I’m used to hatred and rejection. I’ve needed 24/7 police protection ever since my book, Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution, was published in 2009. My social media channels are regularly flooded with derogatory messages and death threats. “May Allah put you on the right path, or destroy you!” is one of the very few examples that can be repeated before the watershed.
Abuse was at its worse when I opened Germany’s first liberal mosque, the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque, in 2017. I wanted people to be able to worship in a place that advocates an interpretation of Islam which reflects the values of the Western society in which I live. I was Germany’s first female head and preacher of a mosque — it was a historic moment for the state and for me personally. The Ibn Rushd-Goethe is a holy place where women and men can pray and preach together, where the veiling of the whole face (Niqab) is forbidden and where the Koran is interpreted through a contemporary lens.
The reaction we got was strong.
A fatwa was issued by the Egyptian Fatwa Council. Turkey’s main religious authority, Diyanet (directly run by the presidency), denounced the mosque as “depraving and ruining religion”. It was an attempt to deprive Germany’s Muslim population, including four million people of Turkish origin, of the right to freely exercise their religion and freedom of expression.
During our opening ceremony, a Turkish news station attempted to stage footage of the Quran being dishonoured. Turkey’s secret services visited the mosque repeatedly; I was attacked directly from Ankara and our supporters challenged. Diyanet denounced us as terrorists and supporters of Fethullah Gülen, a preacher who is a sworn enemy of President Erdogan. This message suited the narrative being pushed by Erdogan’s party, AKP, directly to the Turkish community in Germany: that we are a politically motivated, inherently unIslamic movement.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I am simply trying to enable ordinary Muslims to follow their faith. Many are joining me; my mosque attracts several hundred visitors a month. I have given speeches to, and led talks for, liberal Muslims and defenders of freedom of speech across the world. Every day, I am inundated with requests for guidance from fellow travellers looking for the courage and support to follow their faith. And I am exploring sites in London and Vienna for more liberal mosques, to meet demand. We are on the cusp of something truly exciting.
And today, more than ever, we need to look at the future of Islam. In Vienna, in Nice, in Paris and also, with less public attention, in Dresden, the vivid horrors of Islamist terrorism are back. Yet again, we hear the familiar questioning and soul searching: could these attacks have been avoided?
Well my answer is simple: no. And we can expect more of the same for so long as the violent ideology that underpins this terror — political Islam or Islamism — remains. It is an ideology that I have campaigned against my whole life, to the detriment of my own personal security and liberties. And that in itself highlights the challenge.
Islamism is the political ideology that guides Isis, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Its aim is to achieve an Islamic state through political action or violent struggle. It is an ideology that segregates people based on sex, divides communities along religious lines and fuels hatred and suspicion of open discussion and debate on contemporary values.
That’s why what we are doing in my mosque — and beyond — is so important. Our movement has been consistently praised and used as a powerful counter-voice to Islamists across the country. Our growth is a testament to the bravery of ordinary Muslims wishing to follow their faith, and to the protection and support given to us by Germany. When Ankara threatened us — as it has threatened President Macron and France — the German Government proactively and very publicly intervened.
State support and intervention is so critical. President Macron has bravely attempted to lead a debate about the future of Islam and its integration into the West, highlighting the dangers of allowing Islamists to create a state within a state. This has been followed by intervention from the French state services who inspected 51 Islamist NGOs, recommending several be dissolved. In Vienna, the Austrian government raided several associations and societies suspected of belonging to and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. During the raids, the police reportedly found assets worth more than €25 million, stored in 130 bank accounts.
Only last week, Charles Michel, President of the EU Council, spoke of establishing a European institute to train imams in Europe to “fight the ideology of hatred”. A European delegation consisting of Macron, Merkel, Ursula Von der Leyen and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz have now consulted on new, tougher EU regulations in Paris. And, last week, Chancellor Kurz confirmed he will create a new offence for “political Islam”, so the Austrian state can “take action against those who are not terrorists themselves, but who create the breeding ground”. These are radical steps and shows a clear trajectory to combating Islamism. Which is why I have to ask: where is the UK?
Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood spent years attempting to insert themselves into UK politics and media. Instead of elevating liberal voices in Islam, we see regression. The UK has also overseen significant growth in the funding of religious and educational institutions by charities and entities from Qatar and Turkey. In December last year, President Erdogan opened an eco-mosque in Cambridge, addressed a rally of supporters of his Justice & Development Party in London, and met with two prominent Islamists in the UK with links to Hamas. These are the very same states who want to shut me down.
The EU must not interfere in religion
Younger Muslims in Germany and the UK — home to some 3 million muslims — are desperate to join the fight against Islamism but fearful of the consequences. I have been inundated with private messages of support since announcing my intention to found a liberal mosque in Britain, but these same people fear being targeted and persecuted for their beliefs if that support were made public.
That is surprising in a country like England, where these moderate religious voices need to be encouraged and supported. Unfortunately, unlike me, they cannot rely on 24/7 police protection — and the attacks across Europe will discourage many from speaking up. But the immediate steps being taken in France and Austria can give us courage. I want them to be met in equal force by progressive, liberal Muslim voices who are championed and supported by the state apparatus.
I struggled for years in Germany to get where I am now. I want to help recreate that success in the UK and allow liberal Muslim communities to flourish. That means giving British Muslims the education, religious materials and roadmap that successfully established and preserved the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque in Berlin. It means offering hope and courage to British Muslims in private — ensuring access to our global support community — while defending their right to religious freedom in public. And most important, it means challenging the very voices who want to restrict religious freedom.