By Philip Oltermann
25 June 2017
The founder of a new liberal mosque in Berlin that allows men and women to pray side by side has vowed to press on with her project even though the institution has been issued with a fatwa from Egypt and attacked by religious authorities in Turkey within a week of its opening.
“The pushback I am getting makes me feel that I am doing the right thing,” said Seyran Ateş, a Turkish-born lawyer and women’s rights campaigner, who does not wear a hijab. “God is loving and merciful – otherwise he wouldn’t have turned me into the person I am.”
The Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, named after a Muslim philosopher who defended Greek philosophy and a German writer fascinated by the poetry of the Middle East, opened its doors in Berlin’s Moabit district a week ago on Friday.
Housed in the side-building of a Protestant church, the mosque is open to Sunni, Shia, Alevi, Sufi and other interpretations of Islam but rejects visitors wearing the burqa or the niqab, which founder Ateş has describes as a “political statement”. On its opening day, a male and a female imam jointly led Friday prayers to a crowded room.
A week later, the white-walled prayer room was noticeably emptier, with the seven-strong congregation almost matched by the number of security staff who guarded the exits and entrances with blue plastic covers over their boots.
Ateş, 54, said many of the previous week’s worshippers had decided to stay away because they feared incrimination against themselves or their families. Her own relatives in Turkey had asked her to drop the project because they worried about arrests.
The lawyer, who is currently training to become an imam, said she had received “300 emails per day encouraging me to carry on”, including from as far away as Australia and Algeria, but also “3,000 emails a day full of hate”, some of them including death threats.
Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta al-Masriyyah, a state-run Islamic institution assigned to issue religious edicts, issued a statement on Monday declaring that the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque’s practice of men and women praying side by side was incompatible with Islam, while the legal department of Egypt’s al-Azhar university reacted to news from Berlin with a fatwa on the foundation of liberal mosques per se.
Turkey’s main Muslim authority, Diyanet, said the new mosque’s practices “do not align with Islam’s fundamental resources, principles of worship, methodology or experience of more than 14 centuries, and are experiments aimed at nothing more than depraving and ruining religion”.
A social media post circulated among Germany’s Turkish diaspora community showed a photograph of a foot hovering over three copies of the Qur’an scattered across the floor at the mosque, claiming that they had been placed there by “Ateş and her accomplices”. One visitor at the inaugural event told the Guardian that she saw the books being placed on the floor by a man purporting to be a journalist.
Some Turkish media have even accused the project of ties to the movement of Fethullah Gülen, subject to a crackdown in the country after the attempted coup of 16 July 2016.
“In my darkest dreams I wouldn’t have expected that Turkey would try to portray us as Gülenists, claiming that I had praised Gülen in my speech,” said Ateş. “I have nothing to do with their movement. On the contrary: they represent an interpretation of Islam that is too conservative for us.”
She started Friday’s prayer session with an appeal for those critical of the mosque’s mission statement to say so in the open, saying: “I hope that this time people are brave enough to show their true face. Allah knows their true face anyway. And it is Allah to whom they are accountable, not us.”
Ateş, who moved to Germany as a child and came of age during Berlin’s counterculture scene of the 1980s, narrowly survived a shooting at an advice centre for Turkish women in the city’s Kreuzberg district when she was 21.
Describing the founding principles of Ibn Rushd-Goethe, she said: “Our idea of liberal Islam is that unlike orthodox and conservative practitioners, we do not believe that the written records of the Qur’an should be transferred word-for-word to the 21st century. We ask ourselves what the intentions were at the time and which parts can translated and explained in the 21st century.
“We want to work together with conservatives to do something against Islamist terror, to show that Islam is also a very peaceful, mystical and spiritual religion. Many people adhere to the Muslim faith not because of Isis or the Taliban or whatever, but also because it is a beautiful religion.”
One of the worshippers at Friday’s prayer was a British Sufi called Umar, who is usually based in south-west England but was visiting Berlin for the weekend and decided to visit the mosque after reading an interview with Ateş.
The 30-year-old said he did not have a problem with men and women praying side by side: “It’s dangerous to say there are definitive rulings,” he said. “We do not have the prophet anymore. These are confusing times for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Anything we can do to improve accessibility is a good thing.”