Reforming EU Imam Training Is Easier Said Than Done
Europe has an Islamism problem.
This has long been evident in the dozens of Islamist terrorist attacks across the continent for nearly 20 years.
But the latest manifestation of the issue runs even deeper, beyond the violence itself and into the sources of radicalization within the European Muslim community. Because despite any number of measures — from crackdowns on beheading videos and recruitment efforts on social media to barring European jihadists from returning home after fighting for the Islamic State — the attacks, as the recent ones in Nice and in Vienna prove, continue.
Now some European officials are starting to understand the reason: radicalization doesn’t only occur online or in rooms in the back alleys of Muslim ghettos. It happens live and in broad daylight in the mosques, in the words of the imams who lead them. Now French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel, and others say they have had enough.
Currently, the vast majority of Europe’s imams come from abroad, largely from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco. In France, 70% of practicing imams are not French. Morocco and Turkey’s religious affairs arm, the Diyanet, oversee the majority of mosques in the Netherlands. In 2017, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia each sent more than 100 imams to France. Added funding also comes from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, who collectively sponsor hundreds of European mosques.
That needs to stop, Michel believes. European imams need to be taught values of “tolerance and openness.” On November 9, he declared on Twitter, “In order to fight the ideologies of hate, we must as soon as possible create a European institute for the training of imams in Europe.”
The words echo Macron’s, who in October made a similar proposal.
“The goal of training and promoting in France a generation of imams and intellectuals who defend an Islam fully compatible with the values of the Republic is a necessity,” Macron told an audience in Les Mureaux, a Paris suburb.
It would seem like a simple and obvious solution: reduce visas for foreign-trained imams, and establish imam training programs within Europe’s own theological schools.
But it turns out it’s not so easy.
The idea of European imam training isn’t new. The subject has come up repeatedly and more urgently after each Islamist terrorist attack on EU soil. Westernizing the training of imams would reduce the chances of European youth becoming radicalized, proponents of European training argue, while also helping those youth reconcile their religious beliefs with the cultures in which they live.
Yet time and again, concerns about the interference of the state in religious issues have thwarted the idea. Holland, for instance, briefly experimented with such programs at secular universities like Leiden University. But Dutch Muslim youth showed little interest, according to a 2020 government report. The projects quickly failed.
Other initiatives, established by Muslims and Muslim organizations, were no more successful: like the mosques, many of these schools, such as one established in 2018 in Amsterdam, also appeared to receive funding from Islamist groups abroad. And an institute founded in the early 1990s by an Iraqi-born nuclear scientist, and the Burgundy-based European Institute for Human Scientists, is now under investigation for having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which France considers a source of Islamist extremism. Earlier this year, French lawmakers called to ban Brotherhood-affiliated clerics from preaching.
European Muslims who do choose to lead mosques in their home countries mostly prefer to train abroad, either because they are lured by the luxurious education packages offered by Saudi Arabia — including free education in Salafism in the holy city of Medina, plane tickets, luxury housing, and even pocket money, or because they prefer a specifically non-European, “pure” Islam. Often, they return, as Germany’s Pierre Vogel did, with extremist beliefs, prepared to preach the kind of Salafist ideologies Europe is now trying to combat.
The outcome, as American Islam scholar Yasir Qadhi noted in an interview with Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, is that European Muslims live luxuriously in distant, exotic lands, only to return “knowing nothing about how to behave here. … They know everything about the history of Islam. But when it comes to how to be productive as a Muslim in a secular, multicultural society, they haven’t the slightest idea.” His remarks are all the more disturbing given that Qadhi has been known to hold relatively conservative, undemocratic beliefs — suggesting that those of foreign-trained European imams could be even more at odds with European mores.
Moreover, because most European universities are public, for a European imam school to succeed in teaching a “western” or “Enlightenment” Islam would require more than just competing with the alluring offers of foreign governments. It would mean wrestling with sacred principles involving the separation of church and state. At the same time, government-funded schools “would be seen as agents of the government for the imam community, so there would be an imbedded suspicion when it comes to them,” Canadian counterterrorism expert Mubin Shaikh said in a recent interview.
Consequently, many Muslims as well as non-Muslims oppose the idea. “No politician may determine what form of Islam is taught,” Maurits Berger, Sultan of Oman chair of Islam and the West at Leiden University’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Senior Research Associate at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations, told Dutch newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad.
Concerns about state involvement in religious affairs are precisely why European governments first shied away from building mosques for Muslim guest workers in the 1970s, when the first guest workers arrived from countries like Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey. Unwilling to subsidize the mosques and prayer rooms their new Muslim residents required, and blind to the possibility that the “guest” workers might, in fact, remain, Europe left the door wide open for foreign governments to enter. That is how we got here in the first place.
Not surprisingly, few involved in the discussions express real hope that such a project can be realized. Indeed, even the leader of the Grand Mosque in Paris, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, called Michel’s proposal a “noble idea” and then declared that it was also “unfeasible.”
But there may still be other possibilities. A ban on foreign-trained imams — and foreign training — would be a start, though this requirement would not address the problems of the education system. Alternatively, Shaikh suggested, countries like France “might create a list of approved training institutes [abroad]. So it’s not a government-funded imam study, but it’s accepted by the government. They know this person went to this place, and this place is okay.”
But more, as Leipzig University’s Lena Dreier observed, “The high value-political relevance assigned to the imams forgets one thing: in Germany and France, the community life of the mosques is shaped to a large extent by volunteers, from janitorial work to social services to Koran instruction. The majority of these volunteers live in local society and have done so for a long time, sometimes in the fourth generation.”
This is true not only in Germany and France, in fact, but across all of Europe. Perhaps focus could be placed on empowering these workers, on encouraging the mosques to bring local Muslims, particularly those involved in the secular arena, such as social work or the arts, to speak there, to provide guidance, to provide an alternative voice. Perhaps the answer to finding an “Enlightenment” Islam in Europe means giving less power to the clerics, and more to the communities.
It wouldn’t solve the Islamism problem in itself. But it would be an important and effective start.
Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. She is the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010). Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @radicalstates.
A version of this article was originally commissioned by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.