Seyran Ates in the prayer room at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque in Berlin Image Credit: NYT

Seyran Ates recalls the searing pain of a bullet tearing through her neck. She remembers wavering on the brink of death and telling God that she had to rejoin the living. A 21-year-old law student at the time, working at a women’s centre in West Berlin, she was nowhere near finished with the world.

“‘I want to go back,’ I told God,” Ates, now a 55-year-old lawyer and women’s rights activist who is also studying to become an imam, recalled of that afternoon. “I still have a mission.”

More than three decades later, that mission came to fruition a year ago when she stood before a congregation of Muslim men and women kneeling side by side as they recited prayers in the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque — the first Muslim house of worship in Germany where women, many with dark ponytails and long curls uncovered — are recognised as imams. Any Muslim is welcome to join.

“We want to send a signal to political Islam,” Ates, wearing a long, white tunic trimmed with gold, told a packed room on the opening day, when journalists outnumbered worshippers. “We want to show that another Islam exists, that has nothing to do with terrorism.”

Over the past year, that something has grown into a congregation of 35 core members — many of them women. They help Ates organise weekly prayers, give tours to school groups and hold seminars on democracy, love and the concept of an open, tolerant interpretation of Islam and a forgiving God.

Three years after a wave of more than 1 million, mostly Muslim, migrants arrived in Germany seeking asylum, culture wars over religious identity and the possible threat posed by Islam have led to a rise in nationalist, populist movements. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel was nearly brought down recently over a dispute with the Bavarian sister of her conservative party, which sought to turn back refugees at the border.

The Bavarian conservatives of the Christian Social Union joined the far-right party Alternative for Germany in promoting a narrative that refugees pose a threat, after several highly publicised killings and sexual assaults in the country led to charges against Muslim migrants. The party ordered that crosses be displayed in all public buildings in the state, and Merkel’s new interior minister, Horst Seehofer — also a Bavarian — declared that “Islam is not a part of Germany.”

Against the backdrop of these debates, Ates sees the survival of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, as proof that Muslims living in Germany need and are open to an interpretation of Islam that reflects the values of the Western society in which they live.

She recently extended the lease on the room where the mosque is housed for two more years, defying those who foretold a swift demise for the project.

“A couple of days after we opened the mosque, a young man showed up and told us, ‘You won’t be here long. The Arabs will never allow it’,” she said. Instead, hundreds of people from across Germany, Europe and abroad have visited or attended services. Those most committed to its survival have made donations, some as much as €500 (about $580), Ates said, emphasising that the mosque receives no public funding.

“Even atheists come here and appreciate this place, as a spiritual place, a place of peace,” she said recently, standing barefoot on the pale carpet of the mosque. “I had hoped, but never dreamed, that so many atheists would be interested. That was a positive surprise.”

The criticism and rejection, in its fierceness and intensity, less so. Even before the mosque opened, her personal Facebook page and that of the mosque were flooded with derogatory messages and even some death threats. “May Allah put you on the right path, or destroy you,” someone writing under the name Xalo Bero said in one of the friendlier remarks.

Protection provided by the police and paid for by the city government, in place since she published the book “Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution” in 2009, was increased to a personal security detail after the heightened threats on her life.

Days after the mosque opened, Dar al-Ifta, an influential arm of the Egyptian Justice Ministry that issues religious verdicts denounced the mosque and declared that allowing men and women to pray alongside one another violated Islamic law. Turkish news outlets reported that the mosque was a terrorist organisation with links to the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for a coup attempt in 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Despite a video message in which Ates states that the “the Rushd-Goethe mosque has nothing to do with the Gulen movement,” the rumours have persisted. She blames them for the fact that few Turks have joined the congregants, although they make up the vast majority of the estimated 4.5 million Muslims living in Germany.

Despite the demands of running the mosque, she takes Arabic classes and continues to work as a lawyer. She considers achieving a degree in Islamic theology important to her recognition in the Muslim community. “I want to understand the words and know the meanings so no one can say, ‘She’s just a lawyer’,” she said.

Born in Istanbul to a Turkish mother and a Kurdish father, she emigrated with her parents to what was then West Berlin in the late 1960s, part of the first large wave of Muslim immigrants who came to fill the blue-collar jobs needed to rebuild the German economy after the Second World War. Ates was 6 when she and her four siblings moved into a one-room apartment with their parents.

As she learned German and excelled in school, Ates says, she came to understand that it was not the crowded living conditions that she found suffocating, but the realisation that because of her gender, she was not afforded the freedoms of her non-Muslim peers.

“I was a girl,” she wrote in 2007 in Zeit Online. “I embodied the family’s honour, and my hymen — for a long time I didn’t even know what that was — was more important to the whole family than my brain.”

At 17, she fled her home, graduated from high school and started studying law at the Free University of Berlin. To support herself, she worked as a counsellor in a women’s centre. In September 1984, she was speaking with a client when a man wearing a trench coat entered the centre, pulled out a pistol and fired three shots. One hit the client in the stomach, killing her; the other struck Ates.

She survived to see the suspect, a Turkish bricklayer, acquitted for lack of evidence, which enraged her. For years, she struggled with the psychological fallout of the attack. She returned to her faith, but was again alienated by Berlin’s traditional, conservative mosques, where women were forced to pray behind a curtain. She decided that if the faith community that she needed did not exist, she would create it.

It took years of planning, fundraising and looking for a suitable space. While she received support from like-minded liberal Muslims from Switzerland to the United States, the critics have remained.

What keeps her going is the encouragement, not only from social media postings but also from the visitors who go out of their way to find a place of worship that previously existed only in their dreams.

Meriam Yabir, an 18-year-old Muslim from Munich, had heard about the liberal mosque and sought it out while she was visiting Berlin. In a story similar to that of Ates’s, she said she grew up in a conservative household, but with her bright blue hair, pierced nose and miniskirt, she said she has struggled to find a congregation where she feels welcome.

“It is hard to find a mosque where I fit in, so I normally pray at home,” said Yabir, adding that she wished there were more liberal mosques. “Where I can be like this,” she said, gesturing to her clothes, “and still be a Muslim.”

While several hundred Muslims visit the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque each month, Ates said, like Yabir, many are just passing through. Ates said she would like to see her congregation grow among the city’s Muslims.

“There are still many who are afraid to come because the rumour that we are a terrorist organisation persists,” she said

Nevertheless, she said she believed that she would be able to live without 24-hour protection one day, although it might take 10 or 15 years. “The more liberal mosques exist in Germany and across Europe, the less there will be this fixation on one individual.”

“I’m very confident of it,” she said, adding, with a nod to the muscled officer on the other side of the room, “You’ll soon be out of a job,” she laughed.

–New York Times News Service