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Last Updated: Friday, 24 December, 2004, 17:13 GMT
French classes for Europe's imams

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

A pupil studying at the Institute
Pupils come from across Europe to attend the Institute

On a hillside in deepest Burgundy, a modest 19th Century chateau nestles near the vineyards wreathed in mist.

The school within has a difficult mission: the training of imams to minister to Europe's Muslims.

Here, for around 2,000 euros (1,402) a year, some 180 French and foreign students study and live in this former business school, spending most of the day and much of the evening learning more about their faith.

The goal of the European Institute for Human Sciences is an urgent one, shared by Europe's political leaders, especially those in France.

Most of the main mosques in France preach a moderate form of Islam to the country's five million Muslims.

Yet the authorities fear that in some smaller unofficial prayer rooms, a radical Islam may be taking root among youngsters, especially in the deprived city suburbs.

Comfortable co-existence

One way of stopping that, France believes, is to create a new generation of moderate European imams.

Three quarters of France's current imams are not French, and a third of the 1,200 total don't even speak French.

At the school in St Leger-de-Fougeret in Burgundy, the sound of lessons in Arabic rings out from the classroom.

Zuhair Mahmood
Zuhair Mahmood says both sides should respect each other
This institute was founded in the early 1990s with money from Saudi Arabia, though the school claims its funding now comes mainly from Muslims around Europe and that its aim is to create modern imams who can respond to their needs.

The institute's director Zuhair Mahmood says it is up to both sides - France and the nations' Muslims - to find a comfortable way to co-exist.

"The French administration has to respect the liberty of each religion, be it Islam, Judaism or Christianity," he tells me in the school's library, filled with books on Islamic culture, art, history and law.

"But the imams here must also respect the laws of France, so we work together towards this aim."

Yet many of the European students - especially the women - come here to learn Arabic and more about Islam, rather than to learn about France or indeed to become imams.

Most believe forcing imams to preach in French would be an unnecessary intrusion by the state into their religion.

Hajar, a 19-year-old student from France, is firmly against the idea.

French loyalties

"I want to teach Arabic because it's my religion, and Arabic is the language of Paradise. In the future, I'd like to show people in France that it's a religion that loves peace.

"But I don't think imams should be made to preach in French - it's not a good language for that. Arabic is very complicated, and it's the language of the Koran, and that is not the same translated into French."

And the question is - can we have a moderate form of Islam? And the answer is yes, of course, it does exist
Professor Blandine Kriegel

Her friend Zeenat Asmi came here from Manchester to study Islam during her gap year before going on to study at university.

She believes Muslims in France find it harder than in Britain to express their identity, from the French ban on wearing headscarves in schools, to the government's apparent fear of imams preaching in Arabic.

"I think in England I feel more comfortable and respected for being Muslim than perhaps the French do. When I went to Paris, everyone would stare in a way they don't in Manchester or London," she smiles.

"And I don't see what they could gain in France by forcing imams to preach in broken French or whatever.

"I think it would be excellent to have French-speaking imams because the people growing up here need to listen and understand it.

"But I don't see what you would gain from denying other imams the right to preach in Arabic."

19 year old Hajar from France
Hajar doesn't agree with imams preaching in French

The students worship in an old outbuilding converted into a mosque.

Some may well go on to become preachers.

But for the moment, France isn't convinced that such a school really is the future in terms of creating a new generation of Muslim preachers whose language and loyalties are primarily French.

So, from next autumn French universities will have that job - teaching the French language, law and culture to foreign-born imams.

Professor Blandine Kriegel is head of the French government commission on integration and says that for France, this is the key challenge of the coming years.

"The only problem we have is with fundamentalism, it's not with Islam," she says.

"And the question is - can we have a moderate form of Islam? And the answer is yes, of course, it does exist."




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