BERLIN (RNS) The Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque opened its doors less than two weeks ago. But it’s already fielding death threats and heaps of hate mail from Muslims and others in Germany and abroad.
"Of course, we're scared," said the mosque's co-founder, Islamic scholar Abdel-Hakim Ourghi. "But we won't allow ourselves to give up. We live in the West and cannot be any other way."
Named after the Arab scholar Ibn Rushd and the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the mosque opened in a modest space on the third floor of a Protestant church in Berlin's central Moabit district on June 16. It soon garnered international headlines for permitting men and women to worship together in the same space instead of segregating them in line with Islamic tradition.
Muslims from all walks of life are welcome to worship at the mosque, which practices a "historically critical understanding" of the Quran, said Ourghi, by which he means it is critical of historical practices such as those separating the sexes.
Burqas and niqabs are banned.
Women aren't required to wear a headscarf.
Members of the LGBT community are encouraged to attend.
Both male and female imams lead Friday prayers, at times preaching in tandem.
This departure from traditional norms has some Muslim communities reeling. State-funded religious organizations from Egypt and Turkey have already called for the mosque to cease its "experimental" interpretation of Islam.
German politicians, meanwhile, have rushed to the defense of the mosque, making it a symbolic flashpoint in long-running debates about Islam in the country.
"This is now primarily a political signal, especially in Germany, where the danger of political Salafism has become evident," said Mathias Rohe, director of the Erlangen Centre for Islam and Law in Europe at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg. Salafism is an ultraconservative branch or movement within Sunni Islam.
Germany has long struggled with integrating Muslims, who comprise more than 5 percent of the country’s population. Since 2015, the refugee crisis has brought more than 1 million refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa into the country.
In the past, German politicians have criticized some Islamic organizations for promoting more conservative interpretations of Islam they believe hamper integration efforts.
The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, known locally as DITIB, for example, came under fire earlier this year amid accusations that its federation of some 900 mosques in Germany spied for the Turkish state and used its mosques to indoctrinate Muslims to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's brand of Islam.
DITIB is funded by the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, a state religious oversight authority in Turkey.
“How can we ensure that an Islam develops that respects the German Constitution and does not depend on Mr. Erdogan? There is still a lot to discuss here," Cem Özdemir, co-chair of Germany's Green Party, told RNS in April at the height of the scandal.
The new mosque is posing a different kind of challenge for Germany.
The Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate voiced its disapproval of Berlin's new liberal mosque just days after its first Friday prayer and accused the mosque and its imams of affiliating with the movement headed by exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The Turkish government claims Gulen, who lives in Saylorsburg, Pa., was behind last year’s failed coup attempt.
Meanwhile, Egypt's Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, a state-run Islamic institution that issues religious edicts, also released a statement that condemned the mosque's egalitarian prayers. The legal department of Egypt's Al-Azhar University even issued a fatwa on the mosque for what it calls practices incompatible with Islam.
German politicians quickly sought to tamp down the religious strife.
"It cannot be ruled out that such statements have the potential to threaten social harmony within German society," German broadcaster Deutsche Welle quoted German Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate as saying in reference to comments from Ankara.
With some 4 million Muslims living in Germany, according to the Pew Research Center, Islamic scholar Rohe views an ongoing debate to resolve qualms between traditional Islamic beliefs and Western ideals as a "good thing."
Ourghi, the mosque’s co-founder, isn't surprised at the reaction from more conservative sects of the Muslim community in Germany and elsewhere. His liberal concept of Islam isn't new in Germany, but his mosque is the first of its kind in Berlin.
"We try to give people a sense of freedom," Ourghi said. "We challenge male domination and control and are now competing with the conservative forces purely by offering a very modern interpretation of Islam."
Ourghi is hoping to open a mosque with a similar concept in the southern German city of Freiburg.
That progressive worship style attracted Berliner Lindita Ljikovic, 45, to Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. As a liberal Muslim woman who doesn't wear a hijab, she often felt discriminated against at other mosques around town.
"They are all men's clubs," she said of Berlin's many mosques, all of which separate worshippers by gender. "Their rules are antiquated and contradict the inclusive interpretation of Islam that I follow."
(Austin Davis writes for the ARA Network)