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Europe Struggling to Train New Breed of Muslim Clerics

The New York Times, USA
Oct. 18, 2004
Elaine Sciolino
www.nytimes.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Tuesday October 19, 2004

T.-LEGER-DE-FOUGERET, France, Oct. 13 – On a wooded hillside in deepest rural Burgundy sits a modest 19th-century chateau with a daunting mission: the training of imams to minister to the Muslims of Europe.

Here, for $3,200 a year, about 150 French and foreign students study and live in a damp, dilapidated former corporate summer resort with a tiny library, few computers, no television and no cellphone reception.

The goal of the European Institute for Human Sciences, as the coeducational school is known, is an urgent one shared by political leaders and intelligence and law enforcement authorities across the Continent.

They believe that the growing Muslim population of Europe must stanch the migration of Muslim clerics who often are self-appointed, unfamiliar with the West, beholden to foreign interests and in the most extreme cases, full of hate and capable of terrorist acts. To that end, they say, a homegrown breed of imams must be created.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

“We are here to create modern imams who will respond to the needs of our Muslims in France and in Europe,” said Zuhair Mahmood, the Iraqi-born director of the school who trained as a nuclear scientist and helped found it 12 years ago. “We need more mosques for the faithful and that means more imams.”

The perceived threat is so great that a number of European governments closely monitor the activities and sermons of their Muslim clerics.

France has expelled more than dozen Muslim clerics for violations of human rights or public order since 2001, most recently Abdelkader Bouziane, an Algerian-born imam and father of 16 who asserts that the Koran permits men to beat unfaithful wives.

In Italy last November, the Interior Ministry expelled a Senegalese-born imam after he called for suicide bombings and declared a “blood pact” with Osama bin Laden.

On Friday, Britain decided to charge a militant Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, a former nightclub bouncer who has supported Osama bin Laden, with terrorism offenses, stalling an American effort to extradite him to the United States.

But creating an army of learned, law-abiding, Europeanized imams is not easy. State involvement in religion in the Arab world is commonplace, but in Europe a government role can be seen as a violation of privacy and human rights.

Spain’s interior minister, Jose Antonio Alonso, set off a firestorm of criticism in May when he proposed the creation of a mandatory registry of clerics and places of worship and the monitoring of sermons.

The Netherlands is experimenting tentatively with required government-financed programs to teach imams “courses of integration” about newer Dutch values, including a greater acceptance of euthanasia and drug use.

Under new regulations in Britain, Muslim imams and other “ministers of religion” wishing to enter Britain to work must show a basic command of English.

Islam does not require its prayer leaders to have a formal degree of learning in religion. An imam does not have to be an Islamic scholar but can be anyone that a community of believers appoints.

“In Italy,” said Omar Danilo Speranza, president of the Association of Italian Muslims, an umbrella group, “even a butcher can call himself an imam.”

Mr. Speranza said his organization will begin certifying imams it believes are competent, that is, those “who have a reading of the Koran that is more peaceful, more oriented towards love.”

But for many Muslim communities in Europe, personal and ethnic ties with their imam are often more important than an outside seal of approval.

“The idea of producing imams is still controversial,” said James P. Piscatori, an American who is a professor of Islamic politics at Oxford University. “On the one hand, you want your own imams because the imported ones are seen as conveyor belts for bad ideas. On the other hand, the communities say, ‘Who are you to tell us who our imam should be or how he should be trained?’ ”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to creating the profession here in Europe is money: it is hard to make a living as an imam.

“An imam is not an official position; it’s poorly paid and there’s no security,” said Olivier Roy, the French scholar on Islam. “Why should a bright young French or British boy spend five years studying Islam only to find that there’s no real job, that the community just wants someone to lead the prayers and conduct weddings and funerals?”

Indeed, among the graduates of the institute in Burgundy are would-be teachers and counselors, but very few imams. Many students come only for the two-year Arabic-language program. Last year, only one graduate became a bona fide imam with a job in a mosque.

