Seyran Ates, a Turkish-born German lawyer and women's rights activist, could not find a mosque where she felt at home. So she started one
Seyran Ates recalls the searing pain of a bullet tearing through her neck. She remembers wavering on the brink of death and telling God that she had to rejoin the living.
A 21-year-old law student at the time, working at a women’s centre in West Berlin, she was nowhere near finished with the world.
“'I want to go back,’ I told God,” Ates, now a 55-year-old lawyer and women’s rights activist who is also studying to become an imam, recalled of that afternoon. “I still have a mission.”
Any Muslim is welcome to join: men or women, Sunni or Shia, transgender, gay or straight.
“We want to send a signal to political Islam,” Ates, wearing a long, white tunic trimmed with gold, told a packed room on the opening day, when journalists outnumbered worshippers.
“We want to show that another Islam exists, that has nothing to do with terrorism.”
Over the past year, that something has grown into a congregation of 35 core members – many of them women. They help Ates organise weekly prayers, give tours to school groups and hold seminars on democracy, love and the concept of an open, tolerant interpretation of Islam and a forgiving God.
Three years after a wave of more than 1 million, mostly Muslim, migrants arrived in Germany seeking asylum, culture wars over religious identity and the possible threat posed by Islam have led to a rise in nationalist, populist movements.
The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel was nearly brought down this week over a dispute with the Bavarian sister of her conservative party, which sought to turn back refugees at the border.
The Bavarian conservatives of the Christian Social Union joined the far-right party Alternative for Germany in promoting a narrative that refugees pose a threat, after several highly publicised killings and sexual assaults in the country led to charges against Muslim migrants.
The party ordered that crosses be displayed in all public buildings in the state, and Merkel’s new interior minister, Horst Seehofer – also a Bavarian – declared: “Islam is not a part of Germany.”
Against the backdrop of these debates, Ates sees the survival of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, as proof that Muslims living in Germany need and are open to an interpretation of Islam that reflects the values of the Western society in which they live.
She recently extended the lease on the room where the mosque is housed for two more years, defying those who foretold a swift demise for the project.
“A couple of days after we opened the mosque, a young man showed up and told us, ‘You won’t be here long. The Arabs will never allow it,'” she said. Instead, hundreds of people from across Germany, Europe and abroad have visited or attended services.
Those most committed to its survival have made donations, some as much as €500, Ates said, emphasising that the mosque receives no public funding.
“Even atheists come here and appreciate this place, as a spiritual place, a place of peace,” she said recently, standing barefoot on the pale carpet of the mosque. “I had hoped, but never dreamed, that so many atheists would be interested. That was a positive surprise.”
The criticism and rejection, in its fierceness and intensity, less so. Even before the mosque opened, her personal Facebook page and that of the mosque were flooded with derogatory messages and even some death threats.
“May Allah put you on the right path, or destroy you,” someone writing under the name Xalo Bero said, in one of the friendlier remarks.
Protection provided by the police and paid for by the city government, in place since she published the book Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution in 2009, was increased to a personal security detail after the heightened threats on her life.
Days after the mosque opened, Dar al-Ifta, an influential arm of the Egyptian Justice Ministry that issues religious verdicts, denounced the mosque and declared that allowing men and women to pray alongside one another violated Islamic law.
Turkish news outlets reported that the mosque was a terrorist organisation with links to the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for a coup attempt in 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Despite a video message in which Ates states that the “the Rushd-Goethe mosque has nothing to do with the Gulen movement”, the rumours have persisted.
She blames them for the fact that few Turks have joined the congregants, although they make up the vast majority of the estimated 4.5 million Muslims living in Germany.
Despite the demands of running the mosque, she takes Arabic classes and continues to work as a lawyer. She considers achieving a degree in Islamic theology important to her recognition in the Muslim community.
“I want to understand the words and know the meanings so no one can say, ‘She’s just a lawyer,'” she said.
Born in Istanbul to a Turkish mother and a Kurdish father, she emigrated with her parents to what was then West Berlin in the late 1960s, part of the first large wave of Muslim immigrants who came to fill the blue-collar jobs needed to rebuild the German economy after World War II.
Ates was 6 when she and her four siblings moved into a one-room apartment with their parents.
As she learned German and excelled in school, Ates says, she came to understand that it was not the crowded living conditions that she found suffocating, but the realisation that because of her gender, she was not afforded the freedoms of her non-Muslim peers.
“I was a girl,” she wrote in 2007 in Zeit Online. “I embodied the family’s honour, and my hymen – for a long time I didn’t even know what that was – was more important to the whole family than my brain.”
To read the rest of the article please click here.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.
Optional email code