Seyran Ates Liberal Mosque Berlin Goethe stop extremism

Seyran Ates: Female Muslim leader and intellectual

5 minutes to read
Odile Heynders

The Berlin Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque opened in the summer of 2017. The intention of its feminist leader, Seyran Ates, is to create an atmosphere for a peaceful and democratic Islam in which women, men, and members of the LGTBQ+ community can pray in congregation and read together the Qur’an as a historical text. In consequence of spreading her ideas about the modernization of Islam, Ates received the solidarity of people taking a far-right political stance, which she did not accept. Analysing her public performance and discourse demonstrates that the countermelody of tolerance is resistance.

Who is Seyran Ates

Turkish-German women’s rights activist and lawyer Seyran Ates (b. 1963) is an intriguing public intellectual and co-founder of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque that opened its doors in July 2017. The mosque’s mission is to bring together and treat equally men and women, as well as various branches within Islam (Sunnis, Shias, and other) and people with different sexual identities. 

The religious basis of the mosque, as it is explained on its website, is to spread a secular liberal Islam, separating worldly and religious power, and stimulating a contemporary exegesis of the Qur’an. Love, Ratio and Responsibility are taken as guiding principles (undoubtedly related to the Faith, Hope and Love triad of Christianity). The Ibn Rushd-Goethe congregation demonstrates that Islam can be related to democracy. The mosque welcomes all those who converted to Monotheism (Christianity and the Jewish religion), as well as atheists who are interested in a dialogue with believers.

For many, Ates’ mosque is treacherous, for others it is a variant of a Happy-Hippie-Sufi-Islam

Seyran Ates wrote an interesting book, Selam Frau Imamin, Wie ich in Berlin eine liberale Moschee gründete (Hello Mrs Imam, How I founded a liberal Mosque in Berlin), in which she explained her ideas and convictions. Immediately at the start of the book, she clarifies that being a female Muslim leader does not fit into the conservative Islam that is preached in most German mosques. For Ates it is clear that spirituality and love for God should not be experienced in separate rooms, while emphasizing the differences between men and women, Islam and other religions. In Mecca men and women pray together, but in most mosques worldwide, they are separated. ‘We would like to reform the Islam from within’, she writes, ‘while reading the Qur’an from a contemporary perspective’.[i] In an interview with The Guardian in June 2017 she emphasised this as well: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’.

Ates as a public intellectual

Ates typically is a public intellectual performing her critical role in a media saturated public sphere. She takes a frank and bold position in a debate and community –Muslims in Germany – and appears as a well-educated and experienced opinion maker and thinker presenting a general and independent overview on what is happening in German society. She operates within a certain audience, while at the same time critiquing that audience and influencing it with new ideas. Ates manages various strategies of visibility – making herself known by publishing books and doing television and newspaper interviews - and she takes a specific and sometimes controversial stance, in order to warn for a situation that she considers negative.

There are not enough female public figures performing such a critical and opining role in the current public sphere. On the basis of various theoretical insights brought together by Alan McKee, (2005), at least three explanations could be given for this lack of female intellectual voices. 

First explanation is that we do not notice female intellectuals; the gender bias in society overlooks the activities and output of women, focussing on the dominance of male lecturers, commentators and writers. 

Second explanation is that there seems to be an unwillingness of women to perform the role of the intellectual appearing in the media as a convinced, provocative and entertaining speaker, for instance in television talk shows (in the immensely popular Dutch television programme De Wereld Draait Door only 30 percent of the guests is female). 

Third, some feminists argue that there is more than just the rational argument in a debate: feminist activist values could be considered as anti-elitist, communicative, and compromising, thus the opposite of square rationality, dispassionateness and disembodiment. Ates’ emphasis on love as a spiritual guiding line fits this feminist approach. Interesting in this context is that Ates at first had the opinion that the burqa and niqab should be rejected in the liberal mosque as symbols of traditionalism, but in her book conveys that she has changed her mind after discussions and noticing that more and more covered women opened up to diverse religious and political perspectives (Ates, p. 263/4).

A liberal Mosque

Ates is visible, engaged and convinced in her ideas on a liberal Islam that should be saved from fundamentalism and violence. Her aim is to inspire, and to combine East and West: ‘I am both, a believer and feminist, enlightened and sometimes very traditional, East and West’ (p. 194). She considers the idea of the German welfare state not so different from the idea of Umma, as a community of Muslims, in which taking responsibility for others is important. To establish such a community, however, people have to make room for dialogue, for debate and learning from other perspectives.

That she herself takes this seriously, is what we could observe in December 2017 when she received a solidarity claim of the Alternative for Germany party and immediately was heavily criticised by left wing politicians. The AfD is an extreme right-wing, anti-islam, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic party, using conservative ideals and a populist rhetoric. In Germany’s last elections the party made an electoral breakthrough, winning 12,6 percent of all the votes, making the party third of the country. Ates did not accept the AfD’s solidarity, but was also not amused by the immediate critique of the left wing parties who blamed her for the AfD’s support : ‘Just like I would have wished that the AfD would not use us for their purposes, it would have been nice when the other parties would have asked for a dialogue with us[ii], she stated.

Even though Ates’ drive is to connect differences and to stimulate debate, this event demonstrates that religion and politics cannot always be separated and that ‘gemeinsam lernen und diskutieren’ is not easily done and organised in today’s overheated public sphere. In July 2017 Ates declared that she received 300 emails per day encouraging her to carry on, including mails from as far as Australia and Algeria, but that she also got 3000 emails a day full of hate, some of them including death threats. For many, Ates’ mosque is treacherous, for others it is a variant of a Happy-Hippie-Sufi-Islam inspired by the poet RUMI (Jalaluddin Mevlana). I would say that the liberal mosque is an encouraging phenomenon initiated by a brave woman, a religious as well as a creative free thinker showing us that tolerance does not work without resistance.


[i] “In Mekka beten Frauen und Männer gemeinsam, in den moisten Moscheen weltweit versammeln sie sich hingegen in getrennten Räumen” (Ates 2017, p. 27). “Wir Gründerinnen und Gründer der Ibn-Rushd-Goethe-Moschee wollen den Islam von innen heraus reformieren und mit einer zeitgemässen Auslegung des Koran Toleranz, Gewaltfreiheit und Geschlechtergerechtigkeit in den Vordergrund unserer Religionsausübung stellen“ (Ates 2017, p. 14).

[ii] Genauso wie ich mir gewünscht hätte, dass die AfD uns nicht vor ihren politischen Karren spannt und unabgesprochen einen solchen Antrag stellt, wäre es auch schön gewesen, wenn die anderen Parteien mit uns das Gespräch gesucht hätten. In Berliner Zeitung, 2 December 2017.


McKee, Alan (2005), The Public Sphere, An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ates, Seyran (2017), Selam Frau Imamin, Wie ich in Berlin eine liberale Moschee gründete, Berlin: Ullstein Buchverlage.