2016-06-30
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.

The larger European dilemma
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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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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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