CANBERRA, Feb 24: Australian Treasurer Peter Costello said that Muslims who want to live by Islamic sharia law were not welcome in the country, fuelling more anger after Prime Minister John Howard's comments on ''extremist'' Muslim immigrants.
Two key Muslim leaders today condemned Costello's beliefs as divisive, but Howard stood by his heir apparent, defending the treasurer's comments as fundamentally accurate and calling for people to ''take a deep breath'' and calm down.
Howard said on Monday that he was concerned about ''extremist'' Muslim immigrants bent on jihad because they were antagonistic towards Australian society.
Costello used a speech on Australian citizenship yesterday to focus on the country's small Muslim community, which already feels under siege due to the US-led war on terrorism and recent Sydney race riots against Lebanese-Australian youths.
''Before entering a mosque visitors are asked to take off their shoes. This is a sign of respect. If you have a strong objection to walking in your socks, don't enter the mosque,'' Costello told The Sydney Institute, a thinktank.
''Before becoming an Australian, you will be asked to subscribe to certain values. If you have strong objections to those values, don't come to Australia.'' Muslims have been in Australia for about 200 years and make up 1.5 per cent of the multi-cultural 20 million population.
Several Muslims in Australia are facing trial under new anti-terrorism laws introduced after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Australia has never suffered a major peacetime attack on its soil, but it is on heightened security since it has troops committed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Keysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, told Reuters that Australian Muslims agreed with Costello's sentiments about being good, law abiding citizens.
''But to continually single out the Muslim community like this is very unhelpful, it's very divisive and it does stir up Islamophobia,'' Trad said.
''We're proud to be Australian and our religion strongly stipulates that if you make an oath, whether it's an oath of citizenship or any other oath, that you honour it, abide by it.'' Ameer Ali, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said that he agreed with Costello that people who don't want to accept Australian values should not live in the country.
But he said Costello was ignorant when he talked about sharia law.
''There are already sharia laws in this country because the majority of Australian laws have no contradiction with the sharia laws,'' Ali told Reuters.
''The government is gradually setting the stage to back away from its commitment to multiculturalism and go back to the days of the white Australian policy. That seems to be the ulterior motive behind all these attacks.'' Howard, who earlier this week also expressed concern about Muslim attitudes toward women, said that while the overwhelming majority of Muslims were committed to Australia, it didn't mean that the government couldn't identify areas of concern.
''I think the reaction of some in the Islamic community every time anything is said to the effect that 'we're stirring up hostilities' is quite unreasonable,'' Howard today told Australian radio.