CANBERRA - AUSTRALIA'S government is seeking more secular academic and sporting Muslims to join an advisory body to help ease simmering religious tensions.
The government wanted a broad range of people to help break down the public stereotype that all Muslims are conservatives, with hardline Islamic views, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs Laurie Ferguson said.
'I think one of the failures of the previous government was to drive people into a corner, to force people to make a choice, sometimes which reinforced hard religiosity,' Ms Ferguson told Australian radio.
Australia's previous conservative government, which lost power to centre-left Labor in November, appointed and later abolished a Muslim advisory council as then-prime minister John Howard voiced concern about Muslim integration in Australia.
Mr Howard called for Muslim immigrants, including spiritual leaders, to better integrate and introduced a controversial test requiring new arrivals to sign up to Australian 'mateship' values before becoming citizens.
Relations between non-Muslim Australians and Muslims have been strained since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Australia has deployed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In December, residents of a small town on Sydney's rural outskirts vowed to attack Muslim students and their families over plans to set up a local Islamic school.
During the election that ousted Mr Howard after almost 12 years in power, conservative political activists distributed fake flyers painting Labor as sympathisers of three Islamic extremists on death row in Indonesia over 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali.
Ms Ferguson told the Australian newspaper that the previous council axed by Mr Howard had drawn its members from among religious leaders who failed to agree on key goals.
Australia's new mufti, Mr Fehmi Naji el-Imam, also embarrassed Mr Howard's government by declaring support for Islamic militants during the 2006 Lebanon war between Hizbollah and Israel.
Under the government's plan, sports stars, academics and mainstream Muslims would be asked to sit on the seven-member advisory body of three men and three women, plus a chair.
Muslim community leader Ameer Ali, from the Regional Islamic Council, backed Ferguson and said there was a misconception among many Australians that all Muslims were religious hardliners.
'Islam has been portrayed as religion of violence, which is not true. Islam has been portrayed as a religion that promotes jihads,' Mr Ali told Sky News Australia.
But Mr Kuranda Seyit, from the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations, said the plan was 'fraught with many dangers', as academics or sports personalities may not have a deep enough understanding of important issues.
Muslims have been in Australia for more than 200 years, initially arriving as camel drivers to help open up the vast outback.
Today there are about 280,000 Muslims in the 21 million population, living predominantly in Sydney and Melbourne. -- REUTERS