09/07/2006, 00.00
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Training European imams is Islam's toughest challenge

by Samir Khalil Samir sj
Most imams in Europe are foreign-born and incapable of reconciling their own Islamic background with that of the West. When this is the case as in Great Britain some young Muslims can be tempted by terrorism. Here is the fourth article in a series by Fr Samir Khalil Samir.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The training situation is very bad in Europe.  It can be said that the problems of European Muslim communities are much worse than those suffered by Muslims in Islamic countries.

1. It's a fact: Imams have not adapted to European culture

The states of Europe would like Muslims born in Europe or their Islamic communities to have European imams.  Instead, the majority of Europe's imams (approximately 90%) is not of European culture or training: they are sent by Arab countries, Turkey, Iran or Pakistan, to work with immigrants and to Islamize them.

These imams, educated in the traditional way, are not able to offer a harmonious vision between Western culture, in which European Muslims are born, and the Muslim culture that they are supposed to have, maintain, or reacquire.  This creates many internal conflicts.  Some imams – as is evident in Great Britain – are thus able to win young men over to Islamist (i.e. radical fundamentalist) tendencies, and, at times, actual terrorists emerge from these recruits.  And how could an imam, ignorant of the culture of the European country in which he lives, help a young person to harmonize his religion with European culture?  The only thing that he can tell him is that European culture is anti-Muslim or, worse still, anti-religion.

On the other hand, European governments, though striving to organize the Islamic presence in their states, cannot fully do so because in Europe there is the principle of a strict distinction between politics and religion.  For this reason, every solution that European governments attempt is a temporary and by no way stable solution.

2. Lack of official representatives of Islam

The other problem is that there are no official representatives in Islam.  For this reason, each Islamic group, supported by this or that imam, battles with other groups to impose its ideological supremacy, as can be seen in Italy, but also in France and elsewhere.

It should be noted that behind each group there is an international Islamic organization or a Muslim state.  France is a case in point: Paris' big mosque answers to Algeria, which provides the funds to keep it functioning.  Then there are very traditionalistic groups which are financed by Morocco and Turkey, and groups financed by organizations close to the tendencies of the Muslim Brotherhood or Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, all the communities are subjugated to these organizations, veritable international lobby groups, whose funding depends on some of the most traditionalist Islamic groups.  It is also well known that Europe's mosques are spreading a kind of Islam which is more traditionalistic and backwards than the mosques of Islamic countries themselves.  I have personally met numerous women in Italy who have "converted" to more radical Islam, while back in their Muslim country they had been more open-minded.

To this must be added the problem of European imams who are converts to Islam.  Apart from some notable exceptions, these imams are the ones spreading an anti-Western Islam,  instead of an Islam which has integrated the best of European culture (as one could expect from them).  Perhaps to justify their own ways and choices, original Muslims are rarely attracted by such imams; they are, however, converting many Europeans and are making them even more closed than themselves!

The situation is dramatic because the states of Europe have no real authority over these groups; and, on the other hand, at the grassroots level, there is no commonly recognized authority to make reference to.  The conclusion is that Islam in Europe is out of control; it is at the mercy of this or that foreign fundamentalist preacher.

3. Are the creation of Muslim faculties of theology a solution?

In order to nurture an Islam which is harmonized with European culture, some countries would want to open theological faculties of Islamic studies.  But the problem is: who would teach in them?  Lay scholars or Muslims?  And of what tendency?  France has been thinking for years of creating an integrated faculty of Muslim theology at various universities (such as in Alsatia, Paris o Marseille), but has not been able to overcome inter-Muslim conflict, nor juridical problems pertaining to the separation of politics and religion.  The concordat which exists in certain cases with the Vatican is a model which cannot be reproduced with Islam which does not have a recognized authority.

Currently, the most renowned university in the Islamic world is Al-Azhar in Cairo.  But the teaching done there is so unsuitable to university thinking that it would be catastrophic to train imams for Europe there.   Nor would importing professors from Al-Azhar be a solution.  The point is that, even in Cairo, there is an internal struggle between liberal and radical tendencies.  Unlike Morocco where the king has also a religious function (kings of Morocco are considered descendents of Mohammad and "lieutenants of God", amīr al-mu'minīn), Egypt is considered a lay state and is therefore rejected by religious extremism.  This is why extremist currents rely on external groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Saudi Arabia.  On the other hand, Egypt and the Al-Azhar University itself cannot afford to irritate Saudi Arabia, which distributes heaps of funding...  Egypt, like Europe, is able to give, at the most, general indications to communities on teaching, but is not able to get to the heart of the training problem.

The training of imams is the fundamental issue in the question of reform in the Islamic world because Islam's image at the local and international level depends on them.  To make a comparison with Catholicism, let's consider what the reform of seminaries, which issued from the Council of Trent, has meant to the Church.  And that was almost 5 centuries ago.  Instead, Islam has not undergone any reform, but has maintained its traditional, mnemonic system.  It has in fact gone backwards: in the 9th and 11th centuries, Islam strived to integrate sciences, but Islam has been outside the modern world for centuries now.

In my opinion, the only solution is to integrate Islamic teaching into the European university framework.  But a problem remains, and it is financial.  In the Muslim world, imams are state employees and receive a state income.  Who would pay for imams in Europe?  The local Muslim communities must learn to maintain their own guides.  Otherwise, there is the risk that they will be financed by Muslim countries, who would want to impose their own imams.  There is still a solution: the establishment of agreements with moderate Muslim countries to choose imams together, with these imams paid by the countries of Muslim immigrants.

This means that checks on mosques are absolutely necessary. This is currently common practice in many Islamic countries: radical thinking (which can easily lead into terrorism) stems, in fact, from mosques and the mid-day Friday speeches (khutbah, not "sermons") given there.  It would also be good practice to demand that imams give their khutbah in the local language: Italian, French, German, etc.  The objective is clear, in any case: imams must help the faithful to feel at home in the country in which they live and to overcome any conflicts between Muslim faith and Western culture.  The choice of these imams is therefore fundamental, and is it a right of the state to check that the opposite does not happen, for the very purpose of helping and protecting immigrants.
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