“Seeking European Imams Desperately” : An Assessment of the Ongoing National and EU Initiatives

The function of imam is often considered the most effective entry point to organise Muslim communities, as Prof. Welmoet Boender, from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, points out in a recent article in the journal Religions. In Europe, imams are often considered a potential bridge builders between Muslim communities and secular-majority societies… if they possess the proper skills to do so. According to Prof. Boender, it means not only the command of the Islamic scriptural sources, legal-ethical traditions and ritual guidance – which provides them with “epistemic authority” –, but also familiarity with social structures, legal frameworks, local customs and languages of European societies.

Several European countries have expressed concern over the leadership of foreign imams and funding of mosques from external sources, considering that this situation hinders integration, allow foreign countries to exercise influence over European Muslims or even propel extremism. Therefore, the training of imams to make them cognizant of the “local” European values, has been a recurrent debate in several European societies.

On 2 October 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a new law that includes several measures to combat “radical Islamism” and terrorism. These include strengthening control over foreign funding of mosques and ending the system of imams being sent from abroad (in the case of France, primarily from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria) in order to put an end to what he calls, “consular Islam”.[1]

Macron also called for the creation of a “charter of principles” defining an “Islam of France”, in order to ensure that Muslim religious leaders and organisations align with the core values of the French Republic – including secularism. The document was signed on January 2021, (after months of tense negotiations between Muslims’ representatives and French authorities), by five out of the eight federations within the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). The CFCM, which acts as the de facto representative of Muslims to the French government, still has to agree on setting up a National Council of Imams to train French imams.

On November 9 2020, in line with the existing debate in France, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for the creation of a European institute for the training of imams, to ensure that a “message of tolerance and openness can be conveyed at the European level, and that imams too can be trained in a way that takes this type of approach into consideration”. In this call, which followed the terrorist attacks in Paris (25 September and 16 October), Nice (29 October) and Vienna (2 November), Charles Michel also demanded that the EU crack down on foreign funding for “organisations that are committed to stirring up hatred, rejection and violent extremism”.

Some have shown skepticism towards Charles Michel’s proposal. For example, Rashad Ali, senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (London) specialised in de-radicalisation, said in an interview with Politico that “the approach of governments controlling religious discourse through imams is a tried and tested failure in Muslim-majority countries”. He added that it is one thing to break political ties to foreign states and another thing altogether to create European imams, or a brand of Islam which is neither “necessary” nor “religiously authentic”.

Previous European initiatives at local and national levels

Besides France, several European countries have implemented training programs for imams during the last two decades, with varying levels of success.

In Austria, the University of Vienna organised an international conference in 2011 to determine whether imam training could contribute to the integration of Muslims in Europe. Nowadays, the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGiÖ), which is the main organisation representing Muslims in the country, is running different institutions to train Islamic religious teachers. Following the 2020 Vienna attack, Austria has adopted an obligatory national registry of imams starting 2021 – so that political authorities are able to know who is preaching in which mosque at any given time. Austrian leaders have also called for the European Union to adopt a similar record. A ban on foreign financing of mosques is in place in the country since 2015.

In Germany, training programs for imams have existed for more than a decade. In 2020, the University of Osnabrück started a two-year course for imams with financial support from the German Ministry of Interior and the contribution of various Islamic organisations – although two of the country’s largest Islamic groups declined to participate due to concerns over potential state interference and because they have their own imam training programs. The course includes sermon instruction, Quran recitation, spiritual care, political training, social education and social work. The Interior Minister Horst Seehofer praised the university’s programme as a significant contribution towards preventing radicalization and promoting societal cohesion. However, Bülent Ucar, the director of the university’s Institute for Islamic Theology, stated that the training would not be enough and that the program’s graduates need to get positions in mosques as well. In addition, the 2020 Islam Conference in Germany – an annual meeting set up in 2006 to encourage dialogue between the government and representatives from the Muslim community – focused on imam training. The head of the Council of Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek, said in an interview with radio RBB that the expansion of programs to train German-speaking imams can help “immunise against extremism”.

The Netherlands has also been working over the past fifteen years on different types of education for Islamic leaders. The programme called “Professionalisation of Imams in the Netherlands (PIN)” supported by state ssubsidy was launched in 2018 by the Representative Council of Muslims in the Netherlands (CMO) and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam . Its goal is to better prepare imams and other religious personnel for the Dutch context in which they operate. The programme consists of Masterclasses and several modules, covering themes such as Western society and religion, Muslim youth and social identification, explaining the Quran in the Dutch context, history and culture of the Netherlands, interreligious dialogue, media training and Dutch language training. This initiative differs from former governmental integration programs as it is voluntary, only partly financed by the government, and its curriculum was created in cooperation with representatives of Muslim organisations and education experts with a Muslim background. According to an inner evaluation of the programme, the first participants – most of which had received their training abroad and were already fully-fledged professionals (employed or as volunteers in a mosque) – valued positively the possibility to get acquainted with various aspects of the Dutch society which would otherwise remain unknown or inaccessible to them. The media training – learning how media view Muslims – and lessons on the religious history of the Netherlands were also highly appreciated. Many of the participants expressed a desire for a follow-up and more extensive programme, which encouraged the initiators to continue the project – although due to COVID-19 restrictions this has not yet taken place.

Similarly, the first imam training course in Belgium started in 2019, launched by the University of Leuven with the cooperation of the Muslim Executive – the official body representing Muslim communities in the country – and the federal government. The course, given in Dutch and Arabic, consists of two years of university and four years of theological training, and upon completion the graduate imams receive a certification from the federal government. The training of imams was initially raised in the Parliamentary report of the committee that looked into the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Zaventem in March 2016, with the hope it would counter foreign Islamic influence and prevent the radicalisation of young Belgian Muslims.

Due to the varying degrees of involvement of Muslim communities in these programs, it seems unlikely that they will deliver tangible results. As Prof. Boender puts it, “without sufficient ownership from the internally highly diverse Muslim communities, the endeavor is expected to fail. […] It will take time and patience to build trust and shared ownership”.

By Ada Mullol

[1] See previous Euro-Islam articles on Macron’s plan to fight “Islamist separatism”: “President Macron announces his plan to fight ‘Islamist separatism‘”, “Fighting Separatism to build an ‘Enlightened Islam’: The controversial project of French President Emmanuel Macron“, “Made in France Imams and International Backlash to Macron’s bill on Islamic Separatism“.

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