'Society's Self-Defense'

Holland is in a hurry to train home-grown imams. So what's taking so long?

AMSTERDAM--Holland is in a hurry.

Ever since a Muslim extremist murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh last November, the Netherlands has been feverishly searching for more effective ways to fight Islamist radicalism. Tougher immigration controls have been introduced, citizenship requirements raised, and laws to restrict radical preachers drafted. Rita Verdonk, the minister for integration and immigration, has been in the headlines all year with new ideas to counter religious militancy. Her latest proposal is a three-year action program to boost "society's self-defense."

A main pillar of Verdonk's strategy is a plan for Dutch universities to train the imams who preach in the country's 436 mosques. The government has singled out imams as key influences on the young and is demanding that they must preach a moderate Islam in tune with traditionally liberal Dutch society. Nearly all imams now in the Netherlands have been "imported" from abroad, mostly from Morocco and Turkey, where most of the one million Muslims here come from. Many come only for a few years, speak no Dutch, and have little idea of life in Europe.


"They preach like they preached back home in the mountains," said Professor Henk Vroom of Amsterdam's Free University. "They tell the Muslims not to have contact with non-believers, and the people leave the mosque and see nothing but non-believers around them. What are they supposed to do?"

Worried that this traditionalist Islam could be a breeding ground for more radical views, parliament passed a law early this year shutting the door on any more "imported" imams beginning in 2008. Verdonk issued a call in late 2004 for universities to propose an imam training curriculum at short order. Only a few weeks later, she announced a 1.5 million euro grant to Amsterdam's Free University to start bachelor's and master's level courses in September.

The project hardly got started before Muslim organizations said Dutch universities could not train imams properly. Mosque boards said these graduates might not be considered qualified by their congregants. The university had to lower its sights and design a course for Muslim chaplains for hospitals and the military. Verdonk went back to the drawing board and came up with a proposal for a new course of study called "Islam and Modernity" that she hoped might eventually develop into a fully formed imam training program.

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