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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 July 2007, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
Are UK's imams modern enough?
By Robert Pigott
BBC News, religious affairs correspondent

A week after the failed attacks in London and Glasgow, the Muslim Council of Britain has called an emergency meeting of imams and Muslim community activists to work out a strategy for combating extremism.

British mosques are dominated by foreign imams

Their particular concern will be young Muslims, and the radical groups trying to recruit them to their hard-line understanding of Islam, with all its disdain for the Western way of life.

Those meeting in London on Saturday - and in a separate gathering in Oxford - are likely to see imams as a vital part of the task.

They are the official interpreters of Islam, and the public officials of the Muslim world whose word should carry maximum authority.

But a BBC study has led some influential figures in British Islam to doubt their imams are equal to this most urgent of tasks.

Urdu sermons

The survey, carried out among 300 imams by the University of Chester, painted a picture of a rapid influx of imams from India, Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, with limited ability in English, and rudimentary professional qualifications by Western standards.

The survey found that although half of Muslims in Britain were born here, nine out of 10 of their imams came from overseas, 70% of them within the last decade.

Getting on for 90% speak a South Asian language as their mother tongue, and, perhaps more significantly, more than half of sermons are in Urdu. English comes some way behind.

"Too many imams cannot speak adequate English", says Ajmal Masroor, an imam at Wightman Road Mosque in London.

"How can they expect to get the message across to young people, or to speak to people of other faiths?

"I'm worried, and the Muslim community is very concerned about it."

Isolation fears

Ajmal Masroor preached this week on the injustice of violent attacks against the innocent, a counterblast to terrorism that came straight out of the Koran.

His is a modern interpretation of the faith and its holy text suited to a modern, Western, secular, and multicultural democracy. It also included criticism of other mosques that restrict access for women.

By their very nature they weren't designed for a 21st Century secular democracy like Britain
Professor Ron Geaves,
Chester University

But many other imams are failing to grasp the nettles growing on the fringes of their congregations.

Khayer Chowdhury, a student in east London, said of his imam: "To be fair he doesn't speak very good English... and he talks about things that interest older people, like the family.

"He doesn't talk about things that concern young people... like how to behave on the street, and integration."

Muslim leaders such as Muhammad Raza, the director of the Imams and Mosques Council, fear that the isolation of imams from young Muslims places the whole community in jeopardy.

"I fear, and it's a real fear, that they could become the tools for further violence", he says. "And for that we need imams who can show their ability... their authority."


The author of the BBC report, Professor Ron Geaves of Chester University's department of theology and religious studies, says many imams lack that ability and authority because they were educated for a different world, and, arguably, a different era.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain
The Muslim Council of Britain is meeting to tackle extremism

He says that overwhelmingly imams in Britain were educated only in traditional seminaries, nearly all of them in the Indian subcontinent.

"They're medieval, and provide learning by rote of the Koran, and other religious texts", he says.

"By their very nature they weren't designed for a 21st Century secular democracy like Britain, where Islam is a minority religion. Imams educated in them tend to see Islam as good, and everything else as bad." Prof Geaves says very few imams are making any effort to upgrade their academic or professional skills.

Mosques, often dominated by first and second generation immigrants to Britain, continue to seek imams from their ancestral countries rather than British-born imams.

Ajmal Masroor points out an uncomfortable reality about Islam in modern Britain.

"In the Ottoman times, an imam's job was highly respected and would attract a high number of extremely talented people", he says.

"Today, on the contrary, an imam's job is poorly paid and attracts the least talented people."

It may seem a harsh judgement on a body of people serving their communities - and the Almighty - to the best of their ability. But the social and political realities in which imams now operate are themselves increasingly harsh.

Imams to give citizenship lessons
17 May 07 |  Education

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