By Richard Pendlebury
You can usually find at least one in any saloon bar, ready to give you the benefit of their peppery views on the parlous state of Britain today.
This particular example is a clean shaven, middle-aged man with the de rigueur attire of carefully knotted mustard tie and blue, golf club-style blazer.
Brass cuff buttons flash as he pounds an angry fist on to his knee.
Terror: The bus destroyed in the 7/7 London bombings
‘Please, please go and leave us alone. This is Britain, not 10th century Arabia!’
We are indeed sitting in a bar, on a busy main road in Oxford.
But the man before me is no stereotypical Islamophobe.
For one, he is sipping a glass of water rather than something more inflammatory.
More importantly, though by no means obviously, Dr Taj Hargey is himself an Islamic cleric; perhaps the most controversial imam in Britain today.
In an age when the highest-profile Muslim preachers are bearded, anti-Western firebrands such as Abu Hamza or Omar Bakri Dr Hargey seems an anomaly.
He does not care much for male facial hair. He believes that women can be both seen and heard, even in a mosque at Friday prayers.
And don’t even get him started on the sort of fanatics who blow up London buses, or the poisonous teachings that inspired them.
…Dr Hargey has little doubt who, and what, is truly to blame for unleashing such terrorism on our streets.
‘It is the extremist ideology present in many UK mosques which is the cement behind nihilistic plots such as this,’ he says. ‘They are twisting Islam.’
Violence: Dr Taj Hargey deplores fanatics such as the suicide bombers who targeted London
He has little or no time for the Government’s ‘pussyfooting’ policy of encouraging multiculturalism.
‘That is the biggest disaster to happen to Britain since World War II,’ he says. ‘It has given the extremist mullahs the green light for radicalism and segregation. We have to, we must, adjust to British society. And we can do so without losing our faith.’
Hardly surprisingly, such statements have made him wildly unpopular among those who adhere to the brand of ultra-conservative Saudi-funded Wahhabi Islam which currently makes most noise in Britain and around the world.
Certainly, if you Google Dr Hargey’s name you will find him vilified as a ‘charlatan’ on any number of Islamic website forums.
In return, he is quite happy to describe his critics as ‘fanatics’. Recently, one hostile publication went too far.
When we meet, Dr Hargey, 56, is still basking in the glow of his successful libel action against the English-language Muslim Weekly newspaper, which had accused him of being a heretic.
Earlier this month it agreed to pay him a five-figure sum and issue a grovelling apology, which was a little more esoteric than most heard in the High Court.
It stated: ‘Dr Taj Hargey has never subscribed to, belonged to or been affiliated with any sect or minority group, religious or otherwise. On the contrary, Dr Hargey has consistently and openly reiterated his unconditional belief in the absolute finality of prophethood in Islam and Mohammed (peace and blessings upon him) as God’s last prophet and final messenger.’
Afterwards, the cleric described the case as a ‘watershed moment’ in the battle between ‘progressives’ such as himself and what he called the ‘Muslim McCarthyists’, after the U.S. senator who accused opponents of being communist and ‘un-American’ with little or no evidence.
But despite his victory, or perhaps because of it, when his phone rings now it is still almost as likely to be an anonymous death threat as a request for spiritual guidance.
Certainly more people hate him than follow him.
‘The masses have been brainwashed by the mullahs,’ he says.
Which begs the question: can this intellectual Oxford imam really succeed with his ambition to lead a ‘reformation’ of British Islam? Or will medieval orthodoxy triumph in the end?
Dr Hargey was born and raised in apartheid- era South Africa. …Hargey was a natural scholar and destined for a better, if consistently controversial, existence.
His first battles were against the Pretoria government, rather than fundamentalists from his own faith.
‘The masses have been brainwashed by the mullahs’The attention he received from the South African security services prefigured the intimidation and intolerance he says he receives from British extremists today: ‘I was an anti-apartheid fighter, against institutionalised racism.
‘For me, Islam was a liberating vehicle for attaining justice on this Earth. I was pursued then by the South African secret police, so why should I fear these people now?’
Hargey attained his doctorate in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies from Oxford University. His thesis was on the slave trade in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
… he (held)down a number of academic posts in the United States, not least of which was a spell teaching African studies at the Sarah Lawrence University in New York State, alma mater of Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s White House Chief of Staff.
His latest venture is the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford, of which he is founding chairman.
He also leads the city’s Summertown Islamic congregation. ‘The most progressive pulpit in the land, from which we do everything in English except prayer,’ he states.
The ideological core of his opposition towards the fashionable Islamic fundamentalists lies in his rejection of the absolute importance of hadith and Sharia law.
To explain, the Koran is the teaching of Allah, handed down to the Prophet Mohammed.
The hadiths, meanwhile, comprise the sayings and actions of Mohammed, as recorded by others, some time after his death.
For many Muslims, the hadiths are a fundamental guide and part of their faith. For Hargey, they are often unreliable and an obstacle to the integration of Islam into contemporary society. He believes the Koran is all.
‘This is a big fight for the hearts and minds of Islam. There is nothing in the Koran which is incompatible with (living in) British society, unlike what I call “Mullah Islam” and their reliance on hadiths.’
