Is Sunnis less liberal than Shiites

Germany today - reports
Mrs. Imamin

The first liberal mosque was opened in Berlin. Shiites and Sunnis, gays and lesbians, men and women pray together here. Katarzyna Brejwo talked to Seyran Ateş, the founder of the mosque.

There is no minaret that shows us the way to this mosque.
Neither in the kebab shop nor in the shop with halal food has anyone heard of her. A man sorting tangerine boxes shrugs his shoulders: “There are many mosques in Moabit. There is an Afghan restaurant right around the corner and a Turkish one a few streets away. But a liberal one? What is that supposed to be anyway? ”“ One in which women and men pray together, ”I say. “And which is open to everyone: Shiites, Sunnis and Alevis. Jews, Christians and Atheists. Gays and lesbians… “I hesitate a little when I say the last few words, but the seller can no longer hear me. He calls an employee, maybe she knows something.
Only the young man from the Arab delicatessen points to the red brick tower at the end of the street. It is the Protestant St. John's Church. The first liberal mosque in Berlin is located in an unused room on the third floor of an adjoining building.

The mirror

God spoke to Seyran Ateş twice.
For the first time on September 25, 1984, when she was shot by an assassin. At the time she was twenty-one years old, was studying law in Berlin and, while studying, worked in an advice center for women from Turkey. The man who stormed into the office that day and fired three shots at her was also a Turk. Seyran remembers how she lay motionless on the floor. Of the screams of her colleague, who is so excited and unable to dial the number of the emergency service. And a bright light that promises her eternal happiness. “I'm too young,” she replies to this light and comes back to life.
After this experience, she believes in God more than ever. But how should she talk about it? Most of her acquaintances are atheists. In the left Berlin scene of the eighties, people are more interested in Buddhism and yoga than in the major monotheistic religions - at most, they can be blamed for all evil in this world. Seyran is a feminist, during the following years she fought actively against forced marriage and violence against women. Hundreds of Muslim women find their way into their offices. She explains to them that they have the right to divorce a man who beats them. That they have the right to work and to send their daughters to school. She receives numerous awards for her commitment. The most important, the Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class, was personally awarded to her by the then Federal President Joachim Gauck. "During all this time," she says, "belief was something private for me."
Her parents came to Berlin from Turkey in 1968 to work for Siemens. Her mother stopped wearing a headscarf when the shift supervisor explained what could happen if the material got into the machine. She also found it strange to hide her hair in Germany: instead of protecting it from prying eyes, the headscarf only attracted more attention. Religion was not a big issue in the family, even when the Islamic festivals were celebrated. Seyran was twelve, maybe thirteen, when she first fasted on Ramadan. As she had her first meal after dark, she imagined how many people around the world were doing the same thing. She felt a pleasant warmth at the thought of this large community.
“My parents practiced their religion quietly and undemonstratively,” she recalls. “They admired Ataturk, it would never have occurred to them to mix religion and politics with one another.” In the German school, Seyran attended religious education classes with the other children. The teacher told many beautiful things about God. Seyran didn't mind that it was the god of the Protestants. She admired Jesus, and “love your neighbor as yourself” seemed so perfect that she wrote it on the mirror in her room.
Many years later, when she held her newborn daughter in her arms, she was filled with an infinite and unconditional love. "What is God," she thought at the time, "if not this love?"

