'Society's Self-Defense'

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

Continued from page 1

The larger European dilemma

The Dutch case is symptomatic of the dilemma European countries face. Although it is now the second-largest religion across much of the continent, the authorities mostly ignored Islam until extremists began invoking the faith to justify terror attacks on European soil in Spain, London, and with Van Gogh's murder, Holland. Scrambling to make up for lost time, Europe now wants its universities to turn out imams preaching a vaguely defined "European Islam." But the full imam training in Muslim countries--about 10 years of study, including memorizing large parts of the Qur'an--is far too long for a typical European curriculum. And because of the separation of church and state, most European universities cannot teach any courses in preaching or adjust their teaching to the different variants of Islam in each country.

To add to the confusion, there are, strictly speaking, no minimum training requirements for an imam. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Qur'an and mosque rituals can get up and lead Friday prayers. An educated imam is preferred, both because of his superior preaching skills and his ability to interpret Islamic law and teach the religion. But many of the makeshift mosques run by poor immigrant workers in Europe have no funds to pay for a trained imam, so they make do with volunteers to lead prayers. This baffles European officials used to thinking in the neat categories of the Christian clergy. "With Catholics, it's easy--it's the same all over the world. Protestants are usually organized nationally," Belgian Islam expert René Husson explained to a conference on imam training in Brussels in June. "But it's hard to define what training is needed to become an imam."


The confusion has led to several setbacks in Europe. In France, a plan to have imams split their time between Qur'an schools at selected French mosques and the Sorbonne has gotten bogged down in the planning stage. Two German universities have begun Islamic studies programs which can educate teachers, but not imams. Belgium and Switzerland are still studying their options. Britain has about 25 Islamic institutes of higher education, but only the Muslim College in London is officially accredited by the state. However, almost none of its students want to take up the poorly paid job of imam. So many Muslim prayer leaders in Europe are still badly educated and work for free or for a pittance.

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