Photo by Viktor Richardsson
In a city as hedonistic and godless as Berlin, the most subversive thing teens can do is hang out at mosques and churches. Is religion the new cool?
It’s Wednesday night at Neukölln’s Şehitlik mosque, a distinctive domed edifice with its minarets towering above gloomy and windswept Columbiadamm. As it does every week, the women’s prayer room on the ground floor of the Ottoman-inspired mosque fills itself with around 70 young visitors, female and male alike. They put their shoes on the shelves at the entrance and sit on the thick, soft, emerald green carpet – women to the right, men to the left. The chattering dies down as a man sitting at a desk starts speaking. The weekly German-language Islam class has just begun.
Tonight’s topic: the journey of the believer’s soul to paradise – or to hell. The audience is enraptured, but laughs as the teacher aptly compares the long, perilous after-death voyage to an iffy ride along the U8 from Hermannstraße to Wittenau. One of the youngest participants is 15-year-old Florian Erpel, who started coming to the mosque about a month ago, to accompany his older brother Sebastian. The latter converted to Islam four years ago, when he was 17, and hardly ever misses a Wednesday evening class. “I might convert too, but right now I’m just coming and listening and trying to figure out if I really like it. So far, I do,” the baby-faced yet broad-shouldered teenager from Moabit enthuses.
Florian and Sebastian were raised in a typical, secular working-class Berliner family. Their nominally Protestant parents did not baptise them or their three older siblings. The two brothers grew increasingly curious about Islam because many of their Turkish classmates or friends from the neighbourhood regularly went to the mosque.
“They just seem to be more even-tempered. They’re less stressed out, less prone to anger. And now Sebastian’s the same,” Florian confides. The plumbing apprentice and enthusiastic boxer nods. “I’m happy. I do lots of sports, I come to the mosque. I don’t miss alcohol or parties,” he shrugs.
Their father has ventured to the mosque for the first time that evening, to find out what his youngest sons are up to. After the two-hour class, he looks delighted and positively relieved that his offspring are not getting into trouble after all.
“It’s all quite lovely, really, like watching the same movie with different actors,” Erpel senior beams in Berlin dialect. “I do wish they had proper chairs, though.”
Judging by the faces looking at the teacher, a sizeable minority of the attendees are German converts or possibly on their way to joining Islam. The majority definitely look Turkish or Middle Eastern.
“When we started offering these classes about Islam in German, we never thought they’d become so hugely popular with young Muslims. They were aimed at Germans without knowledge of Islam, to help them access our religion,” explains Andy Abbas Schulz, the volunteering teacher. Instead, the classes have become a hit with young Muslim Berliners from the second or third immigrant generation, be they devout worshippers or just curious to learn about their nominal faith and identity.
Religious attendance has been on the increase for a few years at most of Berlin’s 80-odd mosques, not just the Şehitlik one. Abbas Schulz readily names the one event that changed everything: 9/11.
“Ever since, Muslims have been in the news constantly. Society never stopped talking about Islam, and quite often negatively. This situation forced young Berlin Muslims to inform themselves about their parents’ religion, to discover their identity,” says the 40-year-old Palestinian-German. “With the barrage of negativity pervading public discourse, they end up asking themselves: ‘Am I really like society insists I am?’ and come to the mosque looking for answers.”
The media is not the sole reason why some teenagers willingly turn to God. At the very bottom of society’s awareness scale, Olya Nicoubin’s religion, the Bahá’í faith, practically never gets a mention in the news. Nevertheless, the 16-year-old voluntarily entered her parents’ religion last summer. She’d carefully pondered over it for a full six months, much to her parents’ bemusement – they had assumed she would eagerly take the official step the day after turning 15.
The Bahá’í faith, a little-known monotheistic religion founded in 19th-century Persia, has a history of being overlooked at best and persecuted at worst, chiefly in Iran, which Olya’s father had to flee after the Islamic revolution of 1979. Of up to seven million Bahá’ís scattered around the world, about 6000 live in Germany, and just 300 in Berlin. The capacity of the Şehitlik mosque alone is five times that.
“I quite like being a Bahá’í, and I didn’t want to reject my upbringing,” the 10th grader says when asked why she entered the faith. But belonging to such a tiny, obscure community is bound to raise eyebrows and cause misunderstandings. At her high school in Gesundbrunnen, where many of her fellow pupils are Muslims, “no one had heard of the Bahá’ís and everybody thought I was Jewish – which is perfectly fine too, of course,” she adds hastily.
