Sherin Khankan on Islam

Sherin Khankan (°1974), Denmark’s first female imam and one of the leaders of the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen, was interviewed for Belgian television (May 29th, 2017).

The full interview can be watched here – definitely a MUST SEE:

Here are some transcripted excerpts from the interview:

Interviewer Bart Schols: Did you get some bad reactions on what you’re doing? Because every religion has a very traditional side sometimes, probably also in Denmark?

Sherin Khankan: Actually, I never focus on the bad reactions. I always focus on the support, and we have a lot of support from all over the world. Actually, recently we had a visitor, from one of the world’s largest mosques, the world’s third largest mosque – it’s the Grand Mosque in Indonesia –, and the grand imam he came and he blessed our mosque, and he prayed in our mosque, and he made a written document, saying that female imams are of course a possibility, and it’s a part of our Islamic tradition and theology… So, but of course, when you create change… When you change the structure, when you change the fundamentals, when you challenge the patriarchal structure, you challenge the power balance. And when you do that, people will get upset, it’s natural.

So we are prepared for opposition, but actually the worst opposition that we met so far was not from Muslims. The reactions from Muslims were quite moderate, but from the right wing parties, Islamophobes, Nazi-parties… we had very bad reactions.

Interviewer: More than from the inside?

Sherin Khankan: Yeah, I think it’s because… to Islamophobes progressive Muslims are a greater threat than Islamists are, because we are actually able to change the narrative on Islam in Europe.

Interviewer: Okay. You are traveling around the world with a message, if I may call it like that. What is the fight that you are fighting?

Sherin Khankan: First of all we want to give women the chance to disseminate the Islamic message. We want to create a place where women are equal to men. We want to challenge the patriarchal structure. We want to challenge the growing Islamophobia, and we wish to unite or unify all the great forces throughout the world who are fighting for women’s rights.

Interviewer: That’s in general, but if you, like in different countries, because you travel around the world, around Europe… you have different issues. There’s the headscarf, that’s a discussion about everywhere, also here in Belgium. What is your position on that?

Sherin Khankan: I do believe that, it’s stated very clearly in the Declaration of Human Rights, that any person has the right to practice his or her religion in the public sphere and in the private sphere. So if a person chooses to wear the headscarf of her own free will, it’s her choice and nobody should be able to touch that woman.

Interviewer: Also a police officer, for example?

Sherin Khankan: Of course, why not? A police officer, a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, anyone, because what’s important is not what you wear on your head. It’s what you have inside your head. So even if you ban the scarf, people will still have the same opinions inside. So it’s not a matter of the scarf, it’s a matter of realizing that we are living in a world and we have to accept pluralism as a factor, as a fundament for our societies. If not we are becoming oppressive. So I’m fighting for any woman’s right to wear the hijab and not to wear the hijab…

From a rational point of view, you would expect that Western extreme right-wing parties are delighted with the kind of Islam Sherin Khankan is advocating. After all, their message to people from other cultures has always been: “Adapt or go back to your country!” Exactly what culture people should adapt to or how that culture is defined is never quite clear, but anyways: here you have a kind of Islam that is perfectly compatible with the principles of a Western political, secularized culture, respecting the separation of Church and State. This separation goes both ways, of course. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it very clear:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Sherin Khankan defends an Islam that does not interfere with the fundamental rights in a modern, Western democracy, so what are some extreme right-wing parties making such a fuss about? Aren’t they defending their “own” Western culture and values? Apparently, we shouldn’t expect too much rationality from them. What happens is quite simple: extreme right-wing parties partly need an “enemy monster” to justify and manage their own existence. If the so-called monster that is Islam turns out not to be such a monster after all, their reason for existence is threatened. That’s why extreme right-wing parties always make reasonable Muslim voices “the exception”. Sometimes they also argue that those reasonable Muslim voices are to blame for the infiltration of Islamist extremists in Western society, as if they function as “hosts” for extremist “parasites”.

What extreme right-wing parties rarely notice, of course, is the result of research done by security services all over the world: when people feel very oppressed or frustrated, they can radicalize very quickly one way or the other (extreme right-wing parties, as advocates of the reasoning that “our own culture is under threat”, are also an example). So to suppress a religion like Islam and Muslims is a very bad idea. The British Security Service MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5) claims there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization. Indeed, as the research by MI5 reveals, the vast majority of extremists participating in terrorist attacks in the UK, are British nationals. They are not illegal immigrants and, far from having received a religious upbringing, most are religious novices.

Ah, well… Are we strong enough to create identities beyond the need for an enemy monster? What if “the Wicked Witch of the West” isn’t wicked after all? I can’t help but mention in this context a great book that deals with the recurring dynamic of the need for a monstrous enemy: The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things by Suzanne Ross. It is about the musical Wicked, the subversive and challenging prequel to the well-known story of The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, today we could ask the question: “What if the Wicked Witch of Islam isn’t wicked after all?” Maybe we remain anti-rational weaklings who need witches… Or maybe there’s hope, if we just listen to women like Sherin Khankan.



