Tuesday, September 5, 2017


Seyran Ateş
One of my heroes – I don’t have that many – is a woman named Seyran Ateş.  That’s Ateş with a cedilla under the s, meaning the s is pronounced like sh.  She was born in Istanbul to a Kurdish father and a Turkish mother but brought to Germany at the age of six, where she grew up with a sense of kinship to all three groups.

I’ll get into her personal story in a minute, but first let me look at her as a case study in the best of the modern world. Where animosity reigns between Kurds and Turks, and with more than enough cultural and political hostility between Germany and Turkey to contend with, Ateş rides across the top of it all, refusing all attempts to make her fit into one of the either/or boxes. Instead, she insists she is both/and. She also illustrates the beauty of modern Germany as a land of opportunity. She was a practicing lawyer, for a time, and remains a feminist and a social activist. If you want to be be an admirer, you have to get in at the end of a pretty long line.

So much for the positive side. The reason the word hero comes to mind is that she has had to contend with some pretty ugly opposition from conservative circles, starting with her birth family. At 17 she ran away from home and found her way to a shelter for battered women. Her feminist struggle is very personal. A few years later, now living at a women’s center, a Turkish thug broke in, shot and killed one of her colleagues and shot her in the throat. The bullet hit an artery and she nearly bled to death.

Undeterred, the attack only firmed up her resolve to fight for the rights of women. Germany named her woman of the year in 2005 for her work in Muslim communities.

Today she is a single mother with a daughter. In 2007 she was representing a woman in a divorce case when the woman’s husband attacked both his own wife and Seyran as well in a courtroom. It came as a shock to Seyran to realize that none of the onlookers came to their defense, and this led her, for the sake of her daughter, to give up her law practice. It had become, she decided, simply too risky.

Some of that energy has gone into her several books. They include:

·      Große Reise ins Feuer (The great trip into the fire) 2003 (Paperback 2006)
·      Der Islam braucht eine sexuelle Revolution: Eine Streitschrift (Islam needs a sexual revolution: a polemic (no date available)
·      Der Multi-kulti Irrtum (The Multicultural Error) 2011
·      Wahlheimat: Warum ich Deutschland lieben möchte (Chosen Home: Why I would like to love Germany) 2013
·      Selam, Frau Imamin: Wie ich in Berlin eine liberale Moschee gründete (Greetings, Madam Imam: How I founded a liberal mosque in Berlin) 2017

For whatever reason, probably because people don’t fear being left penniless in their old age and can put their energies into all manner of endeavors besides raising children, as a nation prospers its birthrate tends to go down, a phenomenon which Germany and Japan illustrate in spades. Germany realized this early on and started accepting workers from countries where they couldn't find work.

Turkey was one of the main suppliers, and thus began the influx of a religious cultural minority and the start of the radical Islam problem plaguing Germany today. Workers came far less from cities that shared a modern culture than from Anatolia, from less developed areas suffering from high unemployment and medieval patriarchal values. To exacerbate the disparity, German immigration policy makers early on assumed the workers would return to Turkey eventually, so in many cases they didn’t even bother to teach them German, much less integrate them in other ways into the mainstream culture. Well-intentioned educators decided the focus should be on teaching them not German, but Turkish, so that they would not be disadvantaged upon their return to the homeland.

But many Turks didn’t go home. Many became caught between their new country of residence, which they resented for not really letting them in, and their homeland, which they had left for good reason. And their kids born in Germany did what kids everywhere do. They played with other kids, learned the language and quickly began to see how restricted their home lives were. Some fathers even tried to keep their daughters from going to school at all. Girls were not allowed out of the house without a male escort, and the lifestyles they could see in their neighbors' homes and on television held a fascination too hard to resist. Culture clash was inevitable, and as conservative parents saw their home ways under threat many found themselves drawn more and more to radical Islam.

Fast forward to 2017.  In the recent Turkish election, only about half the voters living in Turkey were in favor of Erdogan's "reforms" granting him near dictatorial powers. But the 1.5 million Turkish residents of Germany voted 63% in favor.  Some are making the point that the Turks of Germany, where the death penalty is outlawed, helped impose it on their Turkish countrymen, who didn't want it.

Consider that from a democratic perspective. In the new Turkey, the president can override a judge, throw a journalist in jail at will, and impose the death penalty. German Turks live in a land where (as in the rest of Europe) these things are strictly outlawed. Nonetheless, they were a force for imposing those practices on the citizens of their land of origin.

I mention this only to illustrate that modern democracies operate in a larger ideological environment where modernity still struggles against old patriarchal ways. It's not just terrorists we have to contend with. At times, our biggest battles have to be fought with ordinary, otherwise sometimes decent, folk, with the power to make life miserable with their retrograde ways.

Seyran Ateş has said repeatedly that it’s not ISIS or Al-Qaeda who are making her life miserable; they have other fish to fry. It’s the conservative Muslim population of Germany that makes it impossible for her to move around without a bodyguard.

