Push for homegrown imams stalls in Europe


At the top of a small building in Osnabrück, with only a tiny plaque denoting its name, sits Germany’s first school for imams.

The Islamkolleg, in north-west Germany, is the cautious fruit of a decade’s efforts by Muslim scholars, including academic director Bülent Ucar, who have struggled to convince both politicians and their own communities that Germany needs homegrown clerics for its new generation of Muslims.

Their project could be a model for European officials seeking to build a “European Islam” — if they can draw the right lessons.

In the wake of extremist Islamist attacks, France, Austria and Germany took aim at foreign funding they say spur teachings at odds with Europe’s secular values and can radicalise Muslims. Charles Michel, the European Council president, last month proposed a European imam training institute to fight the “ideology of hatred”.

But amid this heated ideological debate, many clerics worry that support for their grassroots efforts will be treated as a counter-terrorism strategy, thereby alienating the very communities they hope to reach.

Chart of Muslims as a share of total population, 2016 (%) showing that Muslims are minorities in every European country

“Muslims in Europe are hurt doubly by Islamist religious extremism. To non-Muslim Europeans, we become a fifth column . . . but from the perspective of religious fanatics, we have sold our souls, we are not authentic,” said Mr Ucar, working amid towering stacks of embossed religious texts.

Founding such a school, he said, which starts its all-German classes in April, could not be forced for political expediency on to wary communities. “It’s a process, we can’t make it happen overnight. And many Muslims worry what we’re doing isn’t real Islam.”

He keeps the school’s external plaque small, meanwhile, for fear of Islamophobic attacks; the Islamkolleg regularly receives hate mail.

Bülent Ucar joins officials, scholars and educators in a panel discussion at the start of a conference on Islam in Berlin © Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy
Tareq Oubrou, a prominent imam in Bordeaux, speaks before a public gathering to pay tribute to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015 © Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, have led a push in Europe against what they identify as “Islamist separatism” and “political Islam”, respectively. Proponents have zeroed in on foreign funding, which comes mostly from Turkey, north Africa and the Gulf, and which they say fosters conservatism that leads to radicalisation.

Such claims frustrate Tareq Oubrou, a prominent imam in Bordeaux, who has long demanded a break with foreign funding — but not because of extremist attacks. That has “nothing to do with it”, he said. He, like other Muslim leaders interviewed, argues most attackers are radicalised online. He sees foreign influence as problematic because it can increase alienation among younger generations that cannot connect with clergy who do not speak their first language or understand their lives as a European minority.

Mr Oubrou seeks a “French Islam” for integration. Over the past 10 months he has worked with fellow clerics on an initiative for training French imams. But that has been undermined, he said, by Mr Macron’s turning, after the latest terrorist incidents, to France’s Regional Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM), which the president enlisted to develop a programme for French-trained imams.

Chart showing nationality of 301 French imams funded by foreign governments; 151 from Turkey, 120 from Algeria and 30 from Morocco

Mr Oubrou sees a bitter irony here: the CFCM is made up of disparate Muslim organisations, some of which come from divergent political and religious backgrounds and are themselves dependent on foreign countries for funding.

“The intention is good, but the method? I do not agree at all,” he said. “It’s hard to see how this will be able to stand.”

State-directed initiatives are risky. The Netherlands abandoned attempts to establish imam training after losing local participation, according to an academic survey, in which some respondents said it felt more like a security programme than a societal one. By contrast, some clerics have pointed to Britain’s Cambridge Muslim College, an initiative launched by Muslims, as a success.

A placard reading ‘Macron, you are looking at the wrong target, we’re not terrorists’ is held aloft during protests in Toulouse against France’s proposed Law on the Principles of the Republic © Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/Getty
Sebastian Kurz, left, and Emmanuel Macron host talks with other leaders at the Elysée in Paris in November on an EU-wide response to attacks blamed on Islamist radicals © Olivier Hoslet/POOL/AFP/Getty

The Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ), the official Muslim authority, has launched educational schemes at several Austrian universities. “Intercultural sensitivity and awareness of what it means to live as a minority in a secular state is essential for a community leader,” said Valerie Mussa, its spokesperson.

The problem for the IGGÖ programmes, like all others in Europe, is funding. Foreign financing is so prevalent because Muslim minorities often are too small to be able to self-finance their own clergy or training. Cengiz Kalayci, of France’s CFCM, said his community considered taxing halal food, then discovered it was unconstitutional.

Mr Ucar said he and his peers had sought state support for an imam college since 2007 but had been repeatedly rebuffed by local and federal officials. Germany was once happy to let Turkey foot the bill for imams, he said. Only as relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan soured had the government started to battle foreign funding.

Even now that the college exists, the dilemma of paying imams remains. Mr Ucar said Germany could provide indirect help by supporting congregations’ social programmes and freeing up their funds for imams’ salaries.

“That’s what they do with Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Why not with Muslims? ” he asks. “This is a political problem. People tend to feel wary of Islam.”

Chart showing variations in French Muslims' religious practices - over half are believers and practising

Newly proposed laws across Europe could heighten tensions and undermine efforts like those of Mr Ucar and Mr Oubrou. Austria proposed a security law with a ban on “political Islam”, a term IGGÖ leaders say is uncomfortably vague.

Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar, said France’s proposed Law on the Principles of the Republic targets Muslims despite never explicitly naming them. “The government keeps repeating that extremists, not French Muslims, are the target of this law, and yet we keep asking ordinary Muslims . . . if they ‘are with us or against us’.”

In Germany, Europe’s toughening approach comes at a time of growing harassment of Muslims. Aiman Mazyek, of the Central Council for Muslims in Germany, said communities report three to four cases of attack or vandalism each week, which makes it harder, he argues, to encourage Muslims to “see themselves as German”.

For Mr Oubrou, the debate has reached what he calls a “critical stage” in Europe. “Emotions are taking over discussions between people. The rational voice isn’t being heard today,” he said. “We’re in a phase of ‘anything could happen’.”

Source: FT

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