Tugay Sarac was just 15 when he first talked about traveling from Germany to Syria to fight for Islamic State.
But unlike his friends at the time, Sarac had turned to radical Islam as a way of avoiding coming to terms with his sexuality.
“I had friends who, like me, were really radical extremists and even considered going to Syria or to Palestine to fight,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a quiet corner of the prayer room of Berlin’s Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque.
Now 20, Sarac, who was born in Berlin to a Turkish family, learned from an early age that homosexuality was wrong - and un-Islamic.
“I thought being gay is bad and that through Islam, by praying to God, I could cure myself and become normal. I started praying five times a day: I just felt bad, like I was dirty or inferior somehow ... I was really ashamed of my gay thoughts.”
More than 5,000 Europeans - most from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium - have joined fighters in Syria and Iraq, according to Europe’s police organization, Europol, with more than 200 continental attacks and foiled plots last year.
Studies suggest a range of motivations, from supporting fellow Muslims to feelings of alienation at home. Yet Sarac was not looking for a greater sense of Muslim solidarity – he was running away from the fact he was gay.
“I knew I liked boys from maybe the first class of primary school,” he said. “(But) in Islam for me it was very clear that homosexuality was bad.”
It was only when Sarac came across the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque - one of only a handful of gay-friendly mosques around the world - that he found a middle ground that allowed him to accept both his sexuality and his faith.
As Sarac found himself drawn into the life of the mosque, its liberal, inclusive form of Islam drew him away from his more fundamentalist views and helped him come to terms with who he was.
“This mosque helped me to deradicalise completely,” he said.
“Coming here, I started being comfortable with myself and that’s when I told my mother and my aunt (that I was gay).”
LGBT Muslims are frequently required to make a stark choice between their sexuality and their religion, even in liberal countries such as Germany where same-sex marriage is legal.
Xenophobia and tensions are on the rise in Germany, which is home to about 4 million Muslims - about 5 percent of the population - since it opened its doors to more than a million migrants in 2015, many from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Following a spate of attacks on mosques, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said in March that Islam does not belong in Germany, clashing with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s multi-ethnic vision for Europe’s biggest economy.
Sarac’s father, who moved to Germany at the age of six, boasted of beating up gay people when he himself was younger and made his views of homosexuality very clear to the young Sarac.
“My father was rather traditional, not in an Islamic way, but in a Turkish way,” Sarac said.
“When my little sister was born, I just wanted to hold her buggy and walk with her. But my father slapped my hand and said, ‘Stop doing that, it’s gay’.”
His father died when he was just 13 – leaving Sarac even more vulnerable to radical views, while also battling to suppress his sexuality at school “because as a teenager – as teenagers normally do – I just fell in love with other guys”.
Which is why when his friends started talking about becoming jihadis, Sarac readily joined the conversation – to deflect any questions on his own sexuality.
“I was struggling between being a normal 14 or 15-year-old guy in Germany and being really religious.
“My friends were very religious, very radical, and when they told me that they were considering going to Syria, I started thinking about it too.”
But there were other tensions at work.
One turning point was hearing a presenter on The Young Turks, a U.S.-based liberal news show, ask LGBT Muslims: “Why would you believe in a religion or a God if this God hates you, if this God will throw you to hell and let you burn forever?”
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.