Three stops

Seyran Ateş | Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photo © Müjgan Arpat One side of the St. John's Church, built in the nineteenth century, is located on a lively bar street, the other is nestled in the green of old trees. The altar is characterized by Protestant simplicity - the wooden Jesus on the cross bows his head towards his mother.
It's almost empty here on Friday lunchtime, with only two older women sitting in the front benches. When they begin to whisper their prayers, the Imam in the other part of the building is turning the key in the lock. The mosque room is simple and cozy: a light carpet, white walls, windows with blue and green stained glass. At the very back is a shelf with books: the Koran, the writings of Avicenna and Averroës, brochures that explain where refugees can find help and what can be done against increasing radicalization. There is a basket with toys and books for children.
A little later, over twenty people have already gathered here. Representatives of the mosque community, a man and a woman, walk around the room and answer questions from first-time visitors looking around uncertainly. No, you don't have to hide your hair unless you want to. Only the wearing of burqas and niqabs is prohibited.
Yes, everyone can stay in the mosque during prayers. Please, here is a prayer rug, it's more comfortable to sit on.
When the Imam intones the invitation to prayer, the Allahu Akbar - so quietly that it is almost drowned in the babble of voices, the visitors step aside. The believers appear behind the Imam: nine people. “We are a small community,” Seyran Ateş later explains to me, “in total only about fifty people. We are all working, not everyone can visit the mosque on Friday. "
Among them are immigrants from Muslim countries (from Morocco to Indonesia), immigrant children born in Germany and also Germans who converted to Islam. Refugees also come to the mosque. Some of them have not found a mosque in their vicinity that corresponds to their ideas. “In Syria,” they say, “the imams were not as radical as yours”.
In 2006 the first German Islam Conference, initiated by the then Federal Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, took place, which was intended to serve as a central platform for dialogue between the state and Islam in Germany. Seyran Ateş was also invited. “It was then that I realized how well organized the conservative Islamists are. They have associations, contacts with the government. They assume the right to decide who is a good and who is a bad Muslim, ”she says. "And because they are loudly audible and clearly visible, they become the face of Islam."
About 4.8 million Muslims live in Germany. The largest group of them came to Germany as guest workers in the 1960s. Most came from Turkey, but Moroccans and Tunisians were also brought to Germany. Refugees from war zones came later: from Lebanon, Palestine and the former Yugoslavia. In 2015, almost a million refugees streamed into Germany from war zones in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.
How have these people integrated into Germany? If you look at relevant studies, you get the impression: both good and bad.
Good, because 96 percent of Muslims feel connected to Germany. Around 60 percent worked full-time (more than in other Western European countries). 78 percent have frequent contact with people of other religions in their free time [1].
Bad, because two-thirds think religious commandments are more important than the laws of the state in which they live. And over half refuse to be friends with homosexual people [2].
On December 19, 2016, a truck raced into the Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz in Berlin-Charlottenburg. 12 people were killed and 56 injured. At the wheel of the car was Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian whose application for asylum had previously been rejected. In the days after the attack, the police announced further details about the perpetrator: Anis Amri had contact with a Salafist preacher who recruited young Muslims for the terrorist militia "Islamic State", and regularly a mosque of the association "Fussilet 33" in Perleberger Strasse in Visited Berlin-Moabit - in the same district where the first liberal mosque is located today. The two places are only separated from each other by three stops, it takes about fifteen minutes to walk.
“Just look at what happens when someone commits a terrorist attack in the name of Allah,” says Seyran Ateş. “The conservative Islamic associations are hurrying to emphasize that this has nothing to do with their religion. But the assassins do not come from any synagogue, church or atheist association. We finally have to admit to ourselves: yes, this violence has a lot to do with Islam itself. Islam needs reform. And only we can set this reform in motion. "
After the first German Islam Conference in 2009, the thought occurred to her that there had to be a mosque for liberal Muslims. A place that is open to Shiites, Sunnis and others. Where Christians, Jews, atheists, gays, lesbians and transsexuals are also welcome. Where women pray together with men and can lead the prayers themselves. Where there is no hatred, just space for discussion.
"That is not Islam," accused her conservative Muslims. Others immediately insulted her as a whore who urgently needs to be raped.
German right-wing extremists advised her to go where she came from.
Her friends asked her if she knew how much suffering Islam had brought upon humanity. Those were the most difficult conversations. For what should Seyran answer them? That she would feel a lot worse if she gave up her religion to criticize it from outside?


Friday prayer is coming to an end.
Seyran, who wears a long, loose shirt, gives the sermon: Is it really true that the superiority of men over women is written into the Koran? She has brought four different translations of the Scriptures to show how differently one can interpret the same passage. "Liberal Islam calls for a critical examination of the Koran, taking historical facts into account," she explains to me later. “First, we should stop taking everything literally. When I read something about the "hand of God" then I finally know that it is not a part of the body. Second, we should take into account that the Quran is a text from the seventh century. The moral principles contained in it do not necessarily have to be applicable to our present. "
When she announced her intention to found a liberal mosque, it was the issue of women that sparked the most controversy. Someone wrote anonymously that he did not want to “look a woman's ass while praying”. Others cited arguments as old as Islam itself: that the sight of a woman, and just hearing her voice, arouses sinful thoughts in a man.
“Neither the Koran nor the Hadith [3] forbid women and men from praying together,” replies Seyran. She tells how she was once prevented by guards in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul from praying in the main hall of the building. Why are only men allowed to pray in this beautiful, old hall, while women have to squeeze into the small, stuffy and expressionless adjoining rooms? "Gender equality should apply everywhere," she argues, "at home, on the street and in the mosque."
She has teamed up with people who think similarly to her: theologians, scientists, publicists. Well-known names such as the Lebanese scholar Mouhanad Khorchide, who has campaigned for a modernization of Islam for many years, or the Yemeni-Swiss political scientist Elham Manea. The first prayer in the new mosque was led by Ani Zonneveld, an imam living in Los Angeles and founder of the human rights organization “Muslims for Progressive Values”. German politicians and activists also appeared at the opening. Journalists from all over the world wrote about the strange mosque with the two names: Ibn-Rushd-Goethe. Ibn Rushd, known in the western world as Averroës, was a twelfth century Islamic scholar in Cordoba who studied philosophy, theology, mathematics, law, and medicine. He was a staunch Aristotelian and proved that there is no contradiction between Aristotelian philosophy and Islamic theology.
The great German writer and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, on the other hand, wrote his "West-Eastern Divan" in 1819, a volume of poetry that was partly inspired by the works of the Persian poet Hafis.
The Ibn-Rushd-Goethe Mosque is intended - like its two namesake - to connect East and West.
Seyran was happy: she had worked towards this moment for eight years.
It was less than a week before the Egyptian Fatwa Office, an important center for Islamic legal issues, strongly condemned their mosque.

