BERLIN — As attendees filed out of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque — tucked away in a room on the third floor of a Protestant church in Berlin’s Moabit district — two women whispered furiously at the foot of the stairs.
It was the mosque’s opening day, a Friday in June, and Turkish-German women’s rights activist Seyran Ateş, one of the mosque’s founders, has just delivered the inaugural sermon.
To Elham Manea, the Yemeni-Swiss political science professor who led that morning’s prayers, the mosque — which bans burqas, welcomes homosexuals and allows men and women to pray in a mixed congregation — reflects the social reality “that men and women are equal.” The message “is love, for this religion and for our society,” she said, speaking in rapid-fire Arabic, waving her hands in front of her bright green robe.
Somaya al-Thaar, a 37-year-old Yemeni-German, raised her eyebrows under her hijab. “I’m not against women being imams,” she said. “This is Germany. Do what you want. But they don’t have anything substantive.”
The mosque “is just for show,” she added, scrolling through her Facebook feed, where her post about the woman-led prayers had already generated 700 comments, many with laughing or shocked emojis. Most dismiss the mosque as a Potemkin village of liberalism for the European media.
The hushed discussion at the foot of the stairs is part of a passionate debate among Germany’s Muslims sparked by the unveiling of the country’s self-proclaimed “first liberal mosque.” The opening captured the attention of Western journalists, who heavily outnumbered actual worshippers on opening day, snacking on pretzels in the middle of Ramadan as they listen to an “Islamic hymn,” performed in English.
Among Berlin’s Muslim population, it has raised controversial questions about the proper role of Islam in European society and to what degree it can or should be liberalized. Within a few weeks of the mosque’s opening, Ateş received so many death threats that the police put her under 24-hour protection.
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A controversial topic across most of Europe, the debate on Islam’s place in the West is especially fraught in Germany, which has taken in more than 1 million refugees and asylum seekers from Muslim-majority countries since 2015. Their ability to integrate in German society is emerging as a key issue in the country’s upcoming election in September.
For those on the liberal side of the Muslim divide, the mosque offers a useful counter-point to far-right politicians’ portrayal of Islam as intolerant and prone to violent extremism.
Islamic authorities in both Egypt and Turkey have strongly condemned the gender desegregation at Ateş’ mosque — a position shared by many Muslims and newly arrived refugees in Berlin — but a small number of German Muslims have embraced it.
Arwa al-Khutabi, a Muslim woman from Yemen, said she hopes liberal Islam will gain traction and loosen the hold of more conservative, hard-line religious centers by providing social services, especially among the newly arrived refugees.
“Most of the mosques here are Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi,” said al-Khutabi, 46, who moved to Germany in 2005 to complete a Ph.D. in history at the Free University of Berlin and has since become a citizen. Most people don’t attend them, but refugees will go if the mosques give them help. She attended the opening sermons at Ateş’ mosque to show her support, she said.
The danger is that most mainstream mosques also promote fundamentalist teachings, which can create parallel societies and discourage integration, she cautioned. “If Muslims want to integrate, they have to liberalize,” she said.
Unless liberal mosques like Ateş’ can match the kind of social support offered by more mainstream, more conservative mosques, they won’t be able to compete, she said. “This mosque is tiny. It’s just a symbol. There is no Gulf monarch helping the liberals.”
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Wahhabi mosques are a source of extremist ideology, agreed Ali Taouil, the 48-year-old leader of a Shiite mosque in Neukölln, a district known for its high concentration of immigrants. Taouil moved to Germany from Lebanon in 1990 and became a citizen 10 years later.
But although hard-line mosques “brainwash youth with extremist ideas,” Taouil said he has no qualms sitting with them for iftar, the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan. Another cause of youth radicalization is alienation, he said, and a sense of exclusion from German society for being Muslims. That’s why he believes in engaging mosques across the sectarian and political spectrum. “The problems outside Germany should be left outside Germany. Let’s be brothers here,” he said. “Our goal is to be together.”
The founder of the liberal mosque, however, went too far, he said. She “wants to bring a new Islam that’s far from all our Islams. It’s wrong. It’s not about tradition. It’s fiqh [jurisprudence]. It’s theology.”
Taouil agreed on the need for a debate on how to reform Islam, but he stressed that religious scholars with decades of authority should be the ones to initiate change. Ateş does not have the authority, he said, for the sudden, radical departure from the religion’s core principles she preaches at Ibn Rushd-Goethe.
“We can’t just choose whatever rules we want,” he said, comparing the situation with walking down a Berlin street and respecting red and green traffic lights. “Freedom is not without limits. Religion must have rules, just like the street needs lights.”
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Tucked away in an old, graffiti-covered building a few blocks from Ateş’ mosque, Ahmad al-Hammoud manages refugee cases at Dar al-Hikma, or Haus der Weisheit, a cultural center and mosque that also acts as a help center for refugees.
Al-Hammoud, a 59-year-old Palestinian-German who moved to Berlin in the late 1970s, said he and many other immigrants who’ve lived in Germany for decades still feel like foreigners. His children are engineers who speak German better than Arabic, he said, but his family still feels ostracized.
“[Germans] say that integration just means respecting the law, but as Muslims, they will not accept us unless we leave part of our religion,” al-Hammoud said. “For example, homosexuality. They want us to accept it. I cannot.”
Most Germans don’t understand that Islam is necessarily a social religion, not a purely personal one, al-Hammoud said.
“They want Muslims to just pray and nothing else. They want to separate religion from society. They think wanting to live by Sharia means terrorism. No!” al-Hammoud said. “Islam influences everything. It teaches a way to live.”
Muslims living in Germany will have to learn to privatize religion to some extent, he conceded, out of respect for German law and values. All they can do is “live as much as we can in accordance with Islam, given the reality that we are in Europe,” he said.
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For the bulk of Berlin’s newly arrived Syrian refugees, the debate is moot. While many won’t attend the liberal mosque because they are skeptical of its tradition-bending practices, a greater number are not regularly attending any mosque at all, said Samer Serawan, a 38-year-old Syrian who arrived in 2015.
That’s not because they’ve lost their faith or become liberal, Serawan said, but because they’re busy learning German, working or looking for housing.
“Identity is very important, but now is not the time for refugees to think about it,” said Serawan, who leads alternative tours of Berlin from a refugee’s perspective. “I lost everything. I’m only thinking about how to stand up again.”
There’s a difference between dropping conservative social norms, which many refugees do upon arrival in Germany, and losing the basics of your faith, he said. “In the Arab world, we are controlled by traditions and customs. When you come here, the law replaces all that.”
Taouil, the leader of the Shiite mosque, feels much the same way. The idea of freedom functioning best within a strong legal framework was something he learned in Germany, he said. “Some of the Syrians have a wrong view of democracy. They think it means, ‘I can do anything I want.’ That’s a mistake. Without law, there is no democracy,” he said.
Respect for the law is what enables people of different morals, religiously based or not, to coexist. “My neighbors are gay, for example, and in Islamic jurisprudence, that’s not right. It’s a sin,” Taouil said. “But I have no problem living next to them.”
There may be tension between Islamic and liberal German values, he said, but in Germany, people with different values can live equally under the law, without forcing each other to change. “That’s the point of democracy,” he said.