BBC, Nov. 28, 2002
By Clarisse Pereira
The seminars are part of a government programme for new arrivals, which since September has included a tailor-made course for religious leaders.
The Netherlands is the first country in Europe to demand immigrants take an integration course and 300 hours of Dutch language training.
The Islamic community is growing in the Netherlands, and now accounts for 6% of the population.
Most Muslim immigrants are from Morocco and Turkey who arrived as guest workers in the sixties and seventies.
An imam plays a central role in an immigrant community.
“They are not just like other individuals,” says Dr Faued Hussein, a Moroccan imam, who adds that the clerics have a duty towards their people that makes them a social, and sometimes even a political figure.
‘Living in the past’
The Turkish imams arriving in the Netherlands are usually government employees who have only taken a short language course in Turkey, says Yasar Ustuner.
“Knowing the basics of the Dutch language isn’t enough to become aware of what they will find in Holland,” he adds.
Although often the clerics are surprised at how their own people live in the Netherlands.
“My students usually find it astonishing how the Turkish in the Netherlands live… 30 years [in the past],” he added.
For Moroccan imams who are sent to the Netherlands through private organisations, there are other pressures.
“Taking the integration course won’t make you part of the society. My students are happy, enthusiastic, willing to learn, but they do feel isolated,” says Dr Hussein.
Giving advice to an expatriate community can be a hard task for an imam.
“In Turkey I would have three other people to do the same work I do on my own here in the Netherlands,” explains Orham Kaymak, one of the programme’s participants.
“There are so many rules in the Netherlands,” confesses the cleric.
Structure and values
A Muslim theologian was involved in planning the course for the new clerics, which tries to avoid issues of faith.
Instead, the focus has been the structure and values of Dutch society.
Prostitutes can become legal workers and pay taxes and euthanasia is legal.
“We wanted the imams to be informed as much as possible without confronting their religious beliefs,” says Halim El Madkouri of the Multicultural Institute in Utrecht, who helped organise the course.
But in such a progressive context, conflict between personal beliefs and social mores is quite common.
Recently Khalil El-Moumni, a preaching Moroccan Rotterdam imam caused a national controversy by recently calling homosexuality a contagious disease on national television.
“All kinds of religious leaders have conflicts with civility,” says Professor Wasif Shadid, from the University of Leiden.
Professor Shadid adds that such an integration course will not be able to stop comments such as that of Mr El-Moumni.
Whether Dutch society is ready or not for such a tolerance test might become a question to be asked in January 2003, when the first group of imams “graduate”.