A progressive Muslim imam from Oxford won a libel action against a Muslim newspaper in what he claims is a "watershed moment" in the battle between liberal and extremist Muslims in Britain.

Taj Hargey, who provoked controversy last year when he invited the first ever woman to lead and preach at Friday prayers in Britain, was awarded a "substantial" five-figure sum in libel damages against the Muslim Weekly, which takes a conservative line on community issues.

In its latest edition, the newspaper urges the government not to play a "divide and rule" policy over the Muslim Council of Britain. The government has threatened to cut ties with the council after it refused to sack its deputy leader, Daud Abdullah, who signed a pro-Hamas declaration at a conference on Gaza in Istanbul.

Hargey, who is originally from South Africa, describes himself as a "thorn in the side of the Muslim hierarchy" as a result of his liberal theology and his "integrationist, non-sexist views."

The Oxford institute he founded, the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford (Meco), preaches that women should not wear the niqab or face-covering and that men should not wear beards. He sanctions marriages of Muslim women to men of other faiths and promotes mixed congregations in mosques, where men and women are usually strictly segregated and women are sometimes not allowed at all.

He sued the Muslim Weekly when it claimed Muslim clerics had pulled out of a conference he organized in May 2006 because he was not a Muslim but a member of the Qadiani or Ahmadiyya sect, considered heretical by mainstream Muslims because of disagreements about the "finality" of the Prophet Mohammed. The paper also claimed he had been dismissed from a previous post at Cape Town university because of his theological affiliations.

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