Some of the region’s most influential Muslim leaders met in secret in Mecca last year at the behest of a Saudi-born Wahhabi leader to sign an agreement that would set up a new umbrella organisation and an investment fund to control much of the booming halal certification market.
The accord, obtained by The Australian, brought together the unlikeliest of figures under the “honorary presidency” of World Muslim League general secretary Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen al-Turki.
Dr Turki had brought the figures, including embattled Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Hafez Kassem and “Mr Saudi” in Australia, Shafiq Khan, to Mecca to conquer and divide the multi-million-dollar halal certification market.
Leaders from Fiji and New Zealand, hardline preacher Sheik Omar El-Banna and Australia’s Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohammed were all present and all signed the document.
Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen al-Turki (left) Worldwide, the halal food market is worth more than $1 trillion and certification proceeds are worth tens of millions of dollars in Australia.
“The federation shall seek to set up an Islamic investment fund to invest in good-return projects, especially in the area of halal food of all kinds, as well as investing in the establishment of an Islamic abattoir,” the agreement says.
The federation more broadly would “adhere to the middle-of-the-road approach to Islam in all aspects of life, without melting in the others or staying on the sidelines” and would introduce “Islam through books, leaflets, lectures, conferences and the internet”.
Though the agreement also enshrines the establishment of a “fund to support Islamic associations, centres and schools in the South Pacific Islands” and other groups, The Australian understands the real concern was to control more of the halal market.
According to those familiar with the meeting, it was discussed that 70 per cent of the profits from the investment fund would be distributed among the various signatories and 30 per cent would go to the World Muslim League. The agreement has never been made public and one signatory, when confronted with a copy, tore it up on the spot.
The Grand Mufti, Dr Mohammad, signed the agreement representing his own centre — the Australian Islamic Culture Establishment — and not the Australian National Imams Council.
Sheik Omar El-Banna is considered by the community to follow teachings of the Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative strain of Islam.
None of the parties to the agreement responded to detailed questions put by The Australian.
“The intention was that a bank account would be created, a kitty, and these people would be the custodians of the fund,” one man told The Australian.
“They worked out the distribution formula and some of that money would go to the league. Whether that goes to their Australian office (in Melbourne) or back to Saudi Arabia, we do not know.”
The Australian has corroborated this account with three unrelated sources.
The US Central Intelligence Authority estimates the Saudis have spent almost $100 billion since the oil boom exporting their nation’s homegrown interpretation of Islam, which is based on an 18th-century revivalist preacher, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Their man in Australia has for years been Mr Khan, the guiding hand of hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars designed to influence the content and practice of Islam across the continent.
The Muslim World League is funded by the Saudi regime and Dr Turki has the ear of internal officials.
In 2003, Mr Khan was caught up in a legal battle for control of halal certification profits from the Supreme Islamic Council of Halal Meat in Australia when his former supporters accused him of siphoning more than $1 million into his own charities and Al Faisal College, in Sydney’s west, where he is director.
Mr Khan settled out of court and agreed to pay $1m back to the council.
Worldwide, the halal food market is worth more than $1 trillion and certification proceeds are worth tens of millions of dollars in Australia.
Australia exports about $1bn worth of food to Saudi Arabia each year and $2.5bn to Indonesia, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population.
The battle for influence and power in Australia took on a comical turn when Dr Turki made it clear he wished to hold a conference in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 2013.
He approached the national peak body — AFIC — to organise the event but a host of community organisations boycotted the event because of concerns over the management of AFIC, which has been accused of questionable accounting practices.
Dr Turki was instead treated to a forum at Sydney’s Malek Fahd Islamic School — also in Sydney’s west, and controlled by AFIC — with the Saudi ambassador Nabil al-Saleh before being hosted at a dinner by Mr Khan, the Saudi fixer, who brought along a coterie of Australia’s most influential Muslim leaders.
Mr Kassem flew with Dr Turki on his private jet with his entourage of 12 people to New Zealand and eventually Jakarta. The plane broke down and had to land in north Queensland for repairs so the entourage paid $3000 in excess baggage fees and carried on to Indonesia.
“It was not a very successful trip for AFIC: it made Dr al-Turki realise they had no real influence in Australia,” one man said.
“That influence was with Mr Khan.”
And so the “Mecca charter” was invented.
It includes AFIC, which has control of a significant portion of halal certification trade, but mostly contains supporters of or people loyal to Mr Khan.
Years after he was forced on to the sideline of the halal trade, Mr Khan appears to have made a spectacular comeback, at least in terms of his strategic position.
Not that the new federation has been officially formed.
There is no evidence the organisation has been registered as a not-for-profit in Australia as the agreement foreshadowed and those familiar with its operation are unsure if the investment fund has been created.
Some of AFIC’s state member councils have not been told about the agreement, the name of the umbrella group or the other signatories.
The Muslim World Leage did not respond to a request for comment. – from The Australian