Although the Bahá’ís are not a tightly knit community and their faith encourages them to blend into mainstream society, Olya has got used to standing out every now and then. During her days in primary school in Wandlitz, a town a few kilometres north of Berlin, she was the only pupil with a religion at all, which made her something of a curiosity. And last March, as she observed the yearly 19-day dry fast for the first time (no drinking or eating during the day), it was hard not to make herself conspicuous at school.
“But my classmates soon avoided eating in my presence out of consideration, that was so sweet of them,” she chuckles fondly.
There’s no denying that as a whole, Germany is becoming more secular. In 2013, official statistics revealed that just 940,000 Berlin residents, or about 27 percent of the capital’s population, were registered as Christians, with roughly two thirds of them Protestant and the rest Catholics. The figures keep shrinking.
“German society has experienced dramatic secularisation in the past decades, and this is set to continue,” says Yasemin El-Menouar of the Bertelsmann Foundation, leader of the Religionsmonitor 2013 survey of religious attitudes in Germany. But “for now, Islam is bucking the trend,” El-Menouar adds. The number of Muslims living in Berlin nearly doubled to 249,000 between 1990 and 2013.
"We don’t know how long this will last,” says Andy Abbas Schulz. "Probably as long as the society keeps obsessing about Islam and being so negative about it.”
Unlike the mosques, Berlin’s churches have failed to witness a massive stampede of Gospel-thirsty youths towards their empty pews so far. From 2011 to 2013, the Evangelische Kirche annually reported around 3100 confirmations in Berlin’s protestant churches, or approximately 12 percent of the capital’s 14-year-olds. In 2014, the number of confirmations dropped to 2722, a new low.
The picture looks equally bleak for the Catholics: over the last decade, only about 1000 teenagers have received the sacrament of confirmation yearly. Which means that in total, only one in six 14- or 15-year-olds gets confirmed as a Christian each year. The Scriptures do keep some appeal, although the winners are undoubtedly the Evangelical “free churches.” Around 40 of them are active in Berlin, with at least half a dozen established since 2005.
Every Sunday morning, over 100 Berliners of various ages and origins gather in room 7 of a multiplex in Prenzlauer Berg. But rather than watching the latest blockbuster, they attend over two hours of preaching and praying with a “free church” called Die Kreative.
“There is so much love in here that I hardly miss my parents and my country,” Luisa Vasconcellos croons ecstatically after the service. The Brazilian pharmacy student and born-again Christian was just 17 when she moved to Berlin and subsequently joined Die Kreative. “As God sent me abroad, I asked Him not to let me suffer from homesickness, and he took great care of me.”
But the traditional churches do not want to be written off just yet, and insist their appeal among Berlin’s teenagers remains stronger than the sinking figures suggest. “Church attendance is one thing, but many young people still yearn for spiritual meaning in this world,” Reverend Christoph Heil of Berlin’s Protestant church emphasises. Instead of attending Sunday services, “many teenagers enthusiastically take part in church-sponsored charities or social activities, and help the poor, like at the Berliner Stadtmission for instance.”
These claims find an echo among Berlin’s Muslims as well. “Rather than practising Islam in closed communities like their parents did, Turks with Turks, Arabs with Arabs, all turning their backs on everyone else, for the new generation, religion is now the trigger for involvement in myriad activities,” from cultural projects to integration-themed or stereotype-busting initiatives and interfaith solidarity groups, says Lydia Nofal, head of the JUMA project (Jung, Muslimisch, Aktiv).
So is Berlin’s teenagers’ desire for religion as an emerging lifestyle different from that of the more God-fearing previous generations? “Sure, just like some people choose to be vegetarians, Islam is my lifestyle,” 18-year-old Sena Çalişkan points out before entering the Wednesday class at Şehitlik mosque. If the headscarf-wearing biotechnology student at TU sometimes encounters practical difficulties in performing her daily five prayers on packed university premises, it is definitely worth the hassle, since “for me, prayer is just like yoga for other people, really,” she says matter-of-factly.
As for Olya the young Bahá’í, she is very much looking forward to her lonely fasting routine this month. “It was great last year, I lost weight! So I hope this year I’ll shed a few kilos again.” Needless to say, the last thing the petite 10th grader needs to worry about is her weight, but who can reason with a 16-year-old girl about her looks?
Originally published in issue #147, March 2016.