THIRTY years ago, Elton John may have crooned that "sorry seems to be the hardest word", but these days the sorry word rolls off the tongue too easily. So it's no surprise that Muslim cleric Taj Din al-Hilali thought a few apologies would get him off the hook for claiming that women in short skirts who smile and sway their hips are to blame for unleashing unlawful sexual appetites in men.
The mufti was tapping into the modern-day disease of apologitis. Say you're sorry and endless Western tenderness and tolerance will forgive all. The West has mistakenly believed tolerance begets tolerance. Having discovered that it spawns intolerance, we are finally getting back into the values debate. That means realising that sorry just won't cut it any more.
But right on cue, the first reaction from Abdul El Ayoubi of the Lebanese Muslim Association was: "We did accept his apology and we want to move on." Whoa. Before we move on, let's figure out precisely why sorry does not work any more. The sheik's apology has the distinct smell of someone being sorry that he was caught. There was no hint of contrition from Hilali in the weeks between his speech and The Australian reporting it. His faint-hearted mea culpa once the media arrived looked more like one of those PR-spun apologies. You know the kind, like the one AWB was advised to make but declined.
Going into further damage control last Friday, the wily cleric from Sydney's Lakemba mosque said his words were misinterpreted just like the Pope's address at Regensburg University. Full marks for cunning, with Hilali and his supporters believing that if good-hearted people cut a Christian leader some slack, then a Muslim leader deserves the same courtesy. The argument fails on logic. The Pope is entitled to ask whether violence is part of Islam in an attempt to encourage Muslim leaders to talk openly about what it is within Islam that encourages jihadists. The validity of that question was instantly proved by the violent response it triggered. By contrast, Hilali's medieval comments about women as meat pose no valid question. They are unacceptable in an enlightened world.
Let's put the mad sheik to one side. De-sheiking him is only part of a bigger problem. Fanatical Muslim leaders have been pandered to by Western leaders who should know better. They have been too frightened to make judgments for fear of incurring a cultural wrath. And Muslim communities living in Western liberal democracies have failed to hold their leaders to account for their extremism. Remember that 500 Muslims listened to the sheik's poisonous remarks at Lakemba mosque last month. Not one person went public to immediately declare them unacceptable.
Criticism from some Muslims came only after The Australian reported the speech. But for the media, we would not have flushed out this madness and Hilali would be quietly fomenting more extremism under cover of the mosque.
This is a point Australian Federal Police boss Mick Keelty may want to mull over, given his remarks last week blaming the media for fuelling vilification of Australian Muslims, which he said was encouraging home-grown terrorism.
Let's focus on the real problem here. Notwithstanding Hilali being benched for a few months, and then choosing to step aside indefinitely, many Muslims support his outpourings of hate. The paralysis of the Lebanese Muslim Association attests to that.
And when the sheik returned to Lakemba mosque last Friday, 5000 people turned up to listen and cheer.
As Peter Costello remarked about Hilali on Monday: "These kinds of attitudes have actually influenced people ... So you wonder whether a kid like (gang rapist) Bilal Skaf had grown up hearing these kinds of attitudes and you wonder whether kids rioting down at Cronulla have heard these kinds of attitudes."
Those attitudes are found in the most unlikely places. A straw poll by The Sydney Morning Herald of Muslim women in their 20s and 30s - women one might expect to have a more enlightened view - revealed that some supported the view that women must cover up to prevent men from raping them. Little wonder some Muslim boys are growing up to view short-skirted Western women as "asking for it".
Now for the biggest problem of all. Western nations have long taken the view that by setting themselves up as role models of best practice on the tolerance front, tolerance would be forthcoming from other quarters. Specifically, it was thought that those from other cultures who make their home in the West would embrace tolerance as a Western virtue. We also hoped that other less tolerant nations would see the light and follow suit. It's what the Pope calls reciprocity.
That plan is coming unstuck in the clash between modernity and Islam. In Western countries, the tolerance virtue is being used by the likes of Hilali to spout venom. In Britain it has led to what English columnist Melanie Phillips has dubbed Londonistan. A moral vacuum over the worth of Western values effectively handed control of the debate to rabid Muslim leaders. As Marcello Pera wrote in his introduction to the 2006 edition of a book he co-authored with the Pope: "Try saying that Western institutions are better than the institutions in Islamic countries. A warrant will be sworn for your cultural arrest."
The same timidity has infected Europe, now nicknamed Eurabia. Hamas's al-Aqsa television station is planning to beam its ideology of hate against the West into European homes. It's a clever recruitment drive for the Palestinian terrorist group given that these days Western-born terrorists are the ones more likely to be loading up their backpacks with explosives. We think we have a problem with the Western media convincing tweenies to buy lip gloss and low-slung jeans. As The Wall Street Journal reports, in a recent edition of Hamas's online magazine aimed at children, young readers are treated to a cartoon of a smiling child riding a rocket. Let's hope Europe is quick to shut down Hamas's hate TV channel. It took them years to shut down Hezbollah's al-Manar TV.
Every time we take our eye off the ball, the other side scores. This is why the values debate matters. For more than 20 years, the West abandoned that debate. We gave ourselves over to Western self-loathers, cultural relativists and romantic primitivists. We allowed Muslim leaders such as Hilali to use their tolerant host countries to spawn a new generation of Muslims who reject Western values.
The good news is that Western nations are reclaiming the values debate after discovering that tolerating subversion signals Western weakness and encourages more subversion.
The bad news is that reclaiming the ground is going to take more than getting rid of one mufti.