This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Dr. Taj Hargey says he became radicalized after 9/11.
"I went to mosque in Oxford that week, after the largest political event of the age concerning Muslims, and did anyone mention it? No. Not at all," he says. "I mean, it wasn't entirely clear to what extent this concerned Islam just then, but where was the basic human compassion? I thought, Something's wrong here.'"
Hargey is now a full-blown radical, and he's waging his own private jihad, turning Muslim teaching away from the stodgy conservatism of most clerics.
Not only is he a radical, Hargey's also a hardcore fundamentalist, in that he rejects the Hadith—the book of the so-called "sayings of the Prophet" (compiled 200 years after the Prophet died) and the text used to form the outline of Sharia law. Unsurprisingly, Hargey also rejects Sharia itself.
Fundamentally, he points out, Islam is about the Qur'an, and it is from the Qur'an that he will preach, ignoring all the other footnotes beloved of modern clerics. All of that stuff, he says, has no pertinence to the Qur'an: It's a book that rejects violence, doesn't mention the burqa, embraces a role for women, and doesn't explicitly ban images of Muhammad or encourage Muslims to murder satirical cartoonists.
To this end, Hargey took part of his salary as an Oxford don and started his own mosque in South Africa late last year. The place of worship, he says—unlike most around the world—is both gay-friendly and woman-friendly. Which is exactly why he's not getting on so well within the local community of sects, imams, and governing councils.
His "Open Mosque" in Cape Town has been firebombed three times since it commenced operations in September. "They also tried to drive a 4x4 through the doors… but for me, right now, the project is about holding on," he tells me. "I've always said that if we can make it to our first anniversary, then we will have made it. And they know it! That's why they're piling on the pressure."
Outside, on the walls of this former warehouse buried in the backstreets of the resolutely unfashionable end of Wynberg, he's painted the five founding principles of his baby: Qu'ran-centric, gender equality, non-sectarian, inter-cultural, and independent.
While his day-to-day work is in the UK, he's returned here for a few weeks to check in. "Because this thing, at the moment, it needs the founder: it needs direction, it needs leadership," he says.
Inside the building, there are still builders' scaffolds and men with overalls cobbling bits of it together. Without sponsors, building work stops and starts depending on when Oxford has paid him. Yet Hargey believes he has a franchise that could stretch all around the world.
"It's interesting that you mention that word. I'd say yes—there's definitely a set of principles here that can be easily grasped," he says. "Already, we've had email requests from as far away as Brazil—they want to know when we can establish an Open Mosque there."
By unhappy coincidence, I meet Hargey the Friday after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Unlike his own experiences of 9/11, today's congregation—seven women and 13 men—get both barrels of commentary. He preaches for the better part of an hour, blasting off broadsides from the MacBook he's tucked into his lectern, as thick with Qur'anic citations as his academic background suggests.
"Where does it say in the Qur'an that blasphemers must be killed? Nowhere. That is only in the Hadith," he thunders.
He's splenetic. The Prophet, he points out again and again, showed clemency to a host of people who insulted him or ridiculed him. He seems to be making a special point here, playing to the gallery slightly. In the front row, a Muslim reporter from the local papers has been dispatched to note down the sayings of this mad mullah of liberal tolerance.
Yet, as one devotee who'd shuffled from mosque-to-mosque around the Cape for the past few years tells me, elsewhere, most other Imams won't be making a similar pitch this Friday afternoon. "They're very conservative in what they teach," he sighs. "They want to have the power, so they give you lots of laws."
The sophistic use of the sacred texts annoyed him enough that he kept changing. "For me, it was that they always preach from the Hadith. I started to get suspicious of that. You never heard them talking from the Qur'an."
"They use the Hadith," says Hargey, "because it gives them power: 'Don't do this. Do that. God will get you.'"
In the global context, Cape Muslims are pretty moderate folk. Yet inside their mosques, there is the same climate of fear around stepping out of line. "Mainly," Hargey points out, "because you won't have anyone to bury you. They won't let you into the cemetery."
South Africa's governing body for Muslims—the MDC—has declared the Open Mosque as illegal, and written to all the local papers defaming Hargey and condemning his place of worship. He's been threatened with hanging and castration by anonymous letter-writers. The opening week came with a Friday protest where outraged believers tried to block the entrance, followed by further death threats to the good doctor when they failed.
"They have a vested interest in maintaining their own power block, because they control the money," says Hargey. "There is R100 million [$7.6 million] every year in certifying food as halal. But no one knows where that money goes. There is zero transparency around it. They're all elected from within. There's no democracy there either."
Three months after opening, something like a congregation is starting to emerge out of the town's disaffected Muslims. Fear is still capping numbers, but they've already got three weddings booked in. Unlike his adversaries, Hargey is OK with non-Muslim men marrying Muslim women. And crucially, unlike the mosque 500 meters down the road, he wants women to be involved. "There should be a place here for my sisters, my mother, my daughter, my wife," he tells me.
They pray here, right alongside the men. Rather than taking the Hadith's limp injunctions that women will have "better rewards in the home" than at prayer, he sticks with what Muhammad himself did in Medina. "This place is much more like the prophet's own mosque than any other you'll see. Why? Because it has only one entrance. For both men and women."
Not only does it nix gender, his congregation seems to cut across class, too. One elegant middle-aged woman looks like she might have the keys to a Beemer in her black beaded clutch purse. Others pull off in their pick-up trucks. There is a black African guy who's clearly not from around here. A white guy.
More revolutionary but less visible, the Open Mosque is also perfectly happy to have The Gays in its congregation. Though that still isn't quite the same as adoring them.
"Look, the Qur'an says quite clearly that homosexuality is a sin, but it does not say that you should punish people," Hargey stresses. "It is for God to make that judgment. Not for me. My job as a Muslim is to live a good life. To be nice to people. To pick up litter. To help those who need help. Why must I go around condemning when God is taking care of that?" He wouldn't marry a gay Muslim, but "if they want a civil partnership, that is OK. It's just that marriage to me is defined by the Qur'an as a man and a woman."
Five hundred years after the Diet of Worms, no one has so far managed to do a back-to-basics prune-job on Islam, yet the idea is so bullseye-right for our times. He will have to face the full might of the cultural enforcers, but Hargey's starting to scent the appetite for change that's out there, too.
Right now, he lacks the funds or people to establish more Open Mosques around the world, but in his five founding principles he's got an easily reproducible franchise model for rolling his ideas around the globe with the full warp-speed of 21st century culture. There's a brand here, and if he can just keep it together, and take on the medieval majority, Hargey could change the world in much more meaningful ways than his hardline counterparts have ever managed.
"Ten years from now, if God keeps me going, I think it could definitely be all over the world, yes," he says. "But for now, the goal is just to make it through to September and the first anniversary. When September comes, we're gonna have a huge party, I tell you."
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