More than 1,000 moderate clerics have been dispatched to European countries by Turkey, the only Muslim candidate member of the EU, in a drive to promote modern and peaceful interpretations of Islam.
Some 700 imams have already been sent to Germany, and there are plans to send many more across Europe. None have so far been sent to Britain.
“Our mission is to explain Islam as a source of peace and friendship and certainly not as a tool for violence,” said Ali Bardakoglu, who heads Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs, or diyanet.
“There are 70,000 imams in Turkey. One of our biggest priorities now is to educate imams, teach them foreign languages, to equip them to go abroad.” Mr Bardakoglu said the campaign aimed to prevent extremism and aid integration of the estimated 4 million ethnic Turks in the EU.
The move follows last month’s deportation of a Berlin-based Turkish imam who allegedly exhorted his followers to look kindly on suicide bombers and incited hatred against Americans and Jews.
France – whose Muslim community of 5 million is the EU’s largest – offered inducements to imams to undergo university education in an effort to build a more inclusive, “western” form of Islam.
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Professor Bardakoglu acknowledged that firebrand clerics, with little formal religious education, posed a problem for Muslim communities. Some, he said, fostered intolerant fundamentalism.
With EU membership talks due to start later this year, Ankara’s government is keen that diaspora Turks distance themselves from radical Islam.