Progressive Politics and Neo-Colonial Posturing: The Open Mosque Saga
The notion of an ‘Open Mosque’ is an alluring idea: such a mosque which is inclusive, non-discriminatory and embracing of human diversity naturally resonates with us as Muslims, feminists and proponents of human rights. There is little to argue against it. In fact many are disingenuously falling over themselves to claim their mosques as ‘open spaces’. In reality the vast majority of mosques are male-centred and controlled by a small coterie of individuals without democratic participation. Women are absent from their leadership ranks, even if they are able to attend – more often than not in some relegated space.
The saga of the Open Mosque in Cape Town has raised a number of critical points of reflection and learning for people engaged in progressive politics. If nothing else it has forced an important conversation. The media trumpeted this initiative of Dr. Taj Hargey, who claims to have founded “South Africa’s first Quran-centric, gender-equal and non-sectarian Islamic house of God.” However, Hargey’s claims are simply wrong. The Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town and the Masjid al-Islam in Brixton, Johannesburg are two examples of well-established mosques that have actively and communally fostered gender-egalitarian and non-sectarian ethics in their governance, membership and ritual practices, while the “Taking Islam to the People” initiative in KwaZulu-Natal is based on a similar ethos. These initiatives were built through inclusive community engagement over a prolonged period, buttressed with theological engagements and empowering activism. Importantly, these institutions are also sites of progressive politics and social justice. Sadly these mosques remain a small minority.
Hargey, as visiting revolutionary keen to rescue unthinking South African Muslims from religious leaders, might have had a slightly different view if he had consulted local communities of Muslims who have worked hard and long in collaborative consultation to develop egalitarian institutions. The least he would have realised is that Muslim women do more than just make ‘samoosas’ – (and as one Muslim women sharply noted, making samoosas was what paid for her children’s schooling). He could also have fought his unresolved battles with the clergy on a different terrain.
Taj Hargey’s method, manner and politics of engagement are deeply problematic. The feminist approach utilising an “intersectional” lens suggests that when examining any one form of inequality we need to simultaneously focus on how other social hierarchies intersect with that and dynamically create unique convergences of compounding inequalities that need to be understood holistically. Thus gender or sexuality is presented as an element of human identity that cannot be understood in isolation but becomes meaningful in relation to other social relations of power. There is a deeper ethical impact of an intersectional approach to politics and identity: it allows us to carefully assess the integrity of our political positions. It questions our consistency regarding justice and human dignity across multiple socio-political hierarchies, and importantly, whether our ideals of democracy, representation and inclusiveness are consistently reflected in the ways in which we practice our politics including through processes of consultation, communal debate and public engagement. Grappling with some of these questions assists us to refine progressively more comprehensive and inclusive visions of justice and human equality. Through this lens, Hargey’s ‘progressive’ stance on gender and more ambivalently, on sexual diversity, becomes more complicated.
Questioning Hargey’s problematic past may or may not be helpful, as would engaging why he continually represents himself as an Oxford academic when he clearly is not, as this may be seen as playing the man. What cannot be denied is that credibility is a sine qua non for any progressive endeavour.
In the UK, where he lives, Hargey launched a campaign to ban Muslim women from wearing the burqa which he refers to as “an archaic tribal piece of cloth.” If he was genuinely committed to women’s rights, he would support the freedom of Muslim women to make their own judgements and choices on all matters concerning their person, including how they dress. Hargey’s political lobbying against the burqa is not only in direct contradiction to the principle of women’s freedom, but is also allied with the politics of right-wing, anti-immigration and Islamophobic British and European groups. In this Hargey’s gender politics inadvertently reinforces regressive and authoritarian political agendas, which have severe consequences for the very people he claims to empower.
Another example of Hargey’s compromised position is evident in his approach to homosexuality. On the one hand he claims that his mosque will be inclusive of sexual diversity while on the other hand, an official statement on the open mosque website states that it is not a gay organization, that it rejects “with contempt the unsubstantiated charges… of (being) connected with people who are gay” and threatens legal proceedings against anyone “defaming, libelling and smearing us as gay or homosexual”. For someone who is gay-friendly or an ally to people who are categorised as LGBTI, why is it contemptible to be associated with them? On this very visit to South Africa, Mr Hargey, was an invited and funded speaker to the annual international retreat organized by The Inner Circle (TIC), an important grassroots Muslim organization also based in Wynberg, which provides support to Muslims who experience marginalization based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet the director of TIC only heard about Hargey’s new mosque on social media the week before its launch. So the very constituency that he claims to be inclusive of had no clue about the so-called “progressive” new mosque. In another act of profound disrespect Hargey was so busy opening his mosque that he failed to fulfil part of his speaking commitments at the retreat without apology.
In this regard, it is crucial to ask where in Hargey’s purportedly democratic vision of inclusivity is there any evidence of consultation with heterosexual women and queer communities, those marginalized Muslim constituencies that he claims to represent. Hargey’s very loud presence in the media is starkly contrasted with a complete lack of any public support from the gay, lesbian, and women’s groups for his project. This lack of support is demonstrated by the extremely poor attendance at his mosque. This lack of public support is not due to fear since these activist groups have publicly operated for many years.
This heterosexual Muslim man flying in from the heart of empire appears to have very little appetite for democratic consultation and debate with South African constituencies. Feminists are quite familiar with this mode of engagement: men who speak for women, or a straight man who speaks for all queer people, claiming to be their saviour, assuming to know their realities without engaging, consulting, listening or involving them in the process of representation or social change. They rightly describe it as patriarchal, patronizing and neo-colonial. Perhaps Taj Hargey is not quite the feminist revolutionary saviour of women and gay people he claims to be. He would do well to listen carefully before he speaks, to develop a deep respect and consultative approach for the communities in which he wishes to work, and to refrain from sensationalist sound bites that sound superficially progressive but are in fact disrespectful, dismissive, degrading and disempowering. The Arabic word Adab, meaning etiquette, is relevant here. Hargey would do well to cultivate at least some of this central Muslim virtue.
Dr Sa’diyya Shaikh is Associate Professor in Religious Studies at UCT and the author of ‘Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn Arabi, Gender and Sexuality’ (UNC Press, 2012).
Dr Shuaib Manjra is a social activist