CANBERRA (Reuters) - Prime Minister John Howard said on Monday he was concerned about "extremist" Muslim immigrants bent on jihad, saying they were antagonistic towards Australian society.
Extreme Muslim attitudes towards women were also a problem, said Howard, repeating comments made in an interview for a new book on his 10th anniversary in power in March.
Howard's remarks sparked criticism from leaders of Australia's small Muslim community, which already feels under siege due to the U.S.-led war on terrorism and recent Sydney beachside race riots against Lebanese-Australian youths.
"There is a small section of the Islamic population in Australia -- (which) because of its remarks about the jihad and remarks which indicate an extremist view -- that is a problem," Howard told reporters on Monday.
"It is not a problem we have ever faced with other immigrant communities who become easily absorbed by Australian mainstream."
Muslims have been in Australia for more than 200 years and make up 1.5 percent of the multi-cultural 20 million population.
A number of Muslims in Australia are facing trial under new anti-terrorism laws introduced after the U.S. attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Australia has never suffered a major terrorist attack on homesoil, but it is on heightened security, with troops committed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Howard also said some Muslim attitudes towards women were not appropriate in Australia. "There is within some sections of the Islamic community an attitude towards women which is out of line with mainstream Australian society," he said.
He said both these issues posed a challenge to Australia's immigration programme.
Howard's original remarks in which he said some Muslims were "raving on about jihad" were made in December, just days before violence rocked Sydney's Cronulla beach, when white Australian youths clashed with Lebanese-Australians. Interview extracts were published in the Australian newspaper on Monday.
Ameer Ali, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, described Howard's comments as inflammatory when tensions between Muslims and Western nations are already running high internationally and domestically.
"The timing is bad, with protests against the cartoons and things going on all over the place, it inflames the situation. It doesn't help us to continue with the great work we are doing in this country to achieve a harmonious society," Ali said.
Ali said while he agreed it was important to keep unwanted elements out of Australia, Howard needed to clarify his views.
"We have to keep closer scrutiny of people who are applying for migration and if there are people of views the bin Laden type -- that sort of Muslim we don't want here," Ali told Reuters. "But there should not be a blanket ban enforced on the Muslims."
Almost a quarter of Australia's population -- 24 percent or 4.8 million people -- were born overseas, the highest level in more than a century.
"We welcome people from all around the world and we're better for it, but when they come to this country they are meant and expected and should become Australians," Howard told reporters.
"We don't ask them to forget the countries of their birth, we respect all religious points of views and people are entitled to practise them, but there are certainly things that are not part of the Australian mainstream."