A New School for Imams Could Be a Model for Others

The gulf between Europe's 16 million Muslims and the secular societies in which they live all too often breeds misunderstanding, resentment and even violence. And while there's plenty of blame to go around, one reason for many Muslims' difficulty integrating in the European Union countries is that their clerics are usually imported from Turkey or the Arab world, and have such poor language skills and weak knowledge of their host country that they struggle to help their fellow community members adapt and fit in.

But this month, an experimental new school for imams opened in an outlying eastern district of Berlin that may help provide a model for the nurturing of a distinctly European strand of Islam. The daunting mission of this new school, and a growing handful of similar initiatives in Europe, is to cater to the needs of Muslims in Europe while negotiating between the cultures of Islam and the West. The 29 students enrolled this year, all of them born or raised in Europe (and all of them men), will take Arabic language and Muslim theology classes along with German and civics. Their study will combine the principles of Islam with those of contemporary European culture, including, most critically, democracy and human rights.

The school, known as the Buhara Institute, is the creation of the 300 members of a Berlin mosque linked to the mystical Sufi tradition of Islam. Most of its members are Turkish and, like hundreds of thousands of their countrymen, they emigrated to Germany in the 1960s and '70s to fill labor shortages. Since then, Germany's large Turkish population has put down roots across the western part of the country, and it has recently become apparent to many of them that it is crucial to cultivate a new generation of imams that can speak German. "We want to educate imams who are anchored in these societies," says the school's director, Alexander Weiger, a Bavarian who converted to Islam. "They should be able to conduct a dialogue with the churches, the authorities and other parts of civil society."

The school is only the latest attempt to try and promote a more European brand of Islam. For years, the Cologne-based Union of Islamic Cultural Centers has trained its own imams with great success. The Muslim Academy in Berlin offers German and other classes, financed by the city of Berlin, to Muslim preachers and women. In France, the first such imam college in Western Europe was founded in 2004—and now includes women as well as men. Originally funded by the Saudi government, it now says it is privately financed. And French universities offer courses to foreign-born imams in French language, law and culture. But the Buhara Institute is unique in that it is a private initiative, created and funded by local Muslims rather than the state or a foreign government.

Politicians have warmly welcomed such initiatives. The EU sees the budding of a more tolerant, open-minded Islam as a way to confront radicalism. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has advocated using public money to educate imams, and Berlin's authorities have warmly welcomed the Buhara Institute. But the conservative Islamist community has been less welcoming, viewing Buhara and its kind as too much of a deviation from the core teachings of Islam. Germany's biggest Islamic umbrella organization, the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religion, still only accepts imams trained in theology in Turkey—and intends to stick with that.

Still, attempts to forge what some have called a "European Islam" couldn't come at a better time. A recent study in Austria, which caused an outcry far beyond its borders, found that a quarter of the country's teachers of Islam believed human rights and democracy were incompatible with the religion. Twenty-eight percent said there was a contradiction between being European and being Muslim. "There's clearly a problem, and not just in Austria, when it comes to Islam's attitudes toward democracy and pluralism," says Eberhard Seidel, of the Berlin NGO Schools Without Racism. A study last year in Germany was similarly disturbing, concluding that a fifth of foreign imams adhered to a particularly conservative, fundamentalist Islam. Some were drawn from the ranks of extremists.

The proponents of European Islam, foremost among them the Swiss Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, hope to change that, arguing that Europe's Muslims should actively participate in the social and cultural life of the societies in which they live—and clearly disassociate themselves from fundamentalism. A school like Buhara could aid that cause, while helping Europeans become more willing to see Islam not as a dangerous ideology, but as just another European religion.