed Mr Kara-Ali was linked to the Islamic Charity Projects Association, which has been accused of being a violent cult organisation.

The ICPA, known in Arabic as al-Ahbash, has denied those accusations, along with the claim that two of its members were last year linked by a UN inquiry to the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

But Mr Kara-Ali struck back, saying he would not be "bullied" out of the group, and accused the Mufti of playing petty ethnic politics. "No one man can monopolise community affairs. Australia is not a dictatorship," Mr Kara-Ali said.

"My position on the reference group is to represent all ethnic groups ... and I will not be bullied out of this position."

The Prime Minister set up the Muslim Community Reference Group six months ago following the London bombings to advise the Government on issues concerning Australians of Islamic backgrounds.

The Mufti said that unless Mr Kara-Ali stated "on the record" that he was not affiliated or linked to the ICPA, he would not attend the next meeting scheduled for later this month, nor would he send his proxy - Lebanese Muslim Association vice-president Samier Dandan.

"Let him (Kara-Ali) publish his views that he does not believe in or follow the ways and ideologies of the al-Ahbash sect, and that he doesn't support or listen to them, and we are prepared to carry him on our head and recognise him as one of us."

Pressed on whether or not he was a member of the al-Ahbash, Mr Kara-Ali said he was as happy to represent an al-Ahbash member as he was a member of any other Muslim association in Australia. "I will not be pigeonholed. I'm a Muslim Australian."

Reference group member and prominent Melbourne-based sheik Fehmi Naji El-Imam supported the Mufti's position. "We don't want any members of al-Ahbash on the reference group."

Calls to the ICPA were not returned yesterday.

A spokesman for Mr Howard did not return calls last night.