  1. Ra · May 31, 2017

    As always, your lack of familiarity with the Islamic tradition condemns another post of yours to well-meaning naivete, at best. For your information, the Islamic tradition has always allowed women to lead other women in prayer, hence “the grand imam he came and he blessed our mosque, and he prayed in our mosque, and he made a written document, saying that female imams are of course a possibility, and it’s a part of our Islamic tradition and theology.” Needless to say, if she were to lead a mixed congregation of women AND men, the Muslim reception would undoubtedly be different — violently different (


    • erik buys · June 1, 2017

      What do you mean, “For your information the Islamic tradition has always allowed women to lead other women in prayer”? Yes, that’s what Sherin Khankan says in the interview. I already had that information. Listen more carefully before jumping on issues.

      My “well-meaning naivete”? Oh, but I know about the problems of violent patriarchal structures and patriarchal violence in the Muslim world, also from personal contacts. And, fyi, I know about Islamic terrorism as well – as does the world. One of my best friends (the leader of a vocal ensemble I am part of) works at the airport in Brussels where we had the attack last year, and he was present. He nearly survived. And yes, I’ve been ambushed and robbed by young men with a Muslim background already twice here in Belgium. Didn’t crush my naivete, I’m sorry to say.

      The bad things get enough attention. I want to focus attention on good things as well.


      • Ra · June 1, 2017

        No, I think it is you who needs to “listen more carefully before jumping on issues.” You’re using the Sherin Khankan example “to focus attention on good things as well,” as you say, or, as she puts it, “to change the narrative on Islam in Europe.” But the Sherin Khankan example — of women leading other women in prayer (that is to say, and this is important, separate from men) — is not really progressive. Not at all. In fact, it’s as traditionalist as it gets. It reinforces the strict gender segregation already normative in the Islamic tradition. Gender segregation is still gender segregation even if it’s women who willingly do it, you know? I went to a boarding school where a female student would routinely lead other female students in prayer every Friday in the school’s prayer room while the boys like me would go out to pray with other men at the grand mosque in the city. And here’s the thing: nobody tried to pretend that it was even remotely progressive; nobody tried to pass it off as a challenge to counter the narrative or whatever. That’s exactly how it’s always been done, after all. My point is, her example doesn’t really challenge anything, least of all patriarchy, hence the mild Muslim reaction to it. So it is wildly disingenuous to use it to say, “Oh look, a female imam and Muslims are just fine with it.” Indeed, this post’s title alone merits my charge on your “well-meaning naivete,” through your attempt to tout “Sherin Khankan on Islam” as somehow emblematic of normative Islam as a whole (when it isn’t), or for that matter, progressive Islam in general (when it isn’t).


      • erik buys · June 6, 2017

        The WISE MAN has spoken :).

        The WISE man says: “Only a secular interpretation of feminism can be considered ‘progressive’ and emancipatory.” Sherin Khankan challenges this idea from a traditionalist Islamic point of view. Why would gender segregation be sexist in all circumstances and by definition? In sports for instance, many disciplines know gender segregation, protecting the interests of women in particular. Maybe you can mail Sherin Khankan to ask her why she thinks a “women only” area in spiritual life might be an emancipatory principle, while at the same time she wants to go “beyond gender” (“oh no, complexity, paradoxes – it’s bs, must be irrational!”). Again, listen carefully to what she says before jumping on issues. Of course, the secular, so-called enlightened one knows better than those naive religious persons (especially when they are women?).

        The wise MAN says: “Look at that poor, naive, masochistic Muslim woman, thinking that her version of Islam could be normative somehow, and thinking that traditionalist religious ideas could be ‘progressive’. How sad. I know better.”

        Yep, patriarchal and paternalistic tendencies sometimes come from corners where you least expect them. You’re a WISE MAN, Ra.


      • erik buys · June 22, 2017

        Are you willing to listen to religious women, wise man Ra?

        Then here’s another Muslim woman for you, Asma Afsaruddin, writing about jihad (

        There are other verses that explicitly state who cannot be fought against. For example, Quran 60:8 states:

        “God does not forbid you from being kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on you on account of your religion nor driven you from your homes; indeed God loves those who are equitable.”

        And Quran 8:61 obligates Muslims to embrace peacemaking:

        “If they incline to peace, you must incline to peace.”

        Both verses forbid Muslims from fighting people who display no hostility towards them and live peacefully in their midst — their religious affiliation has no bearing on this issue.

        Yes, but — militants and Islamophobes will protest fervently — these peaceful verses are all abrogated by Quran 9:5, which is why it is called the “sword verse”!

        On the contrary, this is not how it has been understood by the most influential commentators on the Quran. Al-Tabari, and after him the well-known pre-modern commentators al-Zamakhshari, al-Razi, al-Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir all maintained the position that Quran 9:5 did not abrogate other verses in the Quran advocating forgiveness and reconciliation. And they further asserted that the peacemaking commandment contained in Quran 8:61 was binding and valid for all time.

        It’s clear that ISIS and other militant groups today are not carrying out a military jihad as understood by mainstream scholars. Rather, in their deliberate targeting of civilians and indiscriminate use of violence they are carrying out hiraba, or terrorism. Those who describe the actions of these militant groups as jihad are part of the problem, not the solution.

        (Asma Afsaruddin is professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington and author of “Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought”)


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