You frequently hear complaints that the Muslim community is too cowardly, that it doesn’t speak out enough against Islamism and terror in its religious community. Most people grant that the vast majority of Muslims are no more violent that the vast majority of Christians and Jews – but what is to be done about the violent strain of conservative ideas in the Muslim world?

In America we have the profoundly, cruelly, stupid policy proposed by the Trump administration to keep people out from Muslim countries, as if that were a solution to Islamic terror, keeping in mind that this policy keeps out some of the very Muslims who make up the majority of the victims of Islamic terror – other Muslims - all the while ignoring the major source of it, which is home-grown.

Responding to this charge – that Muslims aren’t doing enough – Ateş set about addressing the problem by opening her own mosque. And by actually becoming an imam herself to see it through.

In Alt-Moabit Street, just a seven-minute walk north of the presidential palace Bellevue, in Berlin, she and her supporters found a Protestant Church, St. Johannes, willing to provide them with space to get their mosque established. It opened for Friday prayers last June 16.  It carries the name the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque – after the medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Rushd and the number one German cultural icon, Johann Wolfgang Goethe – two men known for their warm embrace of the culture of their counterparts. Welcome, Ateş declares, is extended to Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Sufis all. Men and women pray side by side. Gays and lesbians, come right in. Muslims who were not able to find a spiritual home in other mosques, she says, should find one here. Head coverings if you like, or come in without. Just don’t cover your face. We won’t have any of that.

Egypt issued a fatwa, of course. Islam is noted for not having any common agreement over oversight authority. Reminds you of the Southern Baptists, once noted for self-rule for each individual congregation, now becoming super authoritarian. They are even playing with the notion of excommunication.

Islamic self-rule notwithstanding, the Turkish religious affairs agency Diyanet was quick to issue a statement:

(The mosque's practices) do not align with Islam's fundamental resources, principles of worship, methodology or experience of more than 14 centuries, and are experiments aimed at nothing more than depraving and ruining religion. We are convinced that all fellow believers will keep their distance from such provocations…”

To which a German foreign ministry spokesman responded:

I want to be very clear in rejecting all comments that clearly intend to deprive people in Germany of their right to freely exercise their religion and to limit the right to free expression of opinion.  

Within Germany, which can’t help itself and insists religious groups have leaders the government can talk to, there is DITIB, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs. They “oversee” Germany’s 900 mosques (that's the figure as of 2016). They were out ahead of Ateş in getting Muslims to speak out against Islamic terrorists. They held a peace rally back in 2004 attended by some 20,000 people, including German politicians.  But Ateş is a bit much for DITIB. They’re keeping their distance and holding back, even refusing to answer questions posed by Die Zeit Online.

It’s not a one-woman show.  The Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque is being guided by a group of seven, three men and four women, including at least one self-described “secular Muslim.” That’s the point, says Ateş. She envisions the mosque as a broad tent.

And the problems are streaming in. Some like the kerfluffle over head scarfs are the usual small stuff. The main problem seems to be the theological issue of whether a woman has the right to give directions to a man. Whether LGBT people can be allowed, whether men and women can ever be allowed to pray together.

For my tastes, these very criticisms of Seyran Ateş's feminist efforts are what makes her so appealing. Also appealing is her skill in sharing a stage or a table in a coffee shop with folks who don't agree with her. She seems to have developed a personal friendship with Hamad Abdel-Samad and Henryk M. Broder, for example, two of Germany's most outspoken Islam critics. 

Check out this marvelous video of them showing up at the Ibn-Rushd-Goethe mosque to provide moral support to their friend Seyran. They come with cameras rolling. The irony of having a Jew (Broder) celebrating the opening of a mosque inside a church doesn't go unnoticed, by the way.

But then, just to keep things real, if your German is up to it - I cannot find an English translation - have a listen to the diatribe of Yasin al-Hanafi, who gives koranic chapter and verse to explain that men are superior to women and that women can "logically" never take leadership positions.
 the fascist woman Seyran Ateş, or as I intend to call her from now on "Satan Ateş"...  such a woman cannot logically be a leader..."
Frankly, I make it no secret that I'd just as soon throw organized religion out entirely. But there is something absolutely irresistible about watching believers and atheists having coffee and establishing lasting friendships. And about finding people who when faced with an either/or decision (Islam or enlightenment values, for example) find a way to insist on both/and.

Modern Germany is at the center of a struggle over how to define Islam in the modern world. If it's to be more than a retrograde medieval force, it cannot go on making every woman subject to the will of any man. What Ateş is demonstrating is that there is a place for mosques in Germany - and anywhere else in the modern world - and that if you want to build one, you can expect the support of Christians, Jews, atheists and others united by the values of the modern state as grounded in a federal constitution such as Germany's Grundgesetz.

What must not be missed is the fact that making this a reality still requires heroic efforts. Planners of this meeting between Ateş, Abdel-Samad and Henryk Broder decided they needed at least a dozen members of Berlin's finest to assure the security of its participants, for example.

It will be a while yet, apparently, before ordinary people can do this kind of thing without fear. In the meantime, we have heroes to help us get started.

a partial list of sources: 


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