Too many Muslim clerics in Europe do not understand the lives of the young Muslims they preach to.by Jytte Klausen / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Few people paid much attention to the mosques that began to spring up across Europe, usually in the dingy parts of town, in the 1970s and 1980s. But now, after 9/11 and the Madrid bombs, those mosques and the imams who preach in them are under a cloud of suspicion. Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 terrorists, attended the al-Quds mosque in Hamburg. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, had links with the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, as did the militant Islamic cleric Sheikh Abu Hamza, who preached there until he was evicted early last year. And at the end of March, eight young British Muslims from the suburbs of southeast England were arrested on suspicion of involvement in a bomb plot, five of whom have now been charged. They have been linked to Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammed, leader of the radical al-Muhajiroun group, which claims about 800 adherents in Britain.
In the last few months I have met leaders of Muslim organisations, imams, Muslim parliamentarians and councillors in four countries – Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Many of them expressed fears about “rogue imams” preaching holy war. There are a few rogues. But the real issue – as described by countless Muslim parents – is that Muslims in Europe desperately need imams and scholars who speak the languages and are familiar with the customs and practices of the countries in which they live.
“What good is a Saudi Arabian imam to me?” asked Yasin Ahmed, whom I met in the Stockholm mosque. Yasin, who is originally from Eritrea, said, “I am a Swedish Muslim. The Saudi Arabian imam does not understand my life and who I have become.” To my surprise, most of the imams I spoke to also voiced concerns about the problems caused by unqualified imams. Europe needs an Islamic clergy to match the demands of a socially mobile and increasingly educated community.
There are about 250 mosques in Sweden, 150 in Denmark, 400 in the Netherlands and probably 1,500 in Britain. Only a few of these have been built for the purpose. In most cases they are prayer rooms in rented halls. I have attended the Friday sermon in a newly built mosque in the Netherlands, where prayers were conducted with men and women mixing. I have also waded through hundreds of female bodies lying down facing a brick wall indicating the direction of Mecca in a cramped fourth-floor windowless room in London. In N?rrebro, the old communist heartland of Copenhagen, I attended a fiery sermon with 500 men (and no women) congregated in a converted factory. Many mosques, or Islamic cultural centres as they are often called, serve fewer than 100 families, but some of the large mosques, for example the East London mosque in Tower Hamlets, attract thousands of worshippers on the high holidays.
Where do the imams come from?
There is at least one imam attached to each mosque, and in many cases two or three. The single largest source of imams in northern Europe – with the exception of Britain – is the Turkish government. When “guest workers” began to appear in large numbers in Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands, the governments of those countries entered into contracts with Turkey to supply pastoral care for what was at the time considered to be a temporary population of Muslims. Although state and church are formally separated in Turkey, the Turkish government oversees Muslim religious facilities and education through its directorate of religious affairs, the Diyanet. It regulates the operation of the country’s 75,000 mosques, and employs local and provincial imams, who are civil servants. The Diyanet also supplies imams – or hoyas – to Turkish communities residing abroad. Such imams rarely speak the local language but they tend to be educated and do not politicise.
The local supply of imams in Europe is severely restricted by the lack of institutions for training them. As a result, most come from abroad. Of those who are European citizens, some are autodidacts and part-timers who have been recruited from within the immigrant community. Others are religious entrepreneurs, who make a living out of the mosque. A few are converts or second generation Muslims who, at their own expense, travel to Islamic universities in Egypt or Saudi Arabia to become Islamic scholars.
Most British imams are trained abroad and recruited by local mosque councils. There are thought to be about 2,000 imams in Britain, of which under 10 per cent have been trained here. So long as a mosque council guarantees that it will provide an income for the imam, work permits have not usually been a problem. But the Muslim community elders tend to recruit from the villages and clans that they came from. Imams recruited in this way have often been educated in madrasas – Islamic seminaries that are dedicated to particular versions of Islamic law from the 9th or 10th century. When they come to Britain, there is no additional training or oversight. “They are honest men and I do not blame them,” said Moulana Shahid Raza, from the Muslim College in Ealing, west London, “but they are like people driving a car without having learnt how to do it.”
The Finsbury Park mosque affair underlines some of the dangers associated with the lack of proper training and oversight for imams in Europe. The mosque was created mostly by Bangladeshi immigrants. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia reportedly contributed over $1m to its construction in the 1980s. Abu Hamza, the controversial cleric of Egyptian origin, was appointed imam in 1996. Two years later, the trustees of the mosque filed a complaint to the charity commission that Abu Hamza and his supporters had hijacked their mosque. The trustees also went to court to get Abu Hamza ejected. A compromise was reached in December 1998 that allowed the trustees back into the mosque. Abu Hamza was permitted to give three out of four Friday sermons.
In October 2001, the charity commission was sent a tape of Abu Hamza’s sermons bought in the mosque’s shop, which the commission decided “was of such an extreme… nature as to conflict with the charitable status of the mosque.” The trustees who had filed the complaint agreed that Abu Hamza should be removed by force. In early 2003, police stormed the mosque to investigate criminal charges unrelated to the complaint. Abu Hamza now preaches on the pavement outside and is appealing against a deportation order.
State support for imam education?
The Muslim College in Ealing is trying to address the issue of local training for British imams. It offers a diploma in Islamic studies in collaboration with Birkbeck College. Women are admitted and wearing the hijab is optional. The programme is non-sectarian and focused on textual interpretation of the Koran. But the course also stresses the importance of critical skills and of relating beliefs and practices to the British context. Inter-faith dialogue, mosque administration, and social studies are part of the curriculum. The college also offers a separate master’s degree in imamship. The head and founder of the college, Zaki Badawi, hopes that mosque councils will eventually require a certificate from imams, like the one his programme offers, before they are employed.
