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Open (the) Mosques: How Taj Hargey alienated local Muslims

The Open Mosque is a great idea; who could disagree with a “Qur’an-centric, gender-equal, non-secterain house of God”? Unfortunately, it has an awful publicist, writes FATIMA SEEDAT.

Initiating a new project with an undercover executive and an expat spokesperson who displays the finesse of a bull in a china shop is guaranteed to get any first year marketing student a failing grade. No surprise, it’s earned few supporters for the Open Mosque spear-headed by Taj Hargey, a South African expat who has taken up residence in the UK and is perhaps best known for his campaign to ban the burka.

Unfortunately, while the real issue is exclusive mosque spaces, we’re talking about Hargey. His combative approach makes it clear that Hargey doesn’t know how to deal with difference without giving offence. In fact his suggestions that local Muslims are too dumb to think independently or to challenge the ulama with ‘matric qualifications’ smacks of a colonial arrogance that swoops in from afar to show the locals how to conduct their revolution.

It’s instructive that the Open Mosque initiative reminds people of the time when Professor Amina Wadud delivered the khutbah (sermon) at Claremont Main Road Mosque in 1994. While the public reaction and vitriol around issues of sex difference are obviously reminiscent, the less obvious similarity is, ironically, in the lack of openness in the run up to the event. When Wadud delivered her now-iconic khutbah in Claremont she was only informed that she’d be doing it some hours before the event. The Open Mosque is being launched today and still no-one knows much about the mosque or who has initiated it.

A female spokesperson is the least we might have expected in a gender-equal mosque space. But it’s not unusual for women’s issues to be handled in this way. It reflects a form of patriarchy that takes on women’s issues in the name of women but without involving women in the biggest decisions, and in Hargey’s case, with little concern for the impact on gender work already under way locally. From the way he speaks you’d think all Muslim women do is make samosas.

Don’t mistake my critique as an argument against the Open Mosque project. The project presents us with a conceptual challenge that is long overdue. But what’s happening here is more than just a new project, it’s an attempt at radical social change, laudable in itself. But by its very nature, this sort of work is best done with an ethic of transparency and inclusiveness.

Without pandering to power elites, successful social transformation requires an approach that promotes social cohesion even as it advocates a radical break with patriarchal tradition. The danger in what we’re witnessing now is that the Open Mosque appears to have alienated some of its most likely supporters, to the extent that both its inauguration and longevity have come under threat. We can only hope that the Open Mosque will function in an open and consultative manner and not in the heavy handed way that Hargey has presented it to us. If not, few will want to be associated with it.

And I’m hopeful about this because other mosques with similar orientation have opened up all around the US, Canada and elsewhere. There’s el-Tawhid Juma Circle Mosques which began in Toronto and now also has other branches, Montreal amongst them. Their structures and processes are consultative and transparent and the organisation favours a flat structure over hierarchy. Importantly, each of these mosques have also opened without fanfare, a group of interested Muslims have come together to pray in a manner that is gender inclusive and open to all people regardless of gender, sexual or ideological orientation.

Over the years these mosques have become spaces where people who feel otherwise marginalised may find acceptance and belonging. There is no single Imam or Khatib, duties rotate amongst the organisers and congregants. There is a sense of collective growth amongst members of the congregation, itself an undefined and varying group of individuals.

Perhaps this is what the Open Mosque envisions, unfortunately their media profile does little to convince us of this. Instead, it has alienated some of the most radical gender activists. Muslim feminist praxis rests in large part on leadership through openness, consultation and empowerment and we haven’t witnessed much of that here.

If we did then perhaps then we might actually focus on the real issues that this controversy should be raising, the degree to which the mosques of South Africa are truly open. The situation differs across the country, but it is well known that many mosques in KZN, for example, are closed spaces, physically, administratively and ideologically.

Physically, few mosques are entirely accessible for people with disabilities. Administratively, most are begun by family or other trusts and run by selection, from a designated group of people. Some mosque constitutions stipulate the Indian village a trustee must come from, effectively excluding African Muslims.

Ideologically too, mosques have very clear theological leanings that at times prohibit certain practices. And there are issues of class; mosques in the major urban areas are generally sponsored by local donors while mosques in townships seldom belong to the local community. Tensions have risen to the point that trustees have been physically removed from mosque premises when local communities become exhausted with the parochial attitudes that drive some township mosques.

So perhaps the most significant aspect of openness that we should be talking about is the social-policing of mosque spaces to exclude women and minorities. While local imams have responded to the open mosque initiative saying all mosques are by definition open spaces, the fact is that race and gender are significant limitations on the use of mosque space in South Africa. We can hardly claim openness when most mosques exclude women or where governing structures are both gender and racially exclusive.

This is the discussion we should be having; it speaks directly to our concerns as South African Muslims emerging out of an apartheid past and finding our way in a democratic, racially and gender equal society.  An open mosque is certainly a space we might expect to have these discussions. Unfortunately the sensationalism launching this mosque makes that seem less likely.

