A New Women-Run Mosque In Berlin, Is This How The Reformation Of Islam Begins?

Seyran Ates, a German-Turkish lawyer, has opened the first “liberal” mosque in Berlin, where she herself is the imam. The goal is nothing less that the worldwide reformation of Islam.

Ates after the opening of the new mosque
Ates after the opening of the new mosque
Ricarda Breyton

BERLIN — The room where the reformation of Islam is intended to begin measures a total of 90 square meters (969 sq feet). It has high, stained-glass windows, and there is a light green carpet on the ground. A whitewashed shoe rack is in front. Otherwise, the space is void of furniture.

But for Seyran Ates, this space means her dream has come true. The German-Turkish lawyer has opened the first self-professed "liberal" mosque in Berlin's central Moabit neighborhood where men and women pray together, and where she herself is the imam.

The Ibn-Rushd-Goethe-Moschee, whose name combines the name of the 12th-century Muslim philosopher and German Enlightenment writer, has existed in this barren room in the annex of an evangelical church in Berlin-Moabit since last Friday. The small space is the first prominent mosque in Berlin that has labeled itself as "liberal," perhaps becoming the germ cell of reformed Islam in Germany.

Ates planned and founded the mosque with other Muslims from places like Morocco, Algeria, and Indonesia. The goal: nothing less than the reformation of Islam. Gays and lesbians are welcomed in the mosque. Men and women pray together. Ates has even trained herself as an imam. Once the mosque in Berlin becomes operational, she hopes similar mosques will emerge across Germany.

Who determines what the contents of liberal Islam are?

The project is ambitious. After all, it has two sticking points. First, who determines what the contents of liberal Islam are? And, secondly, shouldn't the Muslim world unite instead of allowing for every person to create his or her own sect?

On the opening day of the mosque, Ates was standing barefoot, wearing a white robe in the recently renovated room. Several journalists, some young men without cameras, two or three women with headscarves (but many without) were sitting in front of her.

"On the whole, man is required to use his head and all that which is contained inside," Ates preached. She quoted a scholar who stated that one could kill a camel through thought. She continued: "Let's not kill camels. That's also not pleasant for the camel. Let's defend love and peace with deeper thought."

Ates has reached a milestone of a vision that she conceived of eight years ago. At the time, she was upset with the fact that most mosques separated the sexes, requiring women to sit behind the men during prayer. She was also dissatisfied with the sermons in the mosques, which were often political and only served to disseminate a victim's mentality among Muslims rather than fostering coexistence together with the rest of society.

The founding of the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe Mosque is without a doubt a frontal assault on the religious establishment. "What have these mosques done in the last decades in Germany that have led young people to radicalization? Why have Muslim people so often said: ‘this mosque community has distanced me from my faith?""

Ates adds: "There are refugees who come to us and say: ‘the mosques in Syria are more liberal than the ones here.""

The new mosque project is supposed to fight against this tendency, and to aim even higher. "The reformation to which I aspire is also in a way aimed at getting back to the primitive state of our religion, and also to a situation in which there is just one Islam and not many different, combating movements," she wrote in a recent book.

But what does that mean? And is there a basic Islamic doctrine on which Muslims could unite?

Some points are non-negotiable

Ates at least has a clear vision: There are tenets in the Koran that are non-negotiable. "For example, I can't say ‘I now worship several gods."" But Ates also argued that many of the noted declarations and legal concepts in Islamic lore, not in the Koran, and one must interpret these with an eye toward the present.

"The best example is the covering of women. We have a concept in the Koran that is not interpreted as headscarf but rather as the covering without reference to the shrouding of the head." In the past, shrouding had outwardly signaled that a woman was not sexually available. "We don't need that anymore."

She is not alone in this thinking. "I'm not founding a Seyran-Ates Mosque; rather, I rely on scholars like our namesake from the 12th century as well as contemporary theologians."

Thus far, Ates' mosque community is admittedly small. There are seven members and around two dozen worshippers. The woman's rights activist financed the project largely out of her own pocket. Donations have only come in recently. Ates is denied funding that other Turkish mosques in Germany receive from the Turkish government.

Attitudes from non-Muslims toward this project are divided. Ates says that most have responded positively, but there are also those who propagate fear around any place of worship with the label Islam. Every Friday there is a man who stands on the grounds in front of the prayer room shoving a piece a paper into every visitor's hand. The flyer reads: "Ivory tower dreamers are founding a mosque here in the evangelical community of Saint John. With it, they are bringing terror directly to us."

There had also been a sense of unease in the church's daycare center. Some parents were troubled by the idea of a mosque existing on the grounds. But, the mosque's presence at the church is only temporary. Ates is planning to construct a "beautiful, large mosque" in Berlin.

This is a woman who is not lacking in self-confidence. For years she had largely been forced to hide from the public eye after multiple death threats. But at a certain point, she decided to champion her stances in full view of the public. "When we fight for the liberation of our religion, we by no means want to Christianize Islam or institutionalize it accordingly. It is a question of interpreting the surahs and hadiths (chapters and reports of the Koran) in our time without altering the core of our religion," she writes in her book. By this, she means that Islam belongs to Germany but just in a different guise.

Not everybody finds Ates' reforms appealing. Even among Muslims who describe themselves as liberal, resistance is strong. "I think liberalism becomes dogmatic when it means that one formulates an idea of a progressive Islam everyone has to take part in, because there is no other way of doing things.", said Nushin Atmaca of the Liberal Islamic Association.

On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely this demonstration of liberalism that causes more conservative Muslim institutions to begin their own reform efforts.

The Central Council of Muslims, one of the Muslim societies that Ates criticizes, perceives itself as being both a defender and an attacker of the status quo. "Muslim life in Germany is changing," the chairman of the Berlin-based society, Mohamad Hajjaj, said. "The separation of the sexes, sex, and homosexuality are also being discussed in our mosques. And this is a good thing."

He noted, however, that women have not served as imams historically. And he likes it better when scholars (whether men or women) debate the subject, rather than lay people. Nevertheless, he argued, "by no means does the fact Ates is now serving as a imam give grounds for her expulsion from Islam."

Hajjaj also does not want to speak out against the new mosque that has deviated in some many ways. "Every house of worship in the city that meets the needs of Muslims is welcome."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.



• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.


"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.



For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.


Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️


We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.


Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!