Seyran Ates is the founder and imam of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, Germany’s first and only liberal mosque. There, unlike traditional mosques, men and women pray together while women lead the prayers, taking the role of imam. The 58-year-old Ates is a controversial figure in her community. She’s been attacked, even shot, for her activism. Her family moved to Berlin from Turkey when she was a child and, after cutting ties with them to avoid an arranged marriage, she studied law at FU and became criminal and family lawyer, civil-rights activist and Muslim feminist.
To mark the beginning of this year’s Ramadan, we caught up with Ates to hear more about her pioneering work.
What does it mean to be the first and, so far, only liberal mosque in Germany?
There are other organisations with the same liberal mindset, but we are the only ones also concentrating on the spiritual aspects. We have our own space for prayers, where we organise meetings and offer pastoral care. So we have a unique position, but there are many individual liberal Muslims out there, outside of official organisations.
We chose this form of public space so that people could come to us. We’ve been around for four years, which proves there’s a need for what we do. We didn’t disappear after one week, as many predicted.
How many members belong to the mosque?
We don’t have a list of members. Right now, we can only meet in small numbers for the Friday prayers, because of corona, but there are hundreds of people in this city who are attached to our mosque and thousands more worldwide. We see that in all the emails and donations we get. Before the pandemic, many people would travel to us from outside the city for the weekends. We also have a growing community who appreciates and supports our work on social media.
How does living in Berlin open the eyes of young Muslims here?
It happens not only in Berlin, but throughout Germany. It also happens in the rest of the world through globalisation, the internet and social media. Desires, wishes and dreams are awakened and strengthened when people learn that they are possible.
Living in Berlin, one of the hippest cities in the world, shows that every form of living is possible. Nobody stands alone with their thoughts and nobody has to feel like they are betraying their traditions. On the contrary, when they come to our mosque, they see that Islam can also be liberal. Seeing that does something to young people.
There are many critiques of your work and views. How do you deal with them?
We face violence on a daily basis, just like many women, or anyone, who believes in liberal Islam. That’s why many people are afraid to be “out in the open”. They are afraid to come to us, but want to stay in touch through other channels. There’s a hate campaign going on against us and it scares people.
Do you personally face violence, too?
Yes, and it’s growing. I’ve lived under personal protection for many years now, and it’s become more and more intensive. If it gets even worse, then a guard will have to always be in the same room with me. I have my own team from the LKA, or State Criminal Police Office, who are responsible for my safety.
How do young Muslims date then if they want to break with tradition?
A lot of it has to happen in hiding. They travel to different districts in the city to avoid meeting anyone they know. The dating apps show what a huge desire there is among the Muslim youth to make friends, to have sex lives, to change. And this doesn’t only exist online. It also exists in universities, where young Muslims would agree to marry temporarily so that they could have sex. They believe that they have to be “legal” in front of God in order to have sex and so they set up a timeframe – next semester, the summer holidays or the end of their degree when they have to move to a different city to continue studying – and they get married and have a lot of sex. This is the only way to legitimise it to themselves.
Is there a way for the youth to change the current system?
They could change it if they’d stop making false compromises. The apps and the temporary marriages and the secret meetings in other districts… It’s like West Side Story. I keep saying that everyone should watch that movie to understand how it is for young Muslim women and men to date. It’s actually not that different from the very puritan Christians or conservative Catholics or orthodox Jews. They’re identical and all about control through religion.
How do you see the future of the mosque and your work?
We teach a workshop called Islam and Diversity. We cover life in a democratic country, the emancipation of the LGBTQI+ community and gender equality, because there are many Muslims who are affected. These are all things we need to change in our society and, in order for changes to happen, we have to make problems visible and make new ways of living authentic. This is how we are trying to break up old traditions that are no longer contemporary and take steps towards solidarity and other religious communities.
We want to promote the good things that a religious community has to offer: love towards one another, towards God, protection against loneliness, having dialogues about the doubts we have.
We want to promote the good things that a religious community has to offer: love towards one another, towards God, protection against loneliness, having dialogues about the doubts we have. At the same time, we are against the controlled sexual morals and the religious pressure to practice. We reject these and through our rejection we are changing something.
I will be 58 years old in April and, in my short life, I could only achieve so much. But maybe in 100 years, the next generations will look back and see there were once countries or situations where women were mocked and there were no liberal mosques, but now there are many. I think in 100 years it will be more relaxed. In 200 years, the next generations will look back and will be shocked by how prudish and oppressive Islam was.
Where else is this liberation of Islam taking place?
Anywhere where Muslims live with non-Muslims. There are always people who are unhappy with the old traditions and rituals and the external control, and they are yearning freedom and air to breath – a life that they have chosen themselves, a partner who they found for themselves. People, regardless of their origins and religions, want to be happy – all over the world.