Sehitlik's Retreat from Cosmopolitanism
By: Elisabeth Becker
July 19, 2017
The Sehitlik Mosque in Neukolln, Berlin is a place celebrated for its cosmopolitan vision. It is a mosque originally built to provide a space for religious practice and social engagement for Turkish guest workers who immigrated en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the past decade it has transformed into a “Berliner” mosque, led by elite youths attending to the religious, cultural, and social lives of the Turkish minority and beyond. Sehitlik gained recognition specifically through twice-daily mosque tours aimed at bringing Berlin’s greater populace into the mosque. In recent years it has attracted visitors from throughout Germany and abroad. The civic vision of this mosque has also entailed weekly lessons on Islam held on Wednesday evenings in German, deep engagement with local organizations, partnerships with other minority groups (e.g. the Salaam-Shalom Muslim Jewish partnership), and communication with police.
The success of the daily tours, in particular, has helped to facilitate more enterprising initiatives that demonstrate a cosmopolitan image of this Muslim community, one that builds unity between Islam and mainstream German society. Some initiatives, however, have been met with dissent among the first generation of Turkish immigrants. When paintings of amply-bosomed Tatar women came to decorate the walls in the first art installation to grace the newly finished “cultural building” beside the mosque, the first generation organized against it. When mosque leadership agreed to host a local gay rights organization to discuss homosexuality at the mosque, a handful of individuals in the first generation supposedly leaked this to the Turkish press, hoping for—and receiving—intervention from Ankara to thwart the event.
These two examples show the tensions that exist between generations and capital cities. Indeed, the first generation of Turkish immigrants is in many ways uneasily based in Berlin, and Germany more broadly. Many recount experiences of marginalization or discrimination, such as barriers to accessing central housing in Berlin or difficulty obtaining jobs because of their headscarves. They also maintain deep ties to Turkey; many are still Turkish citizens or spend summers there.
Institutions like Sehitlik have always been linked to both the German and Turkish states. Yet these contending linkages remain effectively managed—and masked over for the broader public—by youth leadership through ongoing negotiations with the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), which manages approximately 900 mosques in Germany.
In January 2017, however, celebrated mosque director Ender Cetin suddenly stepped down to focus on other pursuits. He remains an employee of DITIB but not the mosque. Ender’s departure has garnered public criticism of DITIB, which some have accused of being a “long arm of the Turkish state” according to journalists and academics. It is, after all, run by a branch of the Presidency of Religious Affairs in Ankara. On social media, a post by the Jugend-Bundesvorstand (Sehitlik’s youth group) argued that Ender has been forced to step down.
Shortly thereafter, after a decade of opening the mosque, the doors were shut without warning. Tours can no longer be booked. The website no longer has German translations. There are no more Wednesday evening sermons or lessons. Sehitlik’s leadership, long at the forefront of sociopolitical engagement, has not even commented on the recent terrorist attacks in London. They refused to join a march against terror organized by the city. This diverges from Sehitlik’s history of publicly condemning terror attacks and participating in solidarity marches. The annual Ramadan celebration with German politicians at Sehitlik, planned for June 9, was called off by DITIB. Following the completion of a solid white stone gate around the mosque, a new era at the Sehitlik Mosque has started.
This new era is located in a polarized political atmosphere. The mosque is now linked more to the Turkish state than the German one. It is a struggle that emerges out of soiled Turkish-German relations, as now President Erdogan increasingly amasses power and imprisons politicians, academics, civil servants, and journalists, including some with German citizenship. To make matters worse, in May 2017 the German parliament classified the murdering of over 1.5 million Armenians during Ottoman rule a genocide, inciting the fiercely nationalist Turkish government. Berlin has also reprimanded Ankara for supposedly sending imams to spy on Turkish mosque constituents in order to identify Gulen supporters.
Situations like that of Sehitlik raise many questions: How does a large minority populace respond to social stigma and fights for religious freedom? What are the contours of the gap between the legal and lived social realities: the former granting expansive rights, the latter limiting or even negating them? What are the relationships between mosque communities located in European capitals and their respective states.
In the case of Sehitlik, the larger struggle that led to the mosque's fall transcends generations, as well as the German state. It is not a tension between this Berlin mosque and Germany, but between this Berlin mosque and Turkey. It is a struggle between the micro and the macro and envisioning divergent communities. It is evidence of the ongoing strong pull of transnational ties, here institutionalized in the DITIB complex and a German state that has failed to institutionalize Islam on the national level. Over Ramadan fasts and tea, in conversations of shock and sadness, my interlocutors explain how the “multidimensional” mosque hailed for its deep engagement and schooling of mainstream society has entered a new era—an era in which it neither belongs to the first, second, or third generations, nor to Germany or to Berlin, but rather explicitly to the Turkish state.