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New Liberal Mosque Led By A Woman Opens In Berlin


There's an unusual mosque in Berlin where women preach and lead Friday prayers for worshippers of both sexes. The Turkish-born founder of the mosque says her goal is to create a safe place for progressive Muslims to worship. But as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin, some German-Muslim scholars are criticizing the effort and worry it will backfire.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: You can barely hear the young woman who is nervously leading Muslim prayers on a recent Friday for a half-dozen male and female congregants. It's probably a case of stage fright, given that she's being watched by a roomful of journalists and other observers who also are here in the new mosque.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Arabic).

NELSON: The young woman recites the holy verses in Arabic and drops to her knees, disappearing beneath her long black headscarf.

SEYRAN ATES: (Speaking German).

NELSON: The mosque's founder, Seyran Ates, who doesn't wear a headscarf, explains that contrary to what some critics are saying, women who cover their hair are welcome here. And she wants journalists to report that. But the congregant she is talking to was annoyed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She tells Ates, worship is an intensely personal experience and not a media spectacle.

ATES: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Ates agrees and pledges to keep journalists out of future services. She notes that removing her mosque from the spotlight might help increase attendance. Yet, Ates, who is under German police protection 24/7 because of constant death threats, doesn't stay out of the limelight for long. On July 28, she held a news conference with an openly gay Muslim cleric in the same Lutheran Church where her mosque is located.

ATES: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Ates tells NPR, her point with this mosque and the media attention is to give a voice to moderate Muslims in Germany and a safe space to practice their religion. She says only large conservative Muslim organizations determine how Islam is practiced in Germany. Ates adds she never planned on opening a mosque, isn't trained as a cleric and is new to delivering sermons, which she does in German.

But the 54-year-old's efforts get little praise from many female Muslim scholars and feminists. One critic is Berlin native Riem Speilhaus, who chairs the Islamic Studies Department at Gottingen University. She dismisses Ates as a, quote, "one-woman show," who prefers exclusivity and fails to work with other Muslim leaders or the minorities she claims to represent, such as gay Muslims.

RIEM SPIELHAUS: She has now become a spokesperson for a movement that she is not even part of.

NELSON: The professor accuses Ates of fueling anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany. Spielhaus says this narrative of the good, progressive Muslim versus the bad, traditional Muslim threatens to undo the gains Muslim women have made here, including leading large co-ed congregations, running women's-only mosques and even writing khutbahs, or sermons.

SPIELHAUS: You have women that were struggling since 20, 30 years for, you know, a larger say in their own communities in the political sphere for Muslim women. This so-called, taboo-breaking first imam, she doesn't connect with all the women that could stand actually behind her.

NELSON: But Ates shows no signs of letting up. She recently told The Guardian that she plans to open another mosque in the U.K. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Soraya Nelson
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