The – patchy and insufficient – provision of religious spaces and services for Germany’s growing Muslim population has become a fiercely political issue. This is not only linked to a general and widespread sense of hostility towards Islam and its spatial visibility in the form of mosques, minarets, and headscarves. Rather, it is also due to the fact that much attention is now focused on the real and supposed political influence mosques and Islamic associations wield over Muslims.
The country’s largest Islamic associations have been a particular object of criticism in this regard: politicians from across the ideological spectrum have lambasted these organisations as too conservative or even reactionary and as too beholden to foreign interests. Whilst they continue to figure in government-sponsored forums of dialogue – such as the national-level German Islam Conference – as well as more local initiatives, they are increasingly viewed as unfit to be considered legitimate Muslim representatives.
A ‘liberal’ mosque
To these critics, the foundation of a self-consciously ‘liberal’ mosque community in Berlin must be a welcome sign of change: a well-known activist of Turkish-Kurdish heritage, Seyran Ateş, announced the opening of the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque, marked by its gender equality and its openness towards all Islamic currents.1
The mosque, which is an explicit counter-project to the established Islamic associations, will hold its first Friday prayers on June 16. Every Friday, a man and a woman will both function as Imams and jointly lead the service. Ateş herself is seeking to become an Imam. What is more, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an openly gay prayer leader from Marseille, France, will also participate in the Friday session of June 16.2
Defence of women’s rights
The project – notably with its feminist reading of Islamic religiosity, expressed by its insistence on gender-mixed prayers and on the prominent role given to female Imams – inscribes itself into Ateş’ long-standing fight against patriarchal structures of oppression.
A lawyer by training, Ateş has spent the bulk of her career defending the rights of Muslim women against abusive family relations, forced marriages, and so-called ‘honour killings’. During a consultation with a client in 1984, the client’s enraged husband made his way to Ateş’ office and shot both his wife and Ateş. While the wife died, Ateş spent several years recovering from her life-threatening injuries.
Following the 2009 publication of her book Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution (Der Islam braucht eine sexuelle Revolution), Ateş received a number of death threats that caused her to reduce her public appearances. She also closed down her lawyer’s practice temporarily, before reopening it in 2012.
Muslims ‘need to enlighten Islam’
Ateş laid out her vision for the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque in an impassioned and highly personal op-ed for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. She recounts how her late father no longer felt at home in Berlin’s mosques due to their conservatism, and how at his burial the male Muslim clergy made her feel like a second-class believer. “Nowhere do I feel as discriminated against as in mosques”, she asserts – and goes on to ask: “Is my religion the business of men only?”3
Against these entrenched tendencies, Ateş sees her new mosque as making a contribution to the “reform of our religion” and as helping to address the “modernisation problem in Islam”. For Ateş, Muslims “finally need to enlighten” their religion: “Not every tradition is worthy of being kept. Not every pious resistance to what is novel is truly pious.”4
A political minefield
At the same time, Ateş is aware that by opening a mosque, she is entering a political minefield where she faces opposition not only from the side of Muslim traditionalists but also from the political right. In her opinion piece she recounts how her past activism against the oppression of mainly Turkish Muslim women has – albeit unintentionally – made her a respected persona at the Islamophobic end of the spectrum.
According to Ateş, when she posted good wishes for a Muslim religious festival on facebook, some of her friends and followers were outraged – even though they very much appreciated Ateş’ acknowledgement of Christian and Jewish religious celebrations.5
Undoubtedly for this reason, Ateş also refuses the label of ‘critic of Islam’ (Islamkritikerin), with which she is often connected in the German media: “I am not an ‘Islamkritikerin’”, Ateş asserted in a recent interview. “If anything, then I’m a critically-minded person overall. That I make critical statements on certain matters of religion, including of Islam, does not mean that I am not devout.”6
‘Liberal’ or ‘Islamophobic’?
