Enlightenment Islam?

New Islamic theology courses offered at Goethe University in Frankfurt are an example of a new movement to train imams in Europe.
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The Goethe University in Frankfurt will offer courses this winter in Islamic theology, which might sound to some people like damning evidence of "Eurabia" creeping into Europe's higher institutions. But the new Islamic Studies program "will educate not just theologians and the next generation of religious academics, but also specialists in Islamic theology," says professor Ömer Özsoy, who heads the department.

The program belongs to a new fashion: Europe educating its own imams. Experts have warned for years that Islamic religious leaders in Europe have been trained abroad, in Arabic or Turkish. Rauf Ceylan, a professor of religious studies in Osnabrück, Germany, says imams in his country by and large can't understand the problems of their flocks or speak the language.

"Seventy-five percent of the imams in our mosques are conservative traditionalists," he told Der Spiegel this year. "They oppose quick reform and perpetuate traditional role models, like those regarding relations between men and women. ... They live in their enclaves, speak little German, [and] don't understand that the role of imam is different in Germany from the role in Turkey."

Many Turkish imams are, in fact, civil servants who work for the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs — on Ankara's payroll. The organization is as dull and bureaucratic as its Turkish acronym — DITIB — suggests; and as you'd expect from an arm of the secular Turkish government, DITIB isn't fundamentalist, fiery or anti-Western. But the imams rotate to Germany for four-year assignments, and they're tasked with maintaining a Turkish identity among the diaspora. They have no reason to master German, much less become integration counselors.

"Imams in Germany are consulted about marital problems, issues around divorce and educational matters," Ceylan told Spiegel. "But they cannot fill these associated roles if they don't know what sort of assistance is available. ... Do you think an imam from Turkey knows what debt counseling is or whom to telephone about it?"

These injections of national identity, paid for by far-off governments, are what German policymakers want to counter by sponsoring a sort of "Enlightenment Islam" in their universities. This fashion isn't just German; the British government already subsidizes Muslim elementary schools, and Nicolas Sarkozy has said local government subsidies for building mosques could "cut the Islam of France from foreign influence." Some critics accused him of trying to pound a crack in a 1905 law that established France's modern laïcite, or strict state secularism.

Europeans may need to pay more attention to the brand of Islam preached in their immigrant communities than Americans. The radical mosque in Hamburg that cultivated the 9/11 plotters — known first as Al Quds and then as Taiba before being finally shut down this year — was quite different from the typical plodding, semi-official, Turkish-German congregation. It was a smallish Arab mosque run by Salafist imams and located near a red-light district. This back-alley Islam, disconnected even from the larger Muslim community around it, belongs to a disgruntled minority.

For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on Miller-McCune.com

"The history of guest workers in Germany is quite different from the history of [Muslim] immigrants in the United States," says Werner Schiffauer, a social anthropologist who pioneered German research into Muslim immigration. Communities in Europe started largely when poor guest workers "came on a contract basis," he said. "They planned to stay three to five years in Germany and return." An economic slump surrounding the 1973 oil crisis kept a lot of them in place. "Basically," Schiffauer says, "the guest workers are immigrants against their will."

American Muslims tend to be or descend from educated middle-class professionals who could afford a trans-Atlantic plane ticket. They emigrated deliberately and never relied, as a community, on state-run foreign networks. They founded their own schools and mosques. By and large, they found a way to integrate.

Feisal Abdul Rauf, imam at the proposed Park51 project several blocks from ground zero, is a good example. You don't have to like everything he says, but he's the son of an educated immigrant, and he promotes an integrated, American-style Islam that neither hides in an alley nor raises minarets to send a muezzin cry across Manhattan.

That's why the controversy of Park51 is so bewildering to watch from overseas. The 9/11 bombers filtered through the shadowy, dysfunctional Muslim scene in Europe. New efforts to blaze it with official sunshine are not a bad idea. But the even newer storms of Islamophobia in the U.S. threaten to push its own, healthier strains of Islam back into the shadows — that is, precisely in the wrong direction.

European Dispatch looks at innovation and policy solutions in the European Union. Contact Michael Scott Moore at: editor@radiofreemike.com.

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