“I did business-marketing at home and that’s all about how you sell your product and my product is Islam,” said Fahimul Anam, a 31-year-old Briton born in Bangladesh who dreams of work in education management. “I don’t necessarily feel I have to become an imam to do that.”

Complicating matters is that the French government regards the Union of Islamic Organizations, the movement that runs the Burgundy school, as well as branches in Wales and in a suburb of Paris, as potentially dangerous.

The organization derives its inspiration from the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, emphasizes personal purification and grass-roots proselytizing and aims to influence all aspects of a Muslim’s life. Mr. Mahmood, the director, made headlines eight years ago when he won a lawsuit requiring the local high school in the nearby town of Chateau-Chinon to allow his two daughters to cover their hair in class.

Last March, 100 followers of the far right-wing National Front party staged a demonstration in the town demanding that the Burgundy school be closed, calling it a hotbed of extremism that was producing Europe’s “future political-religious agitators.”

In west London, the Muslim College, financed by a Libyan foundation connected to the government, similarly turns out students who have studied Arabic and Islamic studies but few imams.

“If the authorities would pay them, they’d all become imams,” said Zaki Badawi, its Egyptian director. “They find temptation elsewhere.”

Rivalries within Muslim communities have made it more difficult to forge a common approach to imams.

Since its founding in 1998, the Islamic University of Rotterdam claims to have trained about 20 practicing imams, according to Gokcekus Ertogrul, the university’s secretary general.

But in recent years, according to some scholars, the university has increasingly been financed and come under the influence of an Islamic movement in Turkey, and has been criticized for losing its Dutch character.

“Much of what they say about their students is not true,” said Johan Hendrik Meuleman, a fellow at Oxford University’s Center for Islamic Studies who was once a volunteer lecturer at the university. “Volunteers like me didn’t accept the takeover from Turkey.”

Mr. Ertogrul fiercely denies the charges.

In 2001, Mr. Meuleman helped create the Islamic University of Europe outside of Rotterdam, intended to train Muslim chaplains for hospitals, prisons and the military and perhaps a small number of imams.

Using municipal financing, Mr. Meuleman already has given Dutch language training and a course in Dutch culture to a group of imams living and working in The Hague.

Another problem in training imams inside Europe is deciding who is qualified to do it. Dalil Boubakeur, the director of the main mosque of Paris, and president of a French nationwide Islamic council sanctioned by the state, is proud of his fledgling imam-training school.

“We are forming a cadre of imams who speak French and can relate to the young Muslims of France,” Mr. Boubakeur said.

But both the mosque and the school are financed by the Algerian government, and that makes them suspect in the minds of some experts.

“It is not a real school,” said Mr. Roy, perhaps France’s most respected scholar of Islam. “It is just a tool of Boubakeur’s power.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Boubakeur criticized the school in Burgundy because it teaches all its courses in Arabic, not French, and he has branded its parent organization “fundamentalist.”

Among the imams who have done their studies in Europe, there are different assessments about how the programs have worked.

Vicente Motta al-Faro, 29, a Spanish convert to Islam and the sole graduate of the Burgundy school last year, could not find a job as an imam and is about to start a job teaching Islamic culture at a center in Valencia. Becoming an imam, he said, “depends on which Muslim community has money, which few have.”

Chedli Meskini, by contrast, a 38-year-old Tunisian-born French citizen who completed a four-year course at the school in 1997, was luckier. He landed a full-time job at a mosque in Le Havre, where he preaches in both French and Arabic.

“These days, imams are in hot demand,” he said. “And to find an Arabic and French-speaking imam, well, I don’t want to say it like this, but they need people like me.”

Mr. Meskini’s salary: $8.90 an hour, less than France’s minimum wage.

Ariane Bernard contributed reporting from Paris for this article and Jason Horowitz from Rome.

Read the New York Times online

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