The Markfield Institute of Higher Education in Leicestershire offers Britain’s second programme of this sort. It is associated with the Islamic Foundation, a decades-old centre of Islamic education, and is offering postgraduate degree programmes in collaboration with Loughborough University. A certificate in Muslim chaplaincy is offered to imams who volunteer for continuing education. The problem is that not so many do. The Markfield Institute and the Muslim College annually produce only about 50 graduates from their imam courses.
There are, I was told at the Markfield Institute, about 25 more traditional seminaries operating in Britain, where imams are educated in programmes that are often transposed unchanged from Islamic countries, and the language of instruction is Arabic or Urdu. The employment conditions of imams are generally unsatisfactory. They typically have no job contract, no pension and often no regular salary. The income provided by mosque councils may be sufficient for someone recruited from a Bangladeshi village, but it will not satisfy bright young British Muslims who compare themselves to friends with business degrees or professionals in IT. As a result, few of them would consider becoming an imam.
British politicians and civil servants are currently considering whether to make foreign imams demonstrate a command of the English language and an understanding of British society as a condition of receiving a visa. Support for such a move has come from the Muslim Labour peer Nazir Ahmed. He wrote recently in the Mail on Sunday: “Young British Muslims go to the mosque and hear an imam delivering a sermon in a foreign language about the past. It has no relevance to… the problems affecting Muslims in Britain. At the same time, it fills them with absurd notions about the British. They leave the mosque feeling angry and confused and walk straight into the arms of extremist groups such as al-Muhajiroun which talk to them in a language they understand.”
Ahmed, along with the Guardian newspaper, has also called for state support for the funding of imam training. One problem here is how to reflect the diversity within Britain’s Islamic community. There is the danger of seeming to favour one strand of Islam against others. On the other hand, perhaps it is right for the state to favour seminaries that teach liberal doctrines or that encourage inter-faith dialogue. It might be thought that state-funded imams would lack credibility in their communities. But it seems there is no objection in principle to taking state money for imam training – a request for a ?250,000 grant for imam education from the Muslim College in Ealing has been lodged, so far unsuccessfully, with the home office.
Not just an imam problem
Following the Madrid bombing and the first arrests in the British bomb plot, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) sent a letter to some 1,000 imams and mosque councils calling upon them to work with the police to identify terrorists. A few days later, the MCB leadership met with David Blunkett, the home secretary, to urge him to introduce new laws to crack down on rogue Islamic preachers.
But the radicalisation of many young European Muslims cannot be blamed simply upon a few rogue imams. Insular communities, often from poor, rural roots, and locked in an oppositional stance to the mainstream of European society, provide a fertile ground for Islamists looking for new recruits. The danger is that the panic about terrorists hiding in mosques may further antagonise parts of the Muslim community – the pious and the young – who already feel excluded and, in the case of the young, confused and insecure about their mixed identity.
In Britain, opposition to the war in Iraq produced a groundswell of legitimate Muslim political activism which briefly joined with the more conventional left-wing opposition. The war also helped to give a higher profile to mainstream Muslim groups like the collective that publishes Q-News, a magazine that promotes a moderate social and political activism. Other activist groups like Hitz ut-Tahrir speak the words of Islam but are in effect hardcore left extremists. I had a strong sense of d?j? vu visiting a rally in the Wembley conference centre last autumn, when a clean-faced “sister” dressed in full hijab – headscarf and floor-length dress – chaperoned me through a bazaar of political propaganda. Exchange the hijab for a Mao jacket, and she was a replica of my university friend, Mette, who disappeared into the Maoist underground around 1976.
Some Muslim leaders have risen to the challenge posed by the latest round of Islamic terrorism. Fatih Alev, a young Danish imam, explained to me that a recent initiative from the Danish police to set up a co-ordination committee with imams “is an opportunity for us to show that we are serious about fighting terrorism.” British Muslim groups have regular monthly meetings with the Metropolitan police. But many Muslims will say, as did Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, from the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, that Muslims are made scapegoats by the government’s need to exaggerate the risk of terrorism in order to defend the war. “This is nothing new,” he said, “the only thing that has changed is the name of the chemical. Last year it was ricin and chemical gas – today it is ammonium nitrate. But it is the same old story: Muslims have been arrested.” Home office figures show that in 2002-03 there were 32,100 searches under the Terrorism Act. This suggests that Muslims are being stopped in large numbers.
An alarming ICM poll published in the Guardian on 16th March, just prior to the recent arrests, found that 26 per cent of British Muslims thought that Muslims had integrated too far into British society, while only 33 per cent (down from 41 per cent in the previous poll, in 2002) thought that they should do more to integrate.
In Britain, the conservative, and sometimes illiberal, Islam of Pakistan and Bangladesh tends to dominate, in contrast to the more pragmatic Turkish version. And the worldview of even mainstream leaders can be highly polarised, seeing the west as uniformly hostile to Islam. Yet, compared to some other western countries, British Muslims have a stronger sense of belonging, and feel, as a number of people put it, that “Britain is doing much better than some other countries in the way it treats Muslims.” The French headscarf ban was often mentioned as an illustration of how much worse things could be. When I asked about how best to develop Islam in Britain, a big majority agreed that imams should be educated in Britain and also that the government should help “so that British Muslims can become independent of foreign sources.” Home-grown imams, with a proper stake in British society, are increasingly necessary both for reasons of security and to help British Muslims integrate more easily than at present.