This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
After 9/11, and especially after 7/7 (the London subway bombings) and other such striking terrorist acts, European governments came to the conclusion that Islam is now a reality in the west that cannot be ignored (millions of Muslims – each – in France, Germany, UK, etc.); moreover, while “integration” of Muslims into the western culture is a process that may not have succeeded much, one important factor that drew the attention of everyone was that the religious leaders for Muslims in Europe overwhelmingly come from the countries of the “immigrants”. Furthermore, indigenous European Muslims, though a small minority among the Muslim communities of Europe (for instance, in the UK there are only about 60,000 converts among the millions of Muslims), find themselves having to live a new socio-cultural life, in an environment that is characterized par a different language (Arabic, Urdu, Turkish) and different social norms.
The European governments thus moved to create a “European Islam”, by forming supervising bodies, task forces, institutes of Islam, etc., in the aim of developing a home-grown Islamic culture that would be more consistent with the (western) values of modernity, secularism, etc.
The French government created the CFCM (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) and has recently set up the Institut des Cultures d’Islam, among other such ventures. Tony Blair in 2005 formed a governmental taskforce to examine the roots of Islamic extremism in the UK (with the now-famous and undeservedly controversial Tariq Ramadan invited to be a member). And now the German government (the Education Ministry) has announced that imams will be formed in theology departments of German universities.
One should note right away, that this is a significant development, not just at the socio-political level, but at the religious and academic levels too. Germany has long had a tradition of theological studies (as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us – in a very unfortunate way – a few years ago with his lecture at the University of Regensburg). Germany’s secularism is much softer than France’s, where it would be unimaginable for the government to set up (and pay for) a curriculum of education of imams, or any religious program. As the German president himself put it, “if Islam is (now) part of Germany, so it is part of German universities…” Indeed, Osnabrueck University has just opened a course for imams, with 30 students. The universities of Tuebingen and Muenster plan to launch training centers for imams a year from now; they both currently offer courses on Islam, but only as academic subjects, not as part of a training curriculum.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this may be for the religious culture of Islam. Indeed, imams have almost invariably been trained in special “seminaries”, not at universities, certainly not universities where free inquiry and debate are the prime rule. For instance, I wonder whether the “historical, critical” studies of the Qur’an (such as the Corpus Coranicum project, which was started in 2007 by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities) will be part of any such curriculum. I also wonder how much modern science will be part of the curriculum and how much of an effect it will have on the theological paradigm the imams will be carrying and preaching.
How imams fully imbued with the western academic culture will view their religious tradition and their roles in their communities will be extremely interesting to watch. Already we can witness “culture wars” in Europe between Muslim scholars who want to uphold the traditional ideas and social norms and the new religious thinkers who have digested the western approach and the necessity to adapt to the multi-cultural and open landscape, not to mention the minority status of their community.
In addition to this, in some European countries (including Germany), the state’s curriculum includes religious education to all pupils who desire it, divided into parallel classes for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and – in principle – Muslims. For the latter, however, not only does the state not have even a fraction of the teachers needed for such a task, but the community has rarely, if ever, requested it, preferring to provide its own religious education to its children, one that would be devised by the local religious leaders, who almost invariably come from “back home”; in the case of Germany they are, surprisingly enough, most often appointed and paid by the Turkish government.The religious scholar Rauf Ceylan, whose Kurdish parents came from Anatolia, recently published a book in Germany examining the role of imams in the country (The Preachers of Islam: Imams -- Who They Are and What They Really Want). He stresses that "ultimately, they [the imams] will determine whether young Muslims will endorse a liberal, conservative, or extremist Islam [in Germany/Europe]."