And so he explains his position: ‘These people say they have a right to stone adulterous women. We say show us where it says that in the Koran.
‘The Koran must have precedence. It must be sovereign. Everything else is supplementary or subservient. All that stuff about jihad, women’s rights, apostasy, all these issues come from the hadiths.
‘We do not say get rid of the hadiths. But we do say that every hadith must pass two litmus tests.
First, it must not conflict with the Koran. Second, it must not conflict with reason or logic.
‘One of the hadiths, for example, says the majority of people in Hell will be women. But let’s do a forensic examination of this. First, let’s look at the fact that 88 per cent of crimes are committed by men rather than women.
‘How then, logically, can there be more women in Hell? Theologically, the Koran says that every human irrespective of gender will be rewarded for what they did and punished for what they did not.’
Of Sharia law he is even more dismissive. ‘The Koran is clear that blasphemy is dealt with in the next life by God. The Sharia, meanwhile, is a medieval compilation of religious opinion which is not immutable, not eternal.
‘How can we be dependant on 10th-11th-century jurists and scholars? It makes no sense.’
He also wants Muslims to integrate more with mainstream Britain.
‘The (Muslim) reaction to 9/11 was to withdraw. I think the best way is to go out and belong.
‘I love this country, I follow Spurs and I go to the pub, if only to drink orange juice’ ‘If you met me walking down the street, for example, would you know I am a Muslim? No.
‘I know I am a Muslim in my heart and my actions, not in my beard or the niqab face mask. The niqab only comes from a hadith and even that only refers to the Prophet’s wives. This is a big fight for the hearts and minds of Islam. There is nothing in the Koran that is incompatible with (living in) British society.’
Of the cries of ‘heretic’ to which he is frequently subjected, he argues: ‘Faith is between the person and God. No one can pronounce you a heretic (in Islam) and I think that is a wonderful thing.
‘But we do need a reformation in Islam. We have to go back to the pristine principles in our faith. We need a British Islam and by that I do not mean a compromise.
‘Christianity was once an alien faith. We have to integrate in a matter of decades rather than centuries.’
But what of the accusations that he is simply a State stooge? This angers him.
‘I have called for Bush and Blair to be indicted at the international criminal court for their wars. What kind of stooge does that make me?
‘We have a multicultural community of men and women, including converts. We are not fanatics and appeal to a very broad constituency. We do not appeal to those who have been brainwashed by the mullahs.
These people refuse to debate with me and instead send their minions to do their dirty work on the internet or via anonymous phone calls. We get death threats, intimidation and blackmail tactics. But it does not dissuade us.
‘Our group is based on the “Three Es”: Enlightenment, Egalitarianism and Erudition.
But the Government, with its anti-terrorist strategy, has never contacted us, even though we say violence and suicide bombing are against the faith.
‘What a mistake. In this city we have the Wahhabi-backed Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies. It preaches the most repressive and egregious theology.
‘We want to establish an Oxford Centre for British Islam. We will have a mosque and the leader could be either male or female.’
So, for example, he has supported a state school which banned the niqab, much to the fury of his Muslim foes.
And last October he hosted the appearance in Oxford of Professor Amina Wadud, a female Islamic academic, who gave a sermon at Friday prayers before a mixed-gender congregation, which was anathema to the extremists.
Dr Hargey says: ‘She is the undisputed authority on women in the Koran. We invited this heavyweight intellectual and the people who made the most protest outside our prayer hall were women dressed in niqabs who had been brainwashed by their menfolk.
‘It was like the time of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes agitating for the vote.
‘Then, many of the women were conditioned to think their behaviour a scandal. Now look at all those women walking past us who have the vote and think nothing of it.’
He also frowned on the recent extremist demonstration against the troops parading through Luton.
‘While we feel it was an illegal war, you cannot punish the average squaddie for what is done in the name of New Labour and that toxic Texan.
‘Yes, the war was wrong, but you cannot call soldiers murderers, or cowards. My life’s work is to make British Muslims integrated.’
He is also utterly dismissive of the Muslim Council of Britain, which until the Government’s recent reversal of policy, was the state’s contact point with British Islam.
‘They are Indo-Pakistani and sexist,’ he says. ‘It’s a reactionary group, infused with the repressive ideology of the Wahhabis.
‘If we go along their path we will have a ghetto mentality, segregated and giving our enemies such as the British National Party the opportunity to target us like the Jews in the 1930s. Isolation is our greatest peril.’
For the record, he supported BNP leader Nick Griffin’s recent appearance at an Oxford Union debate, although he certainly did not endorse his views.
‘We should not silence him. We should expose him.
‘I love this country, I follow Spurs and I go to the pub, if only to drink orange juice. I am also a Muslim. But I am not a threat. If people like me are smothered then we will all sleep less safely in our beds.
‘These people are religious fascists. The view that Islam is incompatible with British society is something that the Muslim Council of Britain and their hangers- on have promulgated.’
And with that, he adjusts the knot in his mustard tie, drains the last drop of his (non-alcoholic) drink and leaves the bar.
He may be a deeply controversial imam. But he is undoubtedly a brave one.