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.
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.