To say that Seyran Ateş defies stereotypes is an understatement. For starters, she is a female Imam-in-training, a rarity in the Muslim world. In addition, she founded the world’s first “liberal mosque,” which opened its doors in Berlin’s Moabit district on June 17, 2017. It welcomes followers from all interpretations of Islam, including long-time Sunni-Shia antagonists. It allows men and women to worship together, not separated as in traditional practice. It encourages the participation of members of LBGTQ communities, who are banned from prayer gatherings under conservative Islam. Moreover, Ateş insists that women remove their burqas and niqabs inside her mosque for she believes that "full-face veils have nothing to do with religion, but rather are a political statement.”
Named after a Muslim philosopher who defended Greek philosophy and a German writer fascinated by the poetry of the Middle East, the mission of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque is to be a bridge-builder and peace-maker. Yet, it is under attack. So is Seyran Ateş.
The daughter of a Turkish mother and a Kurdish father, Seyran immigrated to Germany at the age of six. She grew up amongst Germans though in an extended family of devout and traditional Sunni Muslims. Though she never questioned the religious teachings of her youth, Seyran took issue with the misogynistic and homophobic aspects of conservative Islam from an early age.
In 1983, at just 20 years of age, Seyran became a passionate and outspoken advocate for the rights of women and girls. She publicly unmasked Islam’s indifference to violence against women and children, taking a stand against forced marriage, honor killings, domestic abuse, child marriage, genital mutilation, and full-face covering. That’s also when she began her law degree, simultaneously counseling female immigrants from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan on their basic human rights under international law.
It didn’t take long before her activism came under attack. In 1984 she took a bullet to the neck. It would be another six years, following an arduous and prolonged recovery from that assassination attempt, before Seyran could resume her legal studies. But return to the law she did, and this time with greater conviction than ever before.
In 1997, Seyran began working as a lawyer. But she closed her practice after only nine years, in 2006, due to continued death threats and in order to protect her then two-year-old daughter.
That’s when Seyran began to dream of a mosque where people of all genders, gender identities, and ethnic backgrounds could come together to worship in harmony. Hers would be a mosque without gender apartheid, where men and women would pray side-by-side in the same beautiful room.
The challenge of the 21st century, according to Seyran Ateş, is to fight for democracy, freedom, and gender equality within the Islamic world. She has made it her personal goal is to contribute to “Islam’s sexual revolution.”
"We need a historical-critical exegesis of the Quran," she states, adding that religious practice can no longer take literally a scripture from the 7th century. At the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, “ We stand for a reading of the Quran which is oriented to mercifulness, love of God and most of all to peace." Her mosque is a "place for all those people who do not meet the rules and regulations of conservative Muslims.”
Though inclusive and peaceful, however, the official view toward the mosque in Turkey has been harsh. Egypt, a powerhouse in the Islamic world, has condemned Ateş project and labeled it “an attack on Islam.” The Egyptian Fatwa Council declared a fatwa against it and all present and future liberal mosques within a week of its opening. Even Ateş's own relatives back in Turkey have pleaded with her to drop the project, worried about further attacks as well as arrests.
The lawyer and future imam has said she had receives “3,000 emails a day full of hate,” some of them including death threats. But she also receives “300 emails per day encouraging me to carry on,” from as far away as Australia and Algeria. These are the messages she chooses to focus on; this is what keeps her going on her quest to achieve a more perfect world.
While the voices of traditional Islam continue to decry the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque’s practice of men and women praying side by side as incompatible with Islam, Seryan Ateş continues to prove on a daily basis that anything is feasible, “Man just has to want it.” That’s why she’s a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many, many thanks to Monique Fontaine-Slijpen of Paris and Amsterdam for nominating this most formidable champion of justice, equality, and diversity for women from all walks of life everywhere in the world.