"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?

Mohammad Shafiqur Rehman couldn't agree more. The imam of the glittering new Taibah mosque in southeastern Amsterdam can explain the fine points of Sharia law in sonorous Urdu and quote the Qur'an at length in classical Arabic. His office is lined with Islamic literature. Now 42, he spent 12 years studying the Qur'an, Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and Islamic law at Al-Jamiatul Ashrafia, one of the leading Islamic institutes in his native India. "If you don't do all that, my experience says, the imam will be a joke," he said.

Rehman, whose Barelvi school of Sufi Islam is widespread in South Asia and in Suriname, dismisses any idea of a "European Islam." The Dutch shouldn't waste their time trying to come up with something new, he thinks. "The government should organize a university for Muslims, run by Muslims and the professors would all be Muslims," he suggested. "They could invite very good people from India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Morocco to do all the training for many, many years." This view is well-meant and widely held among imams in the Netherlands, but it would only reinforce their isolation. Rehman, for example, speaks only a little Dutch after 12 years of living here.

A social worker fluent in Dutch and English as well as his native Turkish, CMO chairman Tonca is open to pragmatic solutions. He wants better-educated imams and welcomes government help in teaching them secular subjects. In the longer term, though, he also thinks Muslims should develop a parallel education system to be sure they can teach the religion. "If you want to be an imam who has memorized the Qur'an, you have to start at a very early age," he said. "We must have our own institute where we can educate our own imams from 10 years old until they get their university degrees. It is something that will take many years."

Tonca bristles at official efforts to modify Islam to suit Dutch society. "The government cannot say 'your belief is not good and must be changed' and 'imams must preach that you can be homosexual,'" he argued. "It is a sin to be homosexual in Islam and you cannot change that. But a Muslim preacher can't say you must kill homosexuals." He insists this is not just a Muslim view--Rocco Buttiglione, a conservative Italian Catholic politician, was rejected for a top European Union post last year for saying gay sex was a sin but not a crime. "Across Europe, many people think like Mr. Buttiglione," he said. "Look at Spain - millions of people marched in protest against homosexual marriage there. I believe that, on these issues, Muslims and Christians have the same values."

While the government continues to discuss further options with universities and Muslim groups, the Free University's Center for Islamic Studies plans to go ahead in September with its original course remodelled as training for Muslim chaplains rather than imams. It will start with about 25 students. It has hired four Muslim lecturers - two Moroccans, a Turk and an Egyptian - and fit their courses into the faculty's Religious Studies program. "In the European credit system, you need 180 points for a three-year B.A.," Vroom explained. "The Muslims will have 90 points in Islamic theology, 30 points for Arabic lessons and 60 points for required classes in Western philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, secularism and sociology."

Tonca said he knew the new lecturers at the Free University and could imagine working with them as a stop-gap measure. But he remained wary for the longer term. "What the government is doing is very dangerous," he said. "It is changing Islam to make it into a modern western Islam in western Europe. It is not the job of the government to interfere in these things."

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