Cape Town’s open mosque and Islamic reform

A short while back I saw an interesting link in the UCT Free Society Institute newsfeed which led to an interview with Dr Taj Hargey. Dr Hargey is a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University but was born in Cape Town and was speaking about his plans to open an open mosque in Cape Town. By an open mosque he means a mosque where everybody is welcome and where such radical concepts as women and men praying in the same area and entering through the same door are practised. Basically, he wants to bring Islam in line with modern ethics and sensibilities.

Dr Taj Hargey delivering a sermon during at the official opening of the open mosque.

In reality, there is nothing radical about treating men and women equally but it should be well known that, in Islam, such things are often seen as radical, so the attempt to reform Islam is a welcome change. Predictably, the very concept of an open mosque was controversial. One Muslim man, who insisted he was not a radical, had this to say:

Is this what we want in Cape Town? No, no. If I fall dead right now, what is going to happen to my children? They are going to enter a mosque like this? Not while I am alive, maybe when I am dead yes.

I expected it wouldn’t be too long before something happened. The first problem the mosque ran into was from local government. Although the exact details differ from source to source, it seems there was an attempt to shut the mosque down due to failing to comply with zoning regulations. I’m not sure whether it really does comply but I have heard that there many other mosques that lack the requisite parking and the ward councillor that said the mosque should close is leader of Al Jama-ah, a political party that wants to enforce Shariah law. Clearly a conflict of interest when Dr Hargey claims that Shariah law is merely the interpretation of some medieval scholars.

Following that, early on Saturday morning, someone set fire to the front door of the mosque. It’s too early to say whether the arsonists were irate Muslims or not but it is not a stretch to suspect that. The activities concerning the Cape Town open mosque are not isolated but I think feed into the larger discussions around Islam and about the possibility of changing the way Islam is practised.

Since it’s current, it might be good to start with the video here; a discussion on Islam between Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, Nicholas Kristof, Michael Steele and Sam Harris. One interesting point is when Ben Affleck denies that most Muslims would hold the view that you should murder those people who leave Islam. Affleck is, for some countries, just wrong. On the same page that you find the video, there are graphs taken from a Pew poll that show over 50% of Muslims (i.e. most) support the death penalty for apostasy in Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. I wrote about some of the other results of the same poll in two posts (here and here).

In the same video, Michael Steele makes a point about Muslims speaking out though not getting the same sort of coverage as groups like ISIS. I think Taj Harjey would fit that bill as a Muslim who speaks out against the more barbaric aspects of Islam and is working to change it. However, I think his point is rather undermined when he has to concede that this is done with a fairly high degree of risk to oneself; for example, Bill Maher mentions that Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards wherever she goes. Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently gave speech at Yale University which was protested by the Yale Muslim Students Association. Sadly, the sort of group one would expect to be open to these discussions. In fact, their protest contained a line that is part of the problem with moving Islam into the modern age:

It is important to distinguish Islamic teachings from the practices of some Muslims, which can be based on a variety of sociopolitical reasons and which do exist in other non-Muslim communities around the world.

While it’s true that not all actions by Muslims are motivated by Islam, it is absurd to ignore that some actions that other Muslims denounce can be justified by another Muslim’s interpretation of Islam. The problem is Islam is, unlike Christianity, it’s not really open to interpretation. That’s why we get an outcry over the open mosque and why Iran executed a man for “innovations in Islam.”

What can happen when there is a disagreement in Islam is that one group will use takfir to declare that another group is not Muslim but infidels. James Brandon from the The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence claims that this is making Islamic conflicts worse.

The cumulative effect of the above is damaging inaction; if ISIS and other extremists are not Muslims, then why should Muslims be involved in challenging them and their arguments? The Muslim Council of Britain’s recent statement that ISIS ‘has been repudiated by all Muslims’ is a case in point; if all Muslims have rejected the group then there is nothing for more moderate Muslims to do.

From an outsiders perspective things are even stranger as, being a matter of faith, we have no reason to say that Taj Hargey’s idea of Islam is any more true than that of ISIS. Both are led by Muslims with doctorates in Islamic studies but they have completely different ideologies inspired by the same texts. If you speak to either group they will surely be able to point you to the relevant verses that support their interpretation.

This all brings us back to the open mosque in Cape Town. Some South African Muslims say that Taj Hargey is a heretic and non-believer and he has received multiple death threats. An initiative like the open mosque is laudable and an encouraging sign of the future. If we have such progress, we can move closer to a time when religions are more tolerant and discussions about ideas and their ramifications are more open. There is still a long way to go though as shown both by forces internal to Islam which are strongly opposed to change and through certain liberal attitudes, as demonstrated by Ben Affleck, which refuse to consider religion as a cause of strife.


One thought on “Cape Town’s open mosque and Islamic reform

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