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Dutch can’t rush imam training drive

July 26, 2005

By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The Dutch have a problem with Islam
and they’re in a hurry to solve it. They’re finding out,
however, that some problems just refuse to be rushed.

Once a haven of religious diversity, the Netherlands
realized several years ago that Muslim immigrants were not
integrating as expected. Some rejected Dutch tolerance and the
Dutch were becoming increasingly intolerant of them.

This concern turned to alarm last November after filmmaker
Theo van Gogh, a blunt critic of Islam, was slain while cycling
to work in Amsterdam. A Dutch-Moroccan with suspected links to
Islamic militants was charged with the crime.

Shifting in to high gear, policy makers urged universities
to start training imams, on the theory that a Dutch education
would make these prayer leaders moderate, westernised and able
to stem the influence of radical preachers from abroad.

Neighboring states such as France, Belgium and Germany are
considering ways to mold future Muslim generations, but none
seem to have gone as far and as fast as the Netherlands.

“Today, members of the government, politicians, policy
makers and others are actively engaged in defining for Muslims
the ‘proper’ conduct of Muslim citizens,” Islam expert Dick
Douwes told a recent conference here on the issue.

“Some even maintain that Islam should be subjected to an
instant Enlightenment to enable Muslims to become modern
citizens,” said the executive director of the International
Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden.

But the politicians’ timeframe is a fraction of the decade
or so that classical imam training takes. Many imams devote
years just to learning Arabic — if it is not their mother
tongue — and memorising the Koran.

“We’ve told the government that this kind of thing can’t be
rushed,” said Ayhan Tonca, Turkish-born head of the Contact
Group for Muslims and Government (CMO), the main Muslim group
here. “It takes at least 6 or 10 years to educate imams.”

Mohammad Shafiqur Rahman, imam of the spacious new Taibah
Mosque in Amsterdam, studied for 12 years in his native India.
“If you don’t do all this, my experience says, the imam will be
a joke,” he said.

DUTCH PRAGMATISM

Luckily for the Netherlands and its one million Muslims,
the search for a solution is guided by a healthy dose of Dutch
pragmatism on both sides.

Muslim community leaders and imams are eager for better
integration and training, especially to master the Dutch
language and learn how to deal with local officials.

For its part, the government — which wants to bar foreign
imams from entering the Netherlands from 2008 — has been
shaping its policy as it goes along and learns about Islam.

Although an official report in December 2003 said it would
take many years to launch full courses to train imams, the
government decided after van Gogh’s killing to speed this up
and asked universities to propose a curriculum at short order.

Amsterdam’s Free University (VU), a private institution
linked to the Dutch Reformed Church, won the 1.5 million euro
subsidy in February with a proposal for bachelor’s and master’s
degrees given by its Faculty of Theology.

Training imams at a Protestant university? Henk Vroom, VU
professor of the philosophy of religion, said the separation of
church and state prevented public universities from doing it.

“They can have Arabic, Middle East studies or Islamology,
but not Islamic theology,” he said. “The Muslims could do it in
a seminary, but they don’t have one.”

So a Christian institution, where theology can be taught
along with secular subjects, “is the closest possibility,” said
Vroom, who set up the courses due to open in September.

The faculty has hired four lecturers — two Moroccans, an
Egyptian and a Turk — to teach Islamic theology in addition to
courses the students must take on Christianity, secularism,
western philosophy, social sciences and ethics.

IMAMS NEED A JOB

Muslim leaders were not convinced. Shortly after the VU was
chosen for the experiment, the CMO announced it wanted to
launch its own imam program — and that Dutch universities
could not claim to train Islamic prayer leaders.

“You can have a university degree in theology but not be an
imam,” said the CMO’s Tonca, who stressed that Dutch Muslim
communities — mostly from Turkey, Morocco and Suriname –
would all have different requirements for an imam.

“You have to learn how to preach in a specific mosque. You
must be accepted by the community,” he argued. “You couldn’t
say to the Catholic Church — I have here a priest I’ve
educated and you must give him a job.”

Tonca doesn’t feel in such a rush.

“We already have imams here, about 350 of them,” he said.

Importing imams from Muslim states with existing Islamic
universities might be the most practical way ahead for now, as
long as they get intensive Dutch language training here.

Muslim groups could split the work with Dutch universities,
using them for general education and forming their own
theological schools for the specifically Islamic part, he said.

But the longer-term goal would be a Muslim school system,
similar to the Catholic or Protestant schools here, “where we
can educate our own imams from 10 years old until they get
their university degree,” he said.

SHARIA AND “SAMENLEVING”

Organising a curriculum may turn out to be less difficult
than matching Muslims’ expectations, many of which will be
based on Islam’s Sharia law, and official hopes the courses
will fit them into what’s known here as the Dutch
“samenleving.”

Literally translated, samenleving just means “living
together.” A better translation might be “the Dutch way of
life” — a society built on the principle of tolerance so each
religious group can organize its life without interference from
the state.

But that way of life assumed a level of integration that
the Muslims, who only began coming to the Netherlands in large
numbers in the 1970s, have not yet achieved.

Instead of living together, traditionalist immigrants –
often from the poorest parts of Morocco or Turkey — often seem
out of step with the “anything goes” public culture in their
new home. Their imams are often from the same peasant stock.

Even sympathetic Dutch officials set the bar high for them.

“They have to be well aware of the current discussions on
norms and values, the democratic separation of church and
state, the position of women and the (liberal Dutch) views on
homosexuality,” said Yassin Hartog, a Dutch convert to Islam
who is coordinator of the Islam and Citizenship Foundation.