These issues highlight the political difficulties the mosque project will encounter, squeezed between the Scylla of religious conservatism and the Charybdis of being co-opted by the far-right as a fig-leaf for an Islamophobic agenda. As to whether Ateş’ mosque in particular and her project of Islamic renewal in general will be able to withstand this test remains to be seen. Some doubts nevertheless appear apposite in this regard.
Notably, a number of the supporters of the ‘Freiburg Declaration of secular Muslims’ are to assume – as of yet unspecified – roles in the mosque and its community. These figures include Abdel-Hakim Ourghi, initiator of the Declaration, and Saida Keller-Messahli, chairwoman of the Swiss ‘Forum for a Progressive Islam’.7
The Declaration – whose language of religious reform and enlightened secularism Ateş echoes in her op-ed for the Zeit – had divided Germany’s liberal Muslims. The Liberal-Islamic Union swiftly condemned its initiators of “having become the accomplice of racist and Islamophobic discourses”, adding that “[a] ‘liberal’ Islam stops being liberal where it unreflectingly falls into line with marginalising discourses of mainstream society.”
Traditionalism, Islamism, jihadism
Ateş otherwise moving defence of her mosque project in her op-ed is not free from some regrettable tendencies in this regard. At times, the piece appears to veer uncomfortably close to amalgamating Islamic traditionalism, Islamist activism, and jihadist violence.
To be sure, each of these forces are formidable; and they may – all in their own way – undermine a genuinely inclusive, progressive, and vibrant Islamic religiosity. Yet this does not make them one and the same: Islamic traditionalism, infused with local norms going back to the modus vivendi of ancestral generations in rural Anatolia, does indeed hold back many Muslim women living in Germany.
Nevertheless, the Islamist challenge is structurally and ideologically different, particularly insofar as Islamism seeks to break with many of these traditional fora and modes of authority. Jihadist violence is again different in both means and ends, and in its perspective on women. One is left to wonder as to whether it is either theologically accurate or politically far-sighted to castigate mainstream conservatism by ranging it with the most barbaric jihadist killings and doctrinal innovations.
Need for enhanced public clout and credibility
Against this backdrop, Seyran Ateş’ very public persona may very well turn out to be both a blessing and a curse for her new mosque project. On the one hand, her long and courageous struggle for women’s rights may enable her to make herself heard to all those who would otherwise regard the foundation of a mosque with suspicion.
Ateş might, in other words, be able to galvanise more political support among decision-makers in Berlin. This is an all-important asset: in the past, the foundation of strong, visible ‘liberal’ mosques that could function beyond the purview of the conservative associations has often failed due to a lack of political clout.
More generally, it is surely an important development to see someone like Ateş, who has for a long time fought the gender violence commonly associated with Islam in Western public perceptions and who thus cannot be seen as being ‘too soft’ on uncomfortable issues besetting the faith, should openly vindicate her right to be a practicing Muslim herself.
A difficult trajectory ahead
On the other hand, critical questions might be asked as to who or what legitimises Ateş, who has not shown a marked interest in Islamic religiosity in the past, to open a mosque. One might also wonder whether it is helpful for her to publish another book on the day of the mosque opening, titled Selam, Mrs. Imamin: How I Founded a Liberal Mosque in Berlin. There appears to be a real risk that the new mosque becomes Mrs Ateş’ vanity project rather than a way of supporting a process of reflection on the part of Muslim communities.
For now, although Ateş’ books are already in print, the mosque’s work remains unaccomplished as the first Friday prayers are yet to be held. The mosque also does not have its own buildings so far: initially, services will take place on the premises of the Church of Saint-John (Sankt-Johannis) in the Moabit district of Berlin.
Ateş hopes that she will be able to witness the construction of a true mosque building at a later stage. In this respect, it remains to be seen whether her project will come to be a powerful manifestation of a liberal Islam, or whether it will be derailed by political vicissitudes in the meantime.