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A ‘gay-friendly’ mosque just opened in South Africa

A woman listens inside the Open Mosque, as she and other woman share the same area with men in Cape Town, South Africa. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

On Friday in a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa, Muslim worshipers convened for the first time at a new prayer hall. Outside, a few protesters gathered against them. Inside, they were outnumbered by the news media crews sent to watch them.

The "Open Mosque" is intended a space of worship for all, irrespective of sect, gender or sexual orientation. It is the creation of Taj Hargey, a Cape Town-born academic and cleric based at Oxford University who has long agitated against fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. This new prayer space, open to all, was a direct challenge to the extremists he opposes.

Hargey delivered the sermon, inveighing against the unnecessary divisions between Christians and Muslims, according to Agence France Presse. He blamed "contaminated Saudi money" for promoting "toxic and intolerant manifestations of Islam."

South Africa is home to nearly 800,000 Muslims, who belong to communities that have a diverse origins and histories in the country. But Hargey says a growing Wahabist or Salafist influence -- the same strains that animate the extremism of Sunni militant groups such as the Islamic State -- are creeping into South Africa. "South Africans have become Arabized, they think they must wear the burka, must have face masks, that men must wear pyjama dresses," Hargey told the Daily Telegraph. "They think that is the only version of Islam."

He wants his mosque to prove otherwise. It opened not without opposition. "There's been threats about castrating me, beheading me, hanging me upside down. But South Africa has the most liberal constitution in the world -- they cannot stop us opening today," he told reporters. "I have a PhD in Islamic studies from Oxford University, unlike my opponents who went to some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia."

Hargey, fiery and clean-shaven, is known for courting controversy. He wants British Muslims to better integrate into their society and supports a total ban on burqas in the United Kingdom. In a 2009 interview with the notoriously xenophobic Daily Mail, he lamented Britain's supposed multicultural tolerance of Islamist extremists, labeling it "the biggest disaster to happen to Britain since World War II."