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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 June, 2004, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
State training for Europe's imams
Tim Whewell
By Tim Whewell
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

A man reads the Koran
Currently most imams working in Western Europe are trained abroad
Fear of radical Islam is pushing governments across Western Europe into ambitious plans to promote loyalty and moderation in their Muslim citizens.

But the projects, focused on the training of imams, have already been criticised by many Muslim leaders who fear state intervention in religion will backfire.

The proposals spring from evidence that many young European-born Muslims feel alienated from the societies around them.

In Britain, a study commissioned by the government shows one in seven of economically active Muslims have no job, compared to only one in 20 of the wider population.

The confidential strategy paper, leaked to a national newspaper, recommends measures to "win the hearts and minds" of young Muslims.

The government is considering "strengthening the hand" of moderate Muslim leaders, and refusing entry visas to foreign imams who cannot demonstrate a basic knowledge of English or of British society.

Religious training

In the long term, the UK Home Office has said it hopes British theological colleges will be able to produce more home-grown British imams.

Men try to raise money for the construction of a mosque in Valenciennes
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe

That idea follows similar proposals in France, Spain and the Netherlands.

The French government has appointed a commission of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars to find ways of widening the provision of imam training in France.

In the Dutch parliament, a backbench motion demanding that all incoming foreign imams undergo religious training in the Netherlands has won the backing of an overwhelming majority of MPs.

Currently, most imams working in Western Europe are trained abroad.

In France, 90% come from North Africa. Of approximately 2,000 in Britain, a similar proportion are thought to come from abroad, mostly educated in traditional madrassas, or seminaries, in the Indian subcontinent.

I think it is very important you get a Dutch kind of Islam in the Netherlands
Dutch MP Mirjam Sterk

In the Netherlands, the vast majority are from Turkey and Morocco.

It is thought that most imams in Britain cannot speak English, although more than half of Muslims are UK-born.

It is a similar position in the Netherlands.

"I think it is very important you get a Dutch kind of Islam in the Netherlands," says the sponsor of the imam training motion, MP Mirjam Sterk.

"So you have imams who grow up here and know how Dutch society works and do not have to read it from books."

Guarded response

In the Netherlands, the idea is an attempt to build on specially-tailored citizenship courses which are now obligatory for foreign imams moving there.

In Britain, the first government-funded management training course for imams is due to start shortly. The initiative comes originally from the Muslim community.

I talk to young Muslim people here, and they are radicalising
Ayhan Tonca, a leader of Turkish Muslims in the Netherlands
But the proposals in Britain and the Netherlands for state involvement in religious training have met a more guarded response.

"If they train imams they must train other religions too," says Palestinian-born Rotterdam Councillor Mohammed Abu Leil. "This motion will make imams [in the Netherlands] like the imams in our countries. They are only a loudspeaker for the government."

Another objection is raised by one of the leaders of the 400,000-strong Dutch Turkish community, Ayhan Tonca.

At present, the community is served by special "commuter imams" sent over for four years by the Turkish government.

The system prevents many imams from integrating in Dutch society, but it ensures that Dutch Muslims of Turkish origin are taught a moderate Turkish brand of Islam.

"They think imams educated here will be liberal," says Tonca.

"This is a misunderstanding. There is no guarantee that when you educate imams in Holland they will not be fundamentalists.

"I talk to young Muslim people here, and they are radicalising, because of all the negative talk about Islam in the West."

In the Netherlands, officials are not always afraid to use the word "control" to describe their policies towards Muslims.

Tariq Ramadan
The fear is we go from dependency on the Middle East to dependency on European governments
Tariq Ramadan, Muslim theologian

In Britain, the approach has tended to be more delicate, and some Muslims welcome the possibility of state funding for some training initiatives.

The problem though, all over Europe, will be deciding what is "moderate Islam" and what is not, a tricky question for non-Muslims to be involved in.

Tariq Ramadan is a charismatic Swiss Muslim theologian who now has a large following among French-speaking Muslim youth in several countries.

He calls on believers to claim their full rights - and take on their full responsibilities - as European citizens.

But he insists that Muslims in Europe must have complete independence - financial and intellectual - from governments.

"The fear is we go from dependency on the Middle East to dependency on European governments," he says. "And we do not want that. We want independence."

The programme was broadcast on Thursday, 17 June, 2004 at 1100 BST, and was repeated on Monday, 21 June 2004, at 2030 BST.

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