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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."

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