Seyran Ates' long fight for women's rights in the Muslim world led her to open a tolerant mosque where non-veiled women could preach and pray alongside men. She has now been honored with the prestigious Urania Medal.
A lawyer, activist, author and now imam, Seyran Ates has long lent a critical voice to debates about migration, women's rights and religious freedom in Germany and beyond.
Ates co-founded the "liberal" Ibn Ruschd-Goethe Mosque on the third floor of St. John's Church near Berlin's Tiergarten in 2017, a holy space where women and men can pray and preach together, and where the Quran is interpreted through a contemporary lens. The mosque welcomes Muslims of all denominations, and sexual orientation.
The female imam, who was born in Istanbul in 1963 and has lived in Germany since 1969, has since become a polarizing figure who enjoys much community support, but also endures constant hate mail and death threats. She lives under permanent police guard.
Now Ates is being honored with the Urania Medal, in the year where the preeminent Berlin cultural and educational association is exploring the theme, "Identity - Who do I want to be?" The honor, awarded at a ceremony on the evening of November 26, seeks to "pay tribute to her commitment, especially for the city of Berlin."
For 130 years, Urania has been dedicated to facilitating dialogue between science and the public, with the association's headquarters in the west of Berlin remaining a major hub for diverse lectures, podium discussions, concerts and exhibitions. Its stellar list of notable speakers include Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Angela Merkel and Simon Rattle.
At this year's award ceremony, Ates was joined by Joachim Gauck, Germany's former President, and Ulrich Weigand, director of Urania Berlin. "With Syran Ates, Urania honors an important social justice warrior in this country," Weigand said, referring to the activist's mission to open a co-ed mosque in honor of the Arabic Islam scholar, physician and philosopher Ibn Ruschd (1126-1198), and the German poet and philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).
The mosque is open to all, with one exception. "No one will come to our mosque with a niqab or burqa," said Ates in 2017 an interview with Spiegel. She believes the full veil is a political statement and ultimately has little to do with religious freedom.
Ates herself is no stranger to making political statements. Her 2017 book, Selam, Frau Imamin (Selam, Mrs. Imam), was published in time for the opening of her liberal mosque, and strongly critiques fundamentalist tendencies in Islam. She argues that the majority of the imams have a troubled relationship with ideas of religious freedom, equality and homosexual rights.
These views were developed after Ates completed her law studies in Berlin at a counseling center for women from Turkey. While working at the center in 1984, a man rushed in and shot a woman she was working with — and also shot Ates in the neck. The woman did not survive. "After that, I thought, now I'm really going to fight," Ates told DW.
From 1997, Ates worked as a lawyer dealing with domestic violence and forced marriages. Under former Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), she was a member of the Islam Conference, and has consistently argued that dominant conservative religious leaders preach an Islam from the past in Germany; and that liberal Muslims have no place.
As Ates stated in her 2007 book Multi-Kulti-Irrtum (Multicultural Mistake), the problem relates back to the promotion by "multicultural fanatics" of conservative Muslim organizations that failed to support integration policies in Germany.
Following her book Der Islam braucht eine sexuelle Befreiung (Islam Needs a Sexual Liberation) from 2011, Ates weighed in on the Islamist attacks in Manchester and London in 2015. Demanding that Muslims "should do more against extremism in Islam," Ates implored the "silent majority of Muslims must finally take responsibility and oppose something."
Having completed her training to become an imam, Ates is finally able to put in practice her liberal interpretation of Islam. "For a long time, I only dreamed that liberal Muslims would come together to live an Islam that explicitly affirms democracy and the equal rights of a community of believers," she wrote in the Die Zeit weekly in 2018.
"I've been waiting for the right mosque to be opened by people who are more loyal to the Quran than I was, and somehow it was like waiting for Godot so I finally decided to realize my own vision," she wrote.
By so doing, Ates has emerged as a "champion of modern Islam," Fabian Wittreck, a professor at the Religious and Political Religion Cluster of the University of Münster, told DW.
But her outspoken views on Islam have inevitably come at a price. "I can't just leave my house and go shopping," Ates told DW in 2018. "If it wasn't for police protection I wouldn't be able to do my work at all. Without police protection you can't even voice your opinion, not even in Germany."
She stressed that both men and women are hostile towards her. "It's about patriarchy," she said. "They don't want any renewal in Islam. They won't accept any contemporary reading of the Quran. They want to prevent the equality of men and women."
Part of the criticism has come from the conservative Turkish government, which accused Ates and the Ibn Ruschd-Goethe Mosque of being a terrorist organization that collaborated with the Gülen movement — seen by President Erdogan as the initiator of the Turkish military coup in 2016.
But this will not stop Ates from pursuing her goal of allowing "more and more women to stand up and live free and self-determined lives," as she told DW. Awards like the Urania Medal — among many others, including the 2019 University of Oslo Human Rights Award — will help her to also continue to stand tall.