JOHANNESBURG - A Muslim academic in South Africa is ruffling feathers - and, he says, getting death threats - for his plan to open a mosque that will welcome gay worshipers and allow women to lead prayers. Mosque founder Taj Hargey says the Open Mosque, which opens Friday in Cape Town, is a way to fight what he says is a surge of radical Islam in Africa. But judging from the harsh reactions the mosque is getting in the usually tolerant Rainbow Nation, there may be a tough battle ahead.
Hargey says this new place of worship is part of an attempt to fight back against what he says is growing intolerance and radicalism among some Muslims. The mosque, he says, will interpret Islam according to its original holy text, the Quran. He says the mosque will reject hard-core interpretations, such as those that he says have led to religious conflicts among Muslims in Iraq, Somalia and Nigeria.
“We have a theological mafia that controls the Muslim community - bamboozles them, brainwashes them, indoctrinates them - and that they follow without question. And it’s this type of unquestioning mind-set that leads to the growth of extremism, radicalism and fanaticism," said Hargey.
The Open Mosque, in the Cape Town suburb of Wynberg, will break with some widespread traditions. For one, women and men can use the same entrance, and they can pray together in the same hall without partitions. Women will also be part of the mosque’s executive council and will be allowed to lead prayers.
The mosque will be open to all Muslims - it draws no distinction between different sects - and to people of all faiths. Furthermore, Hargey says, the mosque will be open to gay worshippers - though clergy will draw the line, as the Quran does, at performing gay marriages.
Hargey says this effort has won him criticism from the Muslim community, and a few death threats. He did not discuss details of the threats but said they had been reported to authorities. On social media, Hargey has been called a “heretic” and criticized for having a “pro-gay agenda.” He says he just wants a place of worship that mirrors South Africa’s inclusive society.
“We do not want South Africa to become another Iraq, another Syria, another Saudi Arabia, another Pakistan. We detest those manifestations of Islam because they are contrary to the Quran. It is this toxic theology that is the gateway to violence and militancy later. So we need to neutralize this pernicious poison coming from the clergy," he said.
Hargey is also director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, which is not part of the British university of the same name. It is a group of academics, students and residents of the English university town of Oxford who say they want a progressive and pluralistic interpretation of Islam. The group has previously campaigned against Muslim women covering their faces completely in public.
In a statement, the Cape Town-based Muslim Judicial Council stopped short of endorsing the new mosque.
“We believe that no religious view should be enforced upon another. Being a religion of peace, Islam advocates amicable and peaceful solutions to difference," said Nabeweya Malick.
Spokeswoman Nabeweya Malick said the council hasn’t heard of death threats against Open Mosque officials, but is looking into it.
“We haven’t picked up any serious, in our various mosques in the Western Cape [province], any statements that would infer death threats or anything of that nature. I think South Africa enjoys a pretty diverse society with diverse cultures and religions, and it’s not a society that one would expect death threats, really. It’s something very unusual if that is the case, but we will obviously investigate," she said.
Targey emphasizes everyone who comes in peace is welcome at the Open Mosque.