Instead of talking about racially and gender exclusive mosque spaces, we are talking about Hargey. How do we find a way to set aside his unremitting attitude and deal with the real issues that will continue to confront us once he returns to the UK? And until we can, we remain guilty of the crimes of inequality he charges us with and our attempts at social transformation will inevitably suffer.

Fatima Seedat bio picFatima Seedat holds a PhD in Islamic law from McGill University and has recently been appointed as Lecturer and Co-ordinator in the Gender, Religion and Health Programme at UKZN.

– Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

20 Comments
  1. Ray says

    This article is very biased! With regards to gender equality in mosques, the prophet has said the best place for women to read is at home therefore I wouldn’t have any problem if there’s no female section in a mosque. However I have personally witnessed that most mosques have female facilities as we stop for prayer while travelling

    1. ayesha says

      The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not say women should pray at home. His approach, as informed by Qur’anic precepts, was concessionary. So just as other concessions such as, salaah shortened during travel, women, during menstruation, precluded from the salaah (obligatory prayer) and during Ramadaan, the fast, likewise, although there are more blessings attached to praying in congregation, considering (some) women’s additional responsibilities in the home, there are no punitive measures attached to praying individually at home instead of in congregation, say, on jumuah (Friday).

    2. Salma says

      Ray, no woman who wants to go to mosque cares that you have no problem with it not having facilities for women. That’s like a woman saying, well, since I don’t wear a scarf, I don’t care if wearing a scarf is banned for all women. Your voice on the matter is irrelevant, since it is not about you but the women it affects. If you’re a woman and don’t want to go to mosque, you have no place in this discussion. This discussion is for the myriad of women who want to attend. Also, the Qur’an instructs ALL of the community (yes, male and female) to attend jumua prayers. Sorry, but hadith can’t trump the Qur’an. If the Qur’an directs men and women to attend Friday prayers, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll also demand that mosques have a space for me so that I may fulfil this instruction. Had the instruction not been there, I’d still demand a space for myself and other women as we’re an equal part of our community and the right to participate in it equally.

      1. Anon says

        Salma, the ignorance is strong in you. For you to make a comment like “hadith cant trump Qur’an” shows your ignorance as well as stupidity. You and many others are a poor examples of true Muslim’s. This is why Islam is in so much chaos

  2. Realist says

    I told my daughter, it takes you half an hour to get dressed for school, imagine how long it will take you to get ready for mosque, especially when there are males around!

    1. Salma says

      That’s your daughter, not all women. Perhaps you should be teaching her to do things for God and herself as opposed to doing them cos males will be around? I think this is a good teaching opportunity, actually.

      1. Anon says

        Her daughter and 99% of other girls/women. So due to this majority of women who cause/create Fitna , the musjid’s must deny women access.

        1. Salma says

          Ok, so you and the rest of the “98%” should stay home cos of the “chaos” you can’t help causing. Leave the 1% of women who can manage to function in a society without dragging chaos with us to attend mosques. In the mean time, stop harassing us, it’s the modest thing to do.

  3. Glenn says

    Great article. I agree wholeheartedly with the central theme that this has become all about Hargey and not about open religion or inclusivity amongst the Umaah.

    There are already extremely open minded and interrogative structures amongst Muslim society in Cape Town, at least that is my informed opinion as an engaged non Muslim citizen with extensive experience of interaction with members of the Umaah.

    While Hargey may have the best intentions he really should have hired a PR agent or at least let someone else with a bit less of an ego problem do the talking – he has really sowed more division than created unity.

    This is a real pity as progress is always a good thing. However he has only himself to blame. Calling other peoples and communities different to himself names, and placing himself on an academic pedestal is just flat out stupid.

    Being academically qualified does not necessarily qualify one as an authority. Hargey has shown this to be so and proven the fact in spades.

  4. anon says

    Your article is ridiculous. You seem to be biased about the situation. Besides it gives no real clarity on the topic based on the title. Ever hear about how journalist are supposed to be unbiased? There’s a reason for that. As for you with all your fancy “Islamic” qualification, as a Muslim I disregard your article .. You’re clearly not on the side of Haq..

    1. AssociateEd
      AssociateEd says

      Fatima Seedat is not a journalist. She is an academic who has written an opinion on the matter. You are welcome to post a response to challenge her thoughts on the matter.

      1. Anon says

        Are you serious ? Ask her the Law on Women dressing modestly and covering their hair. It is an insult to have people like this representing Islam.

  5. Rehana says

    The conversation should be about Hargey first. Having a record as a liar and a fraud should, automatically, disqualify anyone from being in any position of authority, especially regarding the religious affairs of a community.

    As a professional Muslim woman (now retired), I preferred to pray at home whenever possible, although I used the females-only facilities at nearby mosques whenever the need arose.

    The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: Do not prevent the women from attending the mosque, although their homes are better for them. Those women attending mosques are supposed to dress simply and not attract attention. In reality, many women can be heard, and smelled, well before being seen!

    In times of fear (rampant crime, war), where one’s life may be in danger, then even men may pray at home.

