Reconciling Islam with a progressive vision of gender and sexuality is a goal shared by female imam Seyran Ateş and Turkish-Norwegian filmmaker Nefise Özkal Lorentzen. Their previous documentaries include ManIslam: Islam and Masculinity. So it is only natural the two women joined forces to make Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution, and Islam, which had its world premiere at festival CPH:DOX and screens at Docs Against Gravity. Lorentzen places Ateş in front of the camera as the biographical subject. However, the film is less about her private life than it is a survey, through her eyes, of how her religion is responding to calls for greater diversity in the twenty-first century. Ateş, who identifies as bisexual, was born in Istanbul and now lives in Berlin. She founded the controversial Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, a place of shared worship for men and women, where LGBTQ people are welcome headscarves are not mandatory.
It takes a bold thinker to publish, as Ateş did, a book with the title Islam Needs A Sexual Revolution. It is not Islam, but patriarchy that she is against, she insists, as she argues that the Quran itself does not preclude her open and fluid interpretation of its teachings. In addition to being an imam, she works as a lawyer arguing to uphold the prohibition of the burqa and niqab in schools. She receives a high volume of death threats in her email inbox for her unconventional views, has a fatwa against her issued by Egypt, and has been under police protection for more than a decade. The vitriol from hardline Muslims only seems to have strengthened the unflappable imam in her resolve to be a vocal force for the transformation of Islam. She sees the hatred as confirmation that the sexualisation of and contempt for women is a grave problem in many current manifestations of the religion around the globe. Ateş points out, with bemusement, that many leftist, western feminists also oppose her stance, insofar as her legal arguments effectively block women who wear headscarves from working.
If anything, the film reinforces how irreducibly complex issues of identity, ideology, and power are in today’s world. Rather than attempting a journalistic guise of balanced objectivity in also giving voice to the already dominant, conservative side of the controversy over how Ateş has interpreted the Quran and Islam, Lorentzen shows us how the liberal imam has built her mosque up as a space that embraces modern life’s plurality and brings citizens together rather than divides them with judgment and condemnation for the way that they live their lives.
If anything, the film reinforces how irreducibly complex issues of identity, ideology, and power are in today’s world.
Actively seeking dialogue
Ateş and her mosque are positioned by the film as a positive alternative and solution to the lure of Islamic extremism, or «political Islam,» as she terms it. Archive footage shows the Madrid terror attack of March 2004, in which a series of coordinated, deadly bombings were carried out on commuter trains. Ateş attends a memorial service and declares a need for more Muslim representatives to be vocal in denouncing the radicalisation of a young, disaffected generation and to work for the better integration of migrants who desperately yearn for a newfound sense of community. Her nephew, who briefly became radicalised online following the death of his homophobic father before he came out as gay and joined her mosque, features prominently. As he tells his story, it underscores just how impressionable traumatised youth with unformed identities can be.
Lorentzen is admirably careful to emphasise that extremism is not a problem integral to Islam specifically. The terror attacks in Norway of July 2011 are also referenced, acknowledging the scourge of white supremacist terror that is also radicalising youth in droves online and the ambiguous role played by Christianity. In Oslo, Ateş meets with a female priest, who is also endeavouring to act as a progressive force within her faith, and who comments that the Church can be a powerful means for keeping people down, as much as it can be a pillar of support. These two female religious leaders share a view that the impact of religion depends greatly on how it is channeled through institutions and that buildings and traditions must be used to teach the opposite of hate. Ateş was herself shot in the neck by a Turkish nationalist and survived in 1984. No stranger to violent and even life-threatening opposition, she continues to seek dialogue with her critics actively. She attempts to visit and open a discussion with female imams at an all-women mosque in Beijing, who disapprove of her mixed congregations and uncovered head but is blocked by a man from China’s Ethnic Religious Affairs Administration, monitoring her movements.
Nor is Ateş shy about pointing out the hypocrisies of conservative religious adherents. She visits a brothel in Berlin to discuss the experiences of sex workers, who recount how clients sometimes cynically «marry» them before a paid session then «divorce» them straight after. Ateş is not on a quest to locate loopholes in Islam but to embrace an interpretation that gels both with our contemporary times and an inclusive vision of humanity that allows all who come to her mosque to belong. Or, as she puts it: «I’m a searcher. I’m looking for the magic in my religion.»