Interview: How France could better regulate the imams who preach on its soil

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Atlantico: From the time he was Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls wished for French imams to be trained in France. Would that be possible?

Haoues Seniguer: It seems to me that we must make a distinction between desirable and possible, what is feasible and impossible. Several of Manuel Valls’s predecessors have discussed training imams in France, but it’s difficult to accomplish under the constraints. Moreover, permanent structures must exist with a multidisciplinary education, notably in history and in Islamic studies available at recognized universities.

Atlantico: Does it not pose a geopolitical problem that certain foreign imams come to France concerning the question of internationalization of educating the forein imams?

Franck Frégosi: Take the example of Turkey. The Turkish state believes that where important communities are located, it can exercise its right to monitor and control religious speech. This allows them to follow the eventual political evolution, to avoid what they consider to be hostile commentary. In Turkey, the religious administration is allowed to exercise control over what officially occurs in the Turkish mosques.

Atlantico: What are the problems encountered by Muslims in the education of imams?

Frégosi: Among the most well known private institutions there is the European Institute of Social Sciences, which has a satellite campus in Paris, and the school at the Great Mosque of Paris. The number of years of study to become an imam in France depends on the structure of each private institute. In general, the training is between three and four years. From the beginning, religious institutes are mostly preoccupied with opening places of worship or mosques in France, the question of the education of imams came much slower and later, when the French government raised the issue. It seems difficult to design an educational system different from that in Islamic states who have a state religion, and who wish to form an official clergy. Concerning Muslims in foreign countries, such as Turkey and Algeria, some imams were trained in their countries in religious universities. As I explained before they are sent and sponsored by their home country.

Atlantico: The difficulty in training imams doesn’t have to do with the multiple interpretations of the Qur’an?

Frégosi: It primarily comes from the fact that there are several different Muslim populations in France: North Africans, Turks, etc. who have different cultures and therefore different interpretations. Each Islamic federation wants to maintain complete control in training its imams, and therefore it’s difficult to develop a uniform training. The problem of foreign imams living on French soil demonstrates that Islamic education in France is not adapted to those who live in France. We need a global response from Muslim countries to this education, including countries such as Morocco who fear radicalization. Morocco has established an increased politicization of Islam concerning the training of its imams. This allows them to have a more contextualized interpretation of the texts; this also allows the state to maintain control over what happens in its mosques. Because if the state finances religion, it’s normal that it would control them.

Atlantico: Should the French state finance the training of imams?

Seniguer: Retaking the reigns would mean nothing less than a revision of the 1905 law. This would not come without reviving and exacerbating distrust between everyone.

Frégosi: Legally, it’s not possible for the state to intervene in the financing of a religion, and therefore in the training of imams. On the other hand, the state could show its support in the training of imams who are in charge of civic duties and allow them to have an official status. Thus, the expenditures would be for the training only, not the remuneration of religious sectors.

Atlantico: What would be the other necessary conditions to create an Islam of France? Is that the role of an imam?

Frégosi: I have the tendency to say that an Islam of France already exists; it is in the day-to-day lives of all the Muslims of this country. But looking at it from a sociological reality, it must develop its roots in France through any educational and theological work. This allows Muslims to have their own intellectual and spiritual reference and ensures that they no long rely on just any person’s interpretation of Islam.

The imam has a role to play in this respect but most of the time he possesses a secondary role. He’s not just an employee of the mosque, it is he who runs it and who has the most influence. The imam has a role to play in the transmission of the fundamental elements [of Islam], he is an integral part of the successful integration of Islam, it’s why certain large mosques established instructional seminars to be able to educate imams about the work and to understand the practice of Islam in France.

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