Lending a voice: inclusivity and progressivism at Berlin’s Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque

On June 15, as Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, a voice rang through the community hall of a complex on Berlin’s Alt-Moabit Straße, calling members of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque to prayer. One thing set this voice apart from those of many other muezzins that day: it belonged to a woman.

Meghan Friedmann

A Guest Post For Omnified by Meghan Friedmann

On June 15, as Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, a voice rang through the community hall of a complex on Berlin’s Alt-Moabit Straße, calling members of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque to prayer. One thing set this voice apart from those of many other muezzins that day: it belonged to a woman.

The call to prayer, or adhan, came amid a celebration of the first anniversary of the mosque, which is housed on the top floor of a Protestant community center near Tiergarten.

When the adhan ended, a group of attendees – both Muslim and non-Muslim – trekked up several flights of stairs, hurried to take off their shoes at the small landing on the top floor, and walked into the mosque, where four rows of green and cream colored prayer rugs lined the front of the room. At the back, chairs were set up for non-worshipping visitors to sit and observe the ritual, which was led by a female imam.

Founded one year ago by Turkish-born lawyer and political activist Seyran Ateş, the mosque serves as an inclusive place of worship. Among the mosque’s many values is a focus on gender equality: Men and women pray side by side, and women take on roles in the community which many conservative mosques reserve for men.

In a rapidly changing Germany – and perhaps an even more rapidly changing Berlin – the project undertakes important conversations about inclusivity and integration inside and outside Islam. But who is paying attention?

Impressions from the community

The Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque has sparked curiosity among local Berliners. Its “birthday party” in June drew first-time visitors like Neslican Ulucan and Laura-Elif Yozgat, women who both have some affiliation with Islam.

Yozgat, a 17-year-old who comes from a Muslim background but does not practice Islam regularly, said she was excited to hear about a mosque with a female imam. Yozgat is optimistic: Such an inclusive project could become integrated into the Muslim community and change outsiders’ views of Islam, she said, adding that she will likely return to the mosque at some point in the future.

Ulucan, who grew up in the Alevi tradition but does not have a close relationship with Islam, said she, too, hopes the mosque will change community perspectives. But she expressed apprehension, explaining that some people have pre-formed opinions about Islam that are too rigid to change.

Debates about inclusivity and Islam

Ulucan added that the project takes on the vital task of demonstrating successful examples of integration, which are important for young people to see.

The mosque embodies inclusivity on a number of levels. Its members, a group of around 35 people that sees a fairly even split between men and women, include individuals of different sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, and branches of Islam, said Marlene Löhr the mosque’s press officer. Among its worshippers are those born in Muslim-majority countries like Morocco and Iran, as well as Muslim converts of German origin, Löhr added.

Originally from Hamburg, Löhr herself converted to Islam seven years ago. Before reading the Qur’an, she did not have the best impression of the religion, she said, but in its text she was surprised and pleased to see an emphasis on tolerance and peace. She realized it was possible to live as a Muslim in a progressive way and that many other Muslims shared her interpretation.

But Löhr spent three fruitless years searching for a community where she felt at home, often deterred by some mosques’ requirement that women pray in the basement, she said. She added that ultimately, she decided she could not be part of the traditional community in Germany, and observed Islam privately until she found out about Ateş’s project.

Löhr said she sees the mosque’s role in the community as twofold: first, to open up a space for people who do not feel welcome in other mosques; and second, to host debates and discussions about Islam and the various traditions with which it is associated.

According to Löhr, the climate in Berlin’s Muslim community is heated, with deep tensions between two sides: people who do not strictly practice Islam but are culturally Muslim – Löhr believes this group could very well represent the majority – and a small minority of fundamentalists whose voices are disproportionately loud. Löhr hopes that as a group of practicing, progressive Muslims, her community can facilitate conversations between Muslims of all beliefs and propel Berlin towards inclusivity.

Frequenters of the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque themselves have taken part in such dialogues. After a disagreement over how to conduct prayer – the mosque is home to both Shia and Sunni Muslims, whose prayers are of differing lengths – Löhr said that a group of members sat down and found a simple solution: since the Sunni Muslims were finishing prayers before the Shia Muslims, they would just slow down the rate at which they spoke.

The discussions sparked by the mosque have implications beyond the Muslim community as well. Berlin has long been a haven for people of many backgrounds and beliefs, celebrating freedom in many aspects of life.

If some Berliners see Islam as posing a threat to progressive values, the mosque defies expectation. Members practice Islam in a way that is not at odds with mainstream German culture, said Löhr. As people in Berlin navigate the challenging terrain of adjusting the status quo to accommodate new cultures, she said her community shows that you do not need to sacrifice fundamental rights, such as equality between the sexes, for freedom of religion.

Concerns over representation in Berlin’s Muslim community

When it comes to the mosque’s voice at the official level, Löhr said that politicians’ failure to listen to them has been one of the year’s major disappointments. She explained that for years, politicians had been telling liberal Muslims to organize, but now that they finally have, they’re receiving little attention.

Summits about integration, for example, give voice to extremely conservative – and often non-peaceful – Islamic organizations, said Löhr. Somehow, these are the groups receiving politicians’ attention while many peaceful Muslim associations, which run the gamut from liberal to conservative, are largely ignored, Löhr added.

Löhr cited Humboldt University’s Institute for Islamic Theology, established by Berlin’s senate and promoted by Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, as an example. The board of the institute will determine the curriculum and have power over hiring decisions, and three Muslim organizations will be represented.

According to Löhr, each of those associations – the Islamische Föderation Berlin (IFB), the Islamischen Gemeinschaft der schiitischen Gemeinden (IGS), and the Zentralrat der Muslime (ZMD) – are marked by ties to non-democratic governments, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and/or Islamist extremist groups.

While such organizations claim to represent Islam, in reality they represent just a sliver of Muslims in Germany, Löhr said. Of the country’s estimated 4.5 million Muslims, for example, just some 15 to 20 thousand are affiliated with the Zentralrat der Muslime, or the Central Council of Muslims.

That leaves progressive, moderate, and even conservative Muslims mute when it comes to shaping Berlin’s future religious leadership.

“It’s a scandal,” said Löhr in regards to the institute. “Berlin could have been the place where you create something that is unique in the world, you know, where you have all kinds of different branches of Islam come together.”

Despite the Berlin senate’s recent promise to vet board representatives in response to protests, Löhr said that the institute currently stands to become an agent for fundamentalist Islam. It remains to be seen whether the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque will be granted the debates its members and others so passionately want and whether Berlin can begin to mend the many divisions within and surrounding Islam.

Photos by Meghan Friedmann