A recent push by the German government to educate a generation of European-born (and Enlightenment-minded) imams — to wean the nation's Muslim population from a class of religious leaders trained and paid by Turkey — belongs to a controversial strain of thinking in Europe. The idea is to commit tax funds to mosque-building and other integration efforts with the goal of drying up foreign, and sometimes radical, streams of money.
Some programs are more promising than others. Nicolas Sarkozy argued in a 2004 book (before he became president of France) that Paris should make an exception to its century-old tradition of strict laïcite, or secularism, and give money directly to Muslim groups to build mosques. Secular groups, understandably, howled, but Sarkozy's argument at least confronted a nagging problem with unintegrated Muslims in Europe.
"What is dangerous is not minarets," he wrote in The Republic, Religions, Hope, "but caves and garages that keep clandestine religious groups hidden."
A glamorous French-funded mosque, goes the logic, is better than a back-alley prayer room with literature and funding from Riyadh, Damascus or Tehran.
The idea has made no official headway under President Sarkozy, perhaps because it would need an amendment to the French constitution. But mayors in French towns have found ways to make valuable land grants to Muslim groups that amount to government subsidies. It's too early to tell whether the results will be good or bad, overall, for Muslim integration.
About the same time Sarkozy's book came out, and just after the Madrid bomb attacks, the Spanish government found a way around the French problem. Originally it wanted to fund mosques directly because it worried about Spanish Muslims' "dependence on foreign financing," The New York Times reported in 2004. "A number of Spain's 400 Muslim prayer houses and mosques have received money from Libya, Morocco or Malaysia. Europe's largest mosque, located just outside Madrid, was built by Saudi Arabia."
But Spain also has (relatively new) constitutional principles of secularism to uphold, so instead of direct financing, the Socialist government under Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero set up a small financing outfit called the "Foundation for Pluralism and Coexistence." The idea was to give grants to educational, cultural and pro-integration projects that fell short of religious worship. The idea was to help not just Muslims, but all religious minorities — including Scientologists — who might feel excluded from the powerful state support that the Catholic church still receives in Spain.
"Seemingly modest," wrote the Times, "it is still a remarkable step for this nation once forged by religious wars against [its onetime] Muslim rulers. Spain's Inquisition persecuted Muslims, Jews and Protestants alike to impose Catholic dominance."
The German program to educate imams, though, may be the most direct and effective way to change the nature of Islam in Europe, which as a rule is more volatile than Islam in the U.S.
For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on Miller-McCune.com
In any case, nothing will change dramatically until the general population in Europe can live up to the ideals of equal rights and tolerance that supposedly define the West. A Wiki-leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Paris argued to the State Department in 2005 that the French riots were about racism and exclusion, rather than religion.
"Despite claims that its commitment to secularism nullifies prejudice against any religion, it is an open secret that historically Catholic France has heretofore failed to muster sufficient will and understanding to truly accept Muslims as French citizens," wrote the reporting U.S. diplomat. "Although Islamic extremism may never completely disappear from France, acceptance of Muslims as full, participating members of French society will go a long way to minimizing its reach."