Seyran Ateş, a lawyer and feminist activist, speaks with Conatus News about law, faith, feminism, and integrating migrants in Western societies.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To begin, what was your background in faith and feminism? Insofar as I know, you are of Kurdish descent.
Seyran Ateş: My mother is Turkish. My father is Kurdish. He died in 2014. My family background is Sunni. I was 6 when I came to Berlin, so I grew up there. Faith or religion was not a primary or daily issue.
My parents used to leave everybody alone with their religious beliefs. They were liberal on this point. I always believed in God. I was never an activist or something like that. I had the chance to see that Islam is a pluralist religion.
Turkey was at this time much more open, modern and plural when it came to religion. The pressure on the people was perhaps because there was no democracy, but never because of religion when I was growing up.
For that reason, faith was never something that I had to run away from or something public. It was interior and individual. Even as a child, I believed in a merciful God full of love. That is the background of my childhood.
Jacobsen: You studied criminal and family law at the University of Berlin.
Ateş: I started studying law in 1983 at the age of 20. I worked parallel to my studies as a social worker in a centre for women. We helped women who were victims of domestic violence and other [forms of abuse].
We taught them to read and write in German, and helped them with their daily life. This is what I did when I was 20. At the age of 21, in the third semester of my study, I was shot there by a man of Turkish origin.
The woman, who was one of our clients, was there that day. She was sitting close. I was translating. She died when he shot the two of us. That experience was bad, but important for my life. Those people are willing to kill women because [the women] are fighting for their rights.
I stopped studying because of my health situation. I was unable to use my left arm. I finished my studies in 1997 and then started my office as a lawyer.
Jacobsen: That ties into your work as a feminist working for equal rights for women and girls, and in particular Muslim women and girls – also work in civil rights.
Ateş: I started identifying as a feminist at the age of 15. I lived in a conservative and traditional family. To see gender apartheid that early, for that reason, maybe [the reason] I became a feminist.
Jacobsen: A violent Islamic reactionary attacked another woman and yourself. Does this reflect the experience of other Muslim feminists and other women Muslim civil rights activists?
Ateş: When it comes to violence against women, I would say it a little different. We have violence against women in every culture and religion, but we have to look at each religion individually.
Especially and unfortunately, in the Islamic countries and especially here in Europe in the Muslim communities, you can find 10 or 20 percent higher rates of violence against women. When you find violence, sometimes, it is much harder to talk about the origin of it, living here.
There is a timetable difference between the societies. That is what I worked out, from more than 30 years’ experience as a feminist.
Jacobsen: You have been critical of an immigrant Muslim society within Germany that reflects an even more conservative view than its counterpart in Turkey. You also wrote a book called Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution. On those two points of contact, I note a non-conservative orientation within the faith from you. What are your areas of critique of the former organisation and propositions for a sexual revolution in the latter example?
Ateş: My critique is not only against the immigrant Muslim society; it is a critique of Muslim culture all over the world. When it comes to the migrants, you can see they are living in Western and modern countries, but they do not want to integrate themselves into the modern values and lifestyles of these nations.
They are coming from Turkey or these other countries and not developing. The migrants are used to building parallel societies, where they are not willing to integrate themselves into the wider community.
On the other side, the country treats them like guests or like foreigners who should one day go back to their home country. That schism is one point that we have to talk about when it comes to problems of integration.
But [Germany expecting immigrants to return home] should not be an excuse for [Muslim immigrants] not accepting gender equality or democracy. So, my critiques against the Muslim societies are that they do not accept that sexuality is an important point, and that we have to talk and debate and discuss this issue.
The answer is that sexuality is such an important thing for the Muslim communities. That they are singing about it the whole day, but it is forbidden to do?
It is recommended in every field. Every time men and women come together, they think that they will have sex together. It is an overlap.
Jacobsen: You went into hiding in 2008 based on threats against you. What were some of the threats? What was a pivotal moment in that process of hiding?
Ateş: I got the death threats in 2006 and 2009, and also now after opening the mosque. It was not only in 2008 because you said in 2008. I got many death threats because of that. I decided not to work anymore in this field. I stopped for three or four years and then started as a lawyer for a bit in 2012.
Jacobsen: Then you started the Ibn Rushd Goethe Moschee Berlin. What was the inspiration for the title and the orientation of the mosque?
Ateş: Ibn Rushd was a man of enlightenment and a bridge builder between orient and occident. As well, Goethe was the first European who had a different view about Islam compared to others like Voltaire and other contemporary writers who mostly explain Islam as a sick religion [Laughing].
Ateş: It was based on the sexually overactive Prophet. It explained Islam as more like a sect rather than a religion. Goethe was not satisfied with this picture of Islam. Also, he read lots of books from poets. He was extremely interested in the harmony and poetry of Islam, the language and the poetry.
For this reason, I decided one name from the Occident and one name from the Orient. You could ask why I as a feminist do not take a woman’s name. But as a feminist, I can note that some men have done some great things for humans, like Ibn Rushd and Goethe, [who acted] as bridge makers.
Ibn Rushd is one of the most important reformers of Islam. I love his books, reform ideas, and how he explains us, the Quran, and Islam.
Jacobsen: This is the first liberal mosque in Germany.
Ateş: It is the first open for the public, yes. There are other groups, liberal Muslims and Muslim forums, working in the same style – coming together in the same manner. But there is no other place called mosque or liberal mosque.
Jacobsen: The Egyptian Fatwa Council has condemned this at Al Azhar University in Egypt, which is a major university.
Ateş: Not only Egypt but Turkey and Iran also, the Iranian centre from Humboldt, which, as I say, it was a fatwa. We never get it as a paper [Laughing].
We do not get any papers. I am not shocked. We were not shocked. They were so fast. They never wrote a fatwa against the Islamic State or against the terrorists who kill people in the name of Islam.
It is interesting. It was, for me, again, proof that we have to fight against these so-called authorities in Islamic theology, who call themselves the biggest and most important university in the Islamic world.
They did nothing. It has nothing to do with theology. It was political, personal.
Jacobsen: If you take most faiths at a glance and look at the leaders, and if you look at the leaders, most tend to be men. Why is this?
Ateş: It is the patriarchal structure all over the world. It was the same with violence against women and with the religions. Women are always fighting for more rights, not only in society but also in religions and institutions that work wherever.
We always have to fight and say, “We have the same value as humans.” It is the same game. The hardline leaders of religion used to be always men. In most languages, “God” is explained as a man.
Jacobsen: Now, looking forward to the future, what are some projects that you have coming down the pike? What are you hoping to do with them?
Ateş: I have big dreams and visions [Laughing].
One of my dreams is to have a liberal mosque in every European capital and a more prominent place for our mosque here in Berlin, and to be much more connected to liberal Muslims all over the world – and try to be accepted as a part of Muslim society and Islam.
I also have the dream and the wish that Western countries — and especially Left-wing people — [would stop] confusing me when they discuss the issues of Islam, e.g. the headscarf and how Muslim men treat women. They are incredibly tolerant when it comes to Muslims, but they are never as tolerant of the men in their societies. They would never accept so much violence and pressure on women as they accept in Muslim cultures and communities.
It is so sad that it comes from the Left, as I come from the Left and am a feminist. To discuss all of these issues with Left-wing people who call them the good guys makes me tired somehow. The point is that we have to check what is a practice against human rights, what is acceptable, and accepted by our constitutions and rights.
There should be no difference between culture and religion, to call something against women’s rights and forbid it. There should not be a cultural bonus.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Seyran.