Muslim Activist Critical of 'Multicultural Mistake' Women's rights lawyer Seyran Ates, a Turk who grew up in Berlin, blames the rise of political Islam in Europe in part on what she calls excessive tolerance of repressive traditions in minority cultures and a widespread resistance to integration.

Muslim Activist Critical of 'Multicultural Mistake'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you want to find a frontline between Islam and the West, you can find it in the cities of Western Europe. In recent decades, European cities have absorbed a flood of Muslim immigrants and their descendants. This week we're exploring their world through the eyes of European Muslim women. And today we'll meet one woman who says she faced death threats because of her support for Western values.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been speaking with her. And Sylvia, who is she?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, her name is Seyran Ates. She is an outspoken women's rights lawyer in Berlin. She's a German of Turkish origin who has been forced to abandon her legal practice because of threats from Islamist radicals.

INSKEEP: What don't they like?

POGGIOLI: Well, they don't like that she's a very independent woman who has embraced many Western values, particularly human rights. She's also not liked by traditionalists, those who believe in the patriarchal family. They see the Western lifestyle as very decadent and the woman, who is the symbol of family honor, is in their opinion the weak link, the one who's most vulnerable to being seduced by the West. So that fear of Western contamination has led to separate parallel enclaves in Germany that are often more conservative than their Turkish homeland is.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, it's not hard to find women, Muslim women, who support these traditional values, but we are going to hear the perspective of this one who believes differently. And where did she get that point of view?

POGGIOLI: Well, she grew up in a Turkish patriarchal family. She learned German very quickly and she wanted to be an active member of German society. So at 17, she ran away from home, and she sought refuge in a shelter for battered women. Coming from a family tradition where she says women have few rights, she found at first that even the smallest decision caused great anguish, even picking a movie listing in a magazine.

Ms. SEYRAN ATES (Women's Rights Activist): To open the magazine and looking for a movie what you want to see, these were really big problems for me in the first half of year. I need much - more than half the year to understand I can't open the magazine and look for a movie and say in this cinema I want to go.

POGGIOLI: Three years later, while she was living at a women's center, a band of Turkish youths broke in and started firing guns. Ates was shot in the throat. The woman next to her was killed. Ates vowed she would become a lawyer and fight for women's rights.

In 2005, Seyran Ates was named Germany's woman of the year for her work in defense of Muslim women in immigrant communities. While defending Muslim women for the last two decades, she's been insulted and threatened by her client's husbands and relatives. She was always able to brush it off, until last year.

Entering a Berlin courtroom with a client filing for divorce, the husband brutally assaulted the two women. Ates says that brazen incident in public convinced her she had to shut down her practice.

As a single mother, she says her life and that of her young daughter have priority. The danger does not come from Islam, says Ates, but from people who use religion for political goals.

Ms. ATES: It's not that I say the Islam has no right to exist and conservative Muslims don't have the right to exist. I mean, we have to look much more critical to some movements inside the Islam that try to infiltrate our democracy. They try to infiltrate every area in the society.

POGGIOLI: Ates says political Islam is getting stronger, and she blames its rise in Europe in great part on what she calls excessive tolerance both by the left and the right of repressive traditions of minority cultures and a widespread unwillingness to integrate immigrants into mainstream society.

The title of her recent book is "The Multicultural Mistake." And she blames supporters of multiculturalism for the poor status of Muslim women in Germany.

Ms. ATES: Because these people stopped us in the last 40 years to talk about the reality of Muslim woman. This is the reason why I shout and talk about the station of the women because they are not able to speak. They are not able to shout.

POGGIOLI: Forced marriages, she says, are locking up German-born Muslims in separate Islamic enclaves. When you have tens of thousands of women so isolated from German society that they're unable even to call an ambulance, Ates believes the third generation is lost.

Ms. ATES: We have in the third generation children who cannot speak very well German. They cannot speak very well their own language. They are not integrated in the culture. They even don't know how big is the city in which they live.

POGGIOLI: Domestic violence and even honor killings take place behind walls of silence. German society, says Ates, is also responsible for not doing enough to help Muslim women who dare to scale those walls and break free from their family ties.

At the few existing help centers, women suffering from depression have a two-year waiting period to see Turkish-speaking psychologists. As women break with family and tradition, they face solitude and alienation.

Ms. ATES: Western world can be very horrible for such a girl. She will come in a cultural shock when she come out of the traditional family and everybody say, you are free now, do what you want. And that can be a big identity conflict because she never learned to be free.

POGGIOLI: Emancipated Muslim women here are a minority, says Ates. Most women remain silent. They don't ask for divorce, she says, because they live in fear their husbands will kill them to protect the family honor. The status of Muslim women is the litmus test, Ates says, for integration of their communities into European societies.

But she believes the situation is getting worse in Germany, with more and more young Muslim girls as early as age 6 being kept away by their parents from sports and biology classes in school.

Ms. ATES: If we don't stop the political/religious movement, I'm sure we have much more Islamization in Germany in the next five and 10 years. If we are going to stop that movement and separate politics from religion, then we will have the chance for Islam to be compatible with democracy.

POGGIOLI: A year after leaving her practice, Ates is ready to take up cases of Muslim women again. This time, however, she'll work behind the scene, and she'll stay far away from the courtroom.

INSKEEP: Sylvia Paggioli, you've been telling us stories based in Germany the last couple of days. What happens when you begin talking with Muslim women in other countries in Europe?

POGGIOLI: Well, tomorrow you'll hear from Britain. And the major difference between Britain and Germany is a much higher level of education and much more widespread knowledge of English, the local language. And there's an important trend among many British Muslim women. They're forcefully asserting their Muslim identity over their British identity. They're breaking down barriers and they're moving into the realm of religion, which for centuries has been dominated by men.

INSKEEP: Okay. We'll be listening tomorrow. NPR's Sylvia Paggioli.

Thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.