'People want to kill me': Founder of liberal Berlin mosque cites tradition of peace and mercy in Islam

Seyran Ateş is a German Muslim lawyer who runs the controversial liberal Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin where women can pray next to men and LGBTQ Muslims are welcomed.
A police car is parked in front of the St. Johannis Protestant church which houses the Ibn Rushd-Goethe-mosque in Berlin (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Seyran Ateş is a German Muslim lawyer who is challenging traditional ideas about how mosques run. She is behind the controversial Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin which rejects traditional gender roles and is open to both the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

Seyran grew up in Turkey until the age of 6, when her family moved to Germany.


"I had grown up in a family which was traditional. Men and women were separated in the mosque. And later on, I ran away from home because I decided I didn't want to live as conservatively as my family. I don't accept that people treat me different just because of my gender. It was something that I couldn't accept in my childhood and not as a young woman. So finally I said 'why do they separate us in the mosque? Why do women have to go in such an ugly hot or cold room and the men are in these huge wonderful nice rooms and hold the religion in their hands?' We are living in patriarchal systems in the world and our religion is the same."

'We need our own mosque'

When she was 21, she was a victim of an attack against a women's shelter where she worked. Afterwards, she started to think more about God and her religion. She decided that if there wasn't a space for people like her, she would have to create one.


"I was thinking more and more about my religion and realized I am a religious person but I don't have the same opportunities to practice my religion like male Muslims. At this time I realized that the organized Muslims, these people decide who is a Muslim and who is a good Muslim, and what Islam is.They talk like people like me are non-Muslims. But I am and I believe in Allah, I believe in God. And I have to make my own place with other people if there's no place for us. We liberal modern Muslims, we need our own mosque. We needed our own place where we could practice religion. To show how it could be if you just looked on the peaceful side and merciful side of God and of the religion."

'I don't believe that I have the right to kill people'

It has taken her eight years to get her mosque in the middle of Berlin up and running in the back of a Lutheran church. At the mosque women can pray next to men, women can lead prayers, and LGBTQ Muslims are welcomed. But it hasn't come without backlash.


"People want to kill me. Some want to shoot me, some want to kill me with a knife, others want to throw my head against a wall until I die. It's a very sad situation. But people who write in the name of Allah say I'm doing something against our religion, in the same message could threaten to kill me. So I ask them back and ask what is this kind of religion that you believe in, I don't believe that I have the right to kill people."

She is under 24 hour police protection because of the high volume of death threats that she receives. But she still remains devoted and believes that people should be entitled to their own ways of believing.

"I don't think all mosques need to be like that. Definitely not. Because I believe in pluralism, I believe in democracy and I believe in freedom of religion. I think it's absolutely right and normal to have lots of kinds of mosques. Because Islam is pluralism."

Special thanks to Craig Desson for this story.

***This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click LISTEN above to hear audio of the interview with Seyran Ates.***