Coming out

"If my father knew that I was gay, he wouldn't talk to me anymore," says Deniz, a 24-year-old Turk with a migration background - his grandparents came to Germany as guest workers. Deniz still has a little time because his parents want him to finish his studies. But in a few years they will start asking when he will finally get married. Perhaps they will even ask around for a suitable candidate from their circle of friends. "I've always heard that homosexuality is haram for a Muslim," says Deniz. "Forbidden."
He is still unsure what to do. What would it mean to him if he gave up his belief? It would be a shame for his father, but Deniz himself also feels that Islam is an important part of his identity, a distant but always perceptible part, like a standby lamp on an electrical device. Deniz knows that not everyone experiences this inner conflict. Ipek İpekçioğlu, for example, a well-known Berlin DJ of Turkish descent. When she visits her grandparents in Anatolia, she takes her German friend with her. Deniz read about it in a newspaper because Ipek has no problem telling the whole world that she is a lesbian Muslim. The clubs where she presents her mix of rhythms from all over the world are always well filled. In the midst of this exuberant music, surrounded by sweating bodies and pulsating lights, Deniz feels like himself for a moment. What if, like Ipek, he could always feel that way?
“The majority of the people who come to us are Muslims,” says the psychologist Sabrina Dörr, who works for the Center for Migrants, Lesbians and Gays (MILES). There are 230 names in their database - that's how many people sought psychological help this year. “Many of them are refugees, many come from regions where they were exposed to religiously motivated violence: They were arrested, tortured and persecuted because of their sexual orientation. I often hear from them that they don't want to have anything to do with religion anymore because they have experienced so many bad things through them. But I also meet people who are believers and therefore get into deep inner conflict. They believe that because of their homosexuality they cannot be good Muslims. "
Sabrina tries to help them accept their sexual orientation. To give them the feeling that they can also profess Islam as gays, lesbians or transsexuals. It is an inner, therapeutic work. As a secular psychologist, she cannot simply say to her patients: “God loves you” or “Islam does not see anything bad about your sexual orientation”. They can only experience this acceptance in Muslim communities.For example in the Ibn Rushd Goethe Mosque, which Sabrina considers a step in the right direction and which has been supported by MILES from the start. “I recently contacted you about a patient,” she says. "They offered her advice - either by phone or on site when she can come to Berlin."
Could you help Deniz too?
The idea of ​​a gay-friendly mosque initially struck him as nonsensical. Who believes in such a thing? Who supports this? Who goes there and risks turning family and friends against them? Is homosexuality no longer haram? No, Deniz does not believe that a religion and a tradition over a thousand years can be changed by a single mosque.
Before we say goodbye, he'll write down the address to be on the safe side.
If this is really a revolution, it would be stupid to miss it.
“Fear God, not women” - with these words Seyran ends her sermon. Then there is a discussion on the topic of equality. We sit in a circle, everyone can express themselves: a medical doctor gives examples from evolutionary history, a translator from Arabic refers to the etymology, an expert on social media quotes discussions on Facebook. After the discussion there is a little bit of small talk: How are the children? What does health do? Here for the first time? From far away? Everything in German, English and Turkish.
In the future, the mosque is to have its own building, and people from all over the world are donating for this purpose, says Seyran. Among the donors are Muslims and atheists, they pay larger sums or only five or ten euros. As intended use they write “Don't let yourself get down” or “You are our hope”. If enough money is raised, a building with several prayer and meditation rooms, a room for workshops and seminars and a small café will be built. Going to a café is out of the question for Seyran at the moment. Just as little as traveling alone on the subway, shopping or going to the cinema. Since the fatwa was placed on her mosque and she herself received death threats, Seyran has only taken to the streets in the company of armed police.
When I ask her if she doesn't suffer from this lack of freedom, she protests: “I am free. I can think and say what I want. If that is only possible under police protection, then that's the way it is. "
She also has no time for self-pity at all. She is learning Arabic and is training to be an imam. Europe needs more liberal mosques. London, Vienna - someone has to go there and convince people. Seyran calls on liberal Muslims all over the world to come out. "This is not the time to sit still - we have to stand up against Islamist terror and show the peaceful face of Islam."

[1] Muslims in Europe - Integrated but Not Accepted?, Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2017,

[2] Koopmans, Ruud (2014): Religious Fundamentalism and Out-Group Hostility among Muslims and Christians in Western Europe. WZB Discussion Paper SP VI 2014-101. Berlin: WZB.

[3] The traditions of the sayings and actions of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
Selected literature:

Seyran Ates, Great trip into the fire. The story of a German Turkish woman Rowohlt, Berlin 2013
Seyran Ates, Selam, Mrs. Imamin, Ullstein, Berlin 2017



Katarzyna Brejwo - reporter, permanent employee of “Duży Format” magazine of the daily newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza”. Twice nominated for the Grand Press Prize and the Ryszard Kapuściński Prize of the state news agency PAP. Finalist in the “Pióro Nadziei” competition of the Polish section of Amnesty International and the EU Health Prize for Journalists. She is currently working on a report book for the Czarne publishing house.

Translation: Heinz Rosenau
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Poland
January 2018

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