After French authorities recently tried to expel an Algerian imam who had apparently justified his wife’s beating based upon religious principles, as well as expelling a self-proclaimed imam who had told his congregation to rejoice about Madrid’s bombings, the issue of training the future religious leaders of French Islam increasingly appears as a key issue.
The new French interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, has recently said that the country needed clerics trained in a moderate Islam that respects human rights and democratic principles, reports The Guardian (April 23). Currently, most of the imams have received their training, if any, abroad. There are some private Muslim theological institutes in France, but most of them welcome students on a part-time basis and usually affiliated with one specific current of Islam.
However, Villepin also said that French secular principles forbid the government to organize such a training program of its own and that this should rather be the task of the Muslim Council elected last year with the strong encouragement of the French government. The council is considered as representative of the Muslim population in France.
It has suggested in May that acting imams should receive additional training, especially in order to make them more familiar with French language, history, and society. It was also recommended that private institutes should give practical training to future imams (e.g. preaching) during a two year cycle. Moreover, the council would like to encourage the development of theologians and suggested that a Department of Islamic Studies should be created for that purpose at the University of Strasbourg.
For historical reasons, church-state separation as it exists in other parts of France deson’t apply to the Alsatian area, where Strasbourg is located. However, any project is and will be slowed down by competing groups within French Islam, which want to have imams trained at the private institutes they have already created, reports the newspaper Liberation (May 15 and 17).
— By Jean-Francois Mayer