Meet the founder of the mosque that won't allow burqas

Seyran Ateş says there's a feminist side to the religion that has been hidden by the patriarchy for far too long.

Seyran Ateş at home. 
Seyran Ateş at home. Ayla Ates

Berlin-Seyran Ateş was born to a Turkish mother and Kurdish father in the seemingly carefree, more peaceful 1960s Istanbul. The embracing, liberal version of religion her family and community practised back then became the foundation for what would become a lifelong effort to bring to life a non-traditional interpretation of Islam, peaking in 2017 with her founding of what has become known as Berlin’s first liberal mosque.

“I didn’t become a liberal Muslim, I always have been,” Ateş says. “My family has shown me that faith – particularly Islam – is something that happens between me, an individual, and god. There’s no institution between a human and god.”

“Then my family moved to Germany in the 1970s. And up until the 1980s, the Muslim community in Germany was quite liberal as well,” she says. “But at the end of the 1980s and 1990s, something changed. We started seeing more and more headscarves, more little kids going to the mosque, and more [Muslim] men and women showing their religion. And religion increasingly started taking place in public a lot more – it wasn’t something private anymore.”

After September 11, Ateş grew more interested in closely examining Islam because she had made a legal career out of helping victims of domestic violence, most of whom were Muslim women but also sometimes men.

I'm discriminated against in traditional mosques.

“We had to understand why domestic violence and forced marriages happen much more often in Muslim communities. I had to develop a deeper understanding of what happens inside the religion that leads to that,” she says.

That led to 2009 when Ateş published her book Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution, causing instant backlash. The threats of death and violence weren't new to her – she had already been placed under police protection in 2006 over fears for her life for her perceived anti traditional Islam voice.

That same year, she started researching for what would later become the Ibn Rushd-Goethe liberal mosque, which opened in 2017. The process of coming to terms with the necessity to launch such an institution was tumultuous, long and personal.

“I had come to the realisation that as a woman, I’m discriminated against in traditional mosques; I’m not allowed in the main hall and generally treated as somebody whose value is not the same as men,” she says. “The values I learnt through Islam weren’t practiced at these mosques. That was the reason why I started my eight-year journey of researching to launch the mosque.”

Founding the liberal mosque

In her quest that led to the launch, Ateş talked to hundreds of people from across Muslim countries and Europe. She says the discussions led her to the realisation that there are millions of people who practise the same kind of liberal Islam but are afraid to show or practice it in public.

She then realized that her fight isn’t against the traditional mosques, but rather political Islam.

“This is a very important point – people who are saying that we’re not practicing real Islam belong to political Islam; mostly people from the Muslim Brotherhood or the AKP of Erdoğan. If you look at who’s criticising us, you’ll find that they’re mostly followers of political Islam,” she says. “This is the reason Muslims or the Islamic world is divided. On one side, the political Islam and, on the other, the spiritual Islam – we practise spiritual Islam at our mosque.”

“All the [perceived] violence and discrimination against women that you find in Islam can also be found in the Bible, the Old and New Testament. That’s why we need to realise that we’re not talking about religion, but the patriarchy inside the religion,” Ateş says. “Go back to the 7th century, the beginning of Islam, and you’ll realise that what we now view as discrimination was reformation back then – it was a revolution. This is why I love my religion as a feminist; it brought so many good changes for women at the time.”

Mixed-gender prayer at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque. 
Mixed-gender prayer at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque. Private

Ateş looks at one relationship as a prime example of Islam’s embrace of women: prophet Mohamed's marriage with his first wife, Khadija.

“I’m wondering why no one, especially all these religious authorities, aren’t teaching what Khadija did for the Muslims. She was the businesswoman. She paid for the community. She proposed marriage to him. She was convincing him that he’s not crazy or sick. He’s a prophet – she gave him power to believe in his role as a prophet,” Ateş  says.

“They were together for 25 years, there should be a lot of stories about this couple. Why isn’t that case?" she says. “The answer is patriarchy. It has to do with male power. Men started to decide which stories should be told to the next generation.”

That’s why Ateş doesn’t believe in dress-code restrictions placed on women, like the burqa, niqab and hijab. She believes such discriminatory measures can’t have been the works of a divine being.

The hijab and western liberals

Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, for instance, doesn’t allow Niqabis or those bearing Burqas – however, mostly for security purposes. Hijabis, on the other hand, are free to walk in. But with increasing hostility towards Muslims in Europe and across the western world, how does she address such sensitive issues without being perceived as an Islamphobe?

“The so-called western liberals need minorities for their own existence; they need minorities to help,” claims Ateş. “If you have a minority fighting for Hijab, then you have a victim – this is a kind of cultural relativism and victims’ policy."

She says the Hijab has become a tool – with the left using it to be more understanding and political Islam hiding behind it as a sign of political discrimination. 

"The liberals love to be the big brother and big sister who are supporting the Muslims. If you’re a smart and liberal Muslim, they can’t help you. They need us to be victims and minorities,” she says.