    Regarding the situation in Cape Town and South Africa, generally: Yes, it’s true that many mosque boards tend to comprise unsuitable people with a village mentality who usually have more money than a truly Islamic understanding of their duties. However, this doesn’t mean that Hargey’s brand of Islam will solve the problem.

    What is needed is a return to true Islamic values without the cultural baggage, Insha-Allah (God willing).

    May Allahu Ta’ala (the Sublime) guide us all, Ameen.

    1. Anon says

      Rehana, your comment as well as your information is 100% correct.

    2. Harry Underwood says

      You sound like a Christian who says “we need to return to true Christian values”. That’s pretty much how every denomination got started, many of which claim a monopoly on “true Christian values”.

      What makes you think that the same isn’t happening right now in Islam with orgs like the Open Mosque and folks like Mr. Hargey?

      What did you think would happen when “it’s true that many mosque boards tend to comprise unsuitable people with a village mentality”?

      Did you think the folks of different mind would stay and bear it?

      Really?

      1. Rehana says

        The difference between Islam and other religions is that the Qur’an and its exegesis (tafsir) have been preserved in their original form. Any attempts over the years to change, misinterpret or adulterate these texts have been unsuccessful.

        They contain criteria for determining the difference between Islamic and un-Islamic values. Therefore, it’s possible for any informed Muslim to judge whether Hargey and his ilk are being guided by Islamic values or by their own egos, whims and fancies.

        As for mosque boards: people elected the members, didn’t they?
        If you don’t like your government, do you go off and establish your own country?

        There are ways and means of reforming existing institutions. They require patience, perseverance, wisdom and tact – all of which Hargey lacks.

        He’s not too particular about abiding by municipal laws either, judging by recent reports.

        1. Mohammed says

          Assalamualaykum
          Dear Sister may Almighty ALLAH be pleased with you for assisting his Deen and may He bless you with more knowledge and wisdom.
          Sad to say I find it offensive when others tell me and my family how we should live our Deen.
          Indeed it’s arrogance and gross ignorance for non muslims to tell us how to practice and worship our ALLAH.
          Our community women folk attend madressahs , jalsas, lectures, award ceremonies, open day for students, many are qualified teachers, they take part in cooking for needy indigenous poor people, fund raising, many young girls attend Islamic universities and secular.they do social services, ladies funerals, all from the Masjid and mostly in Hijab.
          How wonderful my Sisters say theirs no compulsion to attend Mosque as their daily duties make it impossible to attend prayers punctuality.
          Then theirs the safety concern for attending before dawn and the night prayers, and then poor Sisters living far from the Maskid without vehicles.
          Indeed ALLAH Almighty has made it very easy for women to practice Islam peacefully safely away from molestation in the confines of their sanctum.
          For the past 150 years this was status quo.
          For anyone to come and disturb our way of life is extremely offensive and we will never accommodate any irreligious proposals that’s a promise
          Wassalaam

          1. Mohammed says

            Please excuse typos done by cellphone

  6. […] Seedat who works on anti-colonial feminist analysis of Islamic law and publicly comments on contemporary issues. And fierce feminist theologian, Aysha Hidaytullah‘s book Feminist Edges of the […]

  7. Irfan says

    Fatima Seedat is a co-author of the extremely controversial “Muslim marriages Bill”. This is the bill that proposes to govern the marriages of Muslims through the South African court system. However, she and her associates constantly claim that the bill is about “recognising” Muslim marriages. The Bill seeks to criminalise recognised Muslim practices as sanctioned in the Quran. The one practice that they all have particular issue with, is the practice of polygamy. They want the state to punish men who do not get court consent when taking more than one wife. There are other issues they also raise, but this is the one that irks them the most. Through the bill they wish to impose their interpretation of events on the Muslim community who are supposed to accept the bill without resistance. Those who do resist are immediately branded as “misogynists”.

    They routinely also claim to have “majority support” in this endeavour, while branding anyone who opposes them as a minority. However, the Muslim community has not been consulted in whether they want this bill, or whether they even support the authors of the bill. In the utterances and writings of Fatima and associates, the “majority” of Muslims want this surrender of their rights to the state! Yes people, they are actually willing to give up the freedom of religion that they currently have, in exchange for state control over their their affairs. This is what Fatima and her associates want us to believe.

    Fatima often uses the term “patriarchy” as she does in the above article. However, she does not seem to have too much issue with trying to get “the patriarchy” to extend its tentacles into the affairs of the Muslims.

    I am not surprised that Fatima under-argues the case with Taj Hargey. She seems concerned that he is under discussion, rather than his agenda. Why? Why should he not be under discussion. Even a quick Google search about him leads us to a number of controversies he has been involved with in a few countries. Why then, should his character not be linked to his agenda? Why are Muslims and others supposed to take seriously what he says without questioning who he is?

    This can also be asked of the controversial marriages bill. Why should people not question who it is who want these draconian measures to be imposed on them? It’s only to be expected that Fatima and her associates should be made known to the community who they intend the bill for. It is only natural to expect that people should know who the people are who want this bill for them. Why not?

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