The imam who took on the 'Muslim McCarthyists'

Jerome Taylor meets the man on a mission to modernise British Islam

Taj Hargey was in an ebullient mood as he drank a cup of steaming hot chocolate in a coffee shop opposite the High Court yesterday morning. "Today is a great day for British Islam," he declared triumphantly. "Liberal, progressive Muslims have finally won a battle against the extremists that dominate the Muslim establishment in Britain."

Dr Hargey, a clean-shaven imam from Oxford who describes himself as a "thorn in the side of the Muslim hierarchy", had just won a libel claim against a conservative Muslim newspaper that claimed he belonged to a sect which many in his faith believe is heretical. A South African anti-apartheid campaigner who has lived in Britain on and off for the past three decades, Dr Hargey has made many enemies because of his liberal brand of Islam which he preaches from a small assembly hall.

Unlike most British imams who insist on segregation during Friday prayers, Dr Hargey allows men and women to pray in the same room. He believes Muslims should not feel compelled to grow beards or wear a veil and last November his mosque became the first in Britain to allow a female Islamic scholar to lead Friday prayers.

One of his staunchest critics was the Muslim Weekly, a popular English language newspaper which takes a relatively orthodox line on social issues. Yesterday, after nearly three years of legal wrangling, it agreed to pay a "substantial" five-figure sum in damages to Dr Hargey over an article it published in May 2006 claiming that Dr Hargey was a member of the Ahmadiyya, a sect of Muslims who believe their 19th-century founder was the Mahdi – Islam's equivalent to the messiah. The paper also wrongly claimed he was forced to leave a post teaching Islamic studies in Cape Town because of his beliefs.

Dr Hargey, a devout Sunni Muslim who freely left Cape Town to teach in the UK, said yesterday: "This is a watershed moment in the struggle between liberal Muslims in the UK and the extremist views ... [of] a foreign-educated clergy. Progressives like me are described as heretics in order to ruin our credibility. It's a form of Muslim McCarthyism that is used to root out anyone who dares question these unenlightened, tribal and foreign forms of Islam.

What makes Dr Hargey so unusual and controversial is his determination to confront British Islam's view of the role of women. "We need to create an indigenous British Islam that is integrated into its own environment. It should stay true to Koranic teachings but is also erudite, egalitarian and enlightened."

When Dr Hargey invited Amina Wadud to lead prayers at his mosque, it was mostly women in full veils who objected outside. "It was like women protesting against Emily Pankhurst chaining herself to the railings," he says. "Muslim women are being brainwashed by men into adopting customs that are not a religious requirement. Islam is not about superficial tokens. When I see women adopting the niqab [full face veil] I want to tell them that the niqab isn't mentioned in the Koran. Nor are veils. The only thing the Koran says is to dress modestly."

Dr Hargey now intends to raise £2m to build a mosque in Oxford where men and women can continue to pray together. Expect the sparks to continue flying.