'Society's Self-Defense'

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

BY: Tom Heneghan


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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.

The Dutch were forewarned about the problems they would face. In December 2003, a government commission concluded it would take many years to set up a proper imam training course in the Netherlands. After van Gogh's murder, though, the government was in a hurry. It turned to the Free University because its links to the Dutch Reformed Church meant it already had a theology faculty that could, hopefully, take a new Islamic branch under its wings quickly.

"The state universities can offer Islamic Studies but not Islamic theology, so the Muslims would have to do an extra 2-3 years for their imam training," said Professor Vroom, who set up the new Islamic course. "But Christian universities have an integrated curriculum, which is what the Muslims need." In addition, the Free University already had courses in Christianity and Judaism, social sciences, history, rhetoric, and Arabic that would be required for a three-year bachelor's degree.

Shortly after the Free University got its grant, the Contact Group for Muslims and Government (CMO), the main Muslim group here, said that would not be good enough. "You can have a university degree in theology but not be an imam," said Ayhan Tonca, the Turkish-born chairman of the CMO. "It's also not possible to be an imam after 2-3 years of academic education. It will take at least 10 years." Dutch Muslims come from Turkey, Morocco, Suriname, Pakistan, and other Islamic countries, and each community has its own requirements for an imam. "You have to learn how to preach in a specific mosque. You must be accepted by the community," Tonca said. "You couldn't say to the Catholic Church--I have here a priest I've educated and you must give him a job."

What's the next step?

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