Since she founded a liberal mosque in Berlin, she has been under 24-hour police protection. Liberal Muslim Seyran Ates advocates for a cosmopolitan Islam – and sees many parallels to Catholic reform movements.
Clear as day: In 2017, you founded the "Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque" in Berlin-Moabit, which tries to live a liberal Islam. The image of Muslims in the German media is often anything but liberal. Are you targeting a small splinter group, or are there more liberal, reform-minded Muslims than you think??
Seyran Ates (lawyer, women's rights activist and mosque founder): In my eight years of preparation for the mosque – I had the idea in 2009 and in 2017 the mosque was opened – I really researched very intensively and very much. Based on these experiences, I would claim that there are many more secular Muslims, not only in Germany and Europe, but all over the world. This assertion is confirmed since we opened the mosque – 2017 until today. The only reason why secular Muslims – Muslims who live a very contemporary and liberal, open and tolerant Islam and above all take interfaith dialogue also very seriously – are not so visible is the ie of violence.
There is an unbelievable readiness for violence among orthodox, conservatives and radicals. Why do I mention all these groups? It is a misconception to think that only Hamas, al-Qaeda, Taliban and Boko Haram – all these known terrorist groups – are willing to use violence. No, it is also the simple, so-called orthodox and conservatives who send us ugly messages even in the month of Ramadan, although we are required to reconcile people with each other in the month of Ramadan, not to curse, not to lie, and to do what is good. This month, after all, we are supposed to meet each other with beautiful things and that is supposed to give us beautiful moments.
All things considered, I can tell you that secular Muslims in numbers – even in Germany – determine a much larger constituency. Let's turn to the political parties: They think that the number of conservatives is much higher and they make a corresponding policy for the traditional and for the conservatives, because they want to be elected. Here I say explicitly: this is a misconception. If they would start to take secular Muslims seriously as Muslims, they would get a more pluralistic picture of Islam. Islam is a very plural, very individualistic religion. You would also be doing more justice to Islam, and thus to Muslims as well. They would also be elected by secular Muslims. At least as much, maybe even more, than the traditionalists and orthodox, who are given more support these days – out of the mistaken belief that they are the majority; they are not.
Clear as day: The loud minority and the silent majority?
Ates: Absolutely. And people – I underline this once again – are rightly silent, because otherwise they run the risk of not only bodily harm, but also of being killed. Not only to be insulted, but not to be able to enter Turkey, for example, and to be excluded within the family, within the social environment.
That is, all people who currently profess a secular Islam are subject to the most extreme reprisals. This is an ie that I think needs to be discussed more broadly. And even the German Islam Conference, for example, does not really provide the space to see how much violence, slander, discrimination and defamation is used to make secular Muslims look bad.
Himmelklar: There are certain parallels in Christianity as well. If one considers for example the treatment of homosexuals. There is also the question: Do we refer to what is written down in the texts, or do we look at the whole situation in the historical-critical context?? Why is there this great potential for violence in a similar discussion in Islam??
Ates: We look at the whole situation in the historical-critical context. Finally, we must not forget that the texts were written down by certain men (the patriarchy) with a certain tendency. I am therefore always interested in the story behind the story and what is around it. Among other things, the current book by Lisa Kotter comes to my mind. She is one of the founders of the Maria 2 movement.0. When I read the book, I made an incredible number of marks. Basically, I was able to mark the whole book because I discovered absolute parallels – and anyway, I've known Lisa for a while now.
Also liberal Jewish women, Rabbis have similar problems, you can say they are identical problems we have, within religion. There are things written down and they are still read today – but what is valid at all and how does a community discuss it?? There we are really very close. The readiness to use violence, you mentioned that, is indeed still a point where a distinction has to be made. The Maria 2 Movement.0 has to live with similar hate speech in the social media, as we do too. And very liberal rabbis are no different.
Now the propensity for violence is not so extreme among Jewish women and among Christian women. My theory: Because of the Reformation, also within the Catholic Church, even if it is unfortunately still very homophobic today and also very misogynistic in part. Since the Reformation there has been a strong movement within religion. Women have taken more and more place as authorities in religion and the acceptance by men has also increased. In my opinion, gender equality can only be achieved if men and women work together. The violence decreases, if within the patriarchy also men say: I have no more desire on it. This is as bad for me as it is for my sister, for my wife or for my mother. So men are revolting along with it.
And that's why, my theory, there are 2 opposite Maria.0 and not such a high propensity to violence, even toward liberal Jews, as is currently the case in Islam. We are the youngest of the three monotheistic world religions, and there are so many terrorist groups that are active in the name of Islam that this potential for violence has not yet dissipated. That's why some 10-15 year old little rugrat, excuse the expression, dares to hurl insults at me via social media or in a school class when I'm standing in front of it, because he has such backing from Islamists, partly. They are just ready to chop off the head of a teacher. Then they can suddenly stand up in a school class and tell a teacher: If you treat me badly, you'll be just like that teacher there in Paris.
We have to tackle this readiness to use violence. All the time when we talk about violent tendencies, we talk about political Islam. There the political leaders of the Islamic countries are responsible. And that's where the governments in Europe are responsible, because they've given a lot of space to political Islam.
Sky clear: So in religions – generally speaking – there needs to be more recognition and more respect for critical voices. Can this be said?
Ates: This can be said in any case. And it is not critical voices that demonize a religion or want to destroy religion. This is also an important point to mention. Both Mary 2.0, as we, too, are accused of having invented a new religion. We are told to go away and stop calling our religion Islam. We should call ourselves a sect – in pejorative terms, of course – or a political grouping. Whatever – we are perverts and we should call ourselves perverts, but not Muslims.
There is challenged that one really seeks the dialogue, the debate, the critical togetherness. If we are critical of our religion, it doesn't mean we want to abolish it. Hamdallah ('Thank God', d. Red.), we are Muslims. You will not stop this. In Islam, there is an understanding that any person who accepts the shahada (creed of Islam, d. Red.) has pronounced and speaks again and again and says: "I am a Muslim" – that is then also. You don't need ordination, you don't need baptism, you don't need confirmation from a human being. It is Allah, it is the God we believe in, who gives us this power.
How can a human being, a creature, act as God's advocate or think that he speaks for God?? At this point, it would really suit all the world religions, and all the smaller religions as well, to realize that in the 21st century, we have more and more in common. We have become very open and tolerant people in this globalization of the twenty-first century, because we are getting to know more and more cultures and religions. Also, because we are discovering more and more commonalities, and because we are realizing that feeling, pain, thinking are equally shared around the world. Now, in the pandemic, we realize all the more how far happiness and misfortune connect us, that illness and susceptibility to a virus connect us. We realize that we are ticking along in a similar way and how we are looking for help from doctors, scientists, politicians, but also from God and in our faith, in order to survive this pandemic.
And let us not forget our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters in this world who do not believe in God. They also have many things in common all over the world. Whether an atheist lives in China or in South America or in the middle of Hamburg. It makes no difference. It is a conviction that this person has. Therefore: In the end, I can only say that we will only find the much desired world peace if we create peace within the religions – together with the world views, of course.
The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.
This is an excerpt of the conversation. Listen to the full interview in the latest episode of the Podcasts Sky Clear – an interdiocesan podcast project coordinated by MD GmbH in cooperation with katholisch.de and our site. Supported by the Catholic Media House in Bonn and APG mbH. Moderated by Renardo Schlegelmilch and Katharina Geiger.