Menue phone

The Political Appeal of "European" Imams

Centre for Islamic Studies, Frankfurt/Gießen. Copyright: Lena Dreier.

By Lena Dreier (Leipzig University)

How do you imagine the perfect Imam? The image of a man with dark hair and good clothes appears before the inner eye (is it a priest or an Imam?). A polite, friendly, somehow social person who reaches out his hand in a friendly way and speaks with a low voice. To what is this the opposite? To the rushing Imams in the backyards, those who occasionally sit in talk shows and to the annoyance and entertainment of the audience, swagger anti-democratically. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the debate about "imported" Imams as opposed to "own" Imams has revolved around such simplified images - in temporal variation, but in France, Denmark, Germany as well as in the UK.

Kamel Daoud's comment in the New York Times on 28 January also deals with this distinction. He asks why France imports Imams when so many Muslims live in France. Similar to Germany, in France Imams from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria work in mosques for up to five years and then return. Daoud's comment is prompted by an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron to reconsider the training of Imams abroad. Kamel Daoud sees the debate on French Imams as an example of

“[...] the endless-seeming debate between those who want to maintain a monopoly over Islam in France and those who wish to develop an Islam of France.”

Behind the distinction between French and non-French Imams is thus assumed a symbol for a French or foreign Islam. The Imam question becomes the Islam question. But what does one not actually see, if one narrows the view so strongly to the Imams? And: why are actually French Imams better than imported ones?

The Imam Question as Islam Question

Daoud describes a dilemma facing France that is due to state laicism. France has enormous problems with Islamic terror, but because of the relationship between state and religion, the state currently cannot introduce any state regulation on Islam, for example by training Imams locally or subsidising the construction of mosques. Macron therefore intends to change the law and create a loophole in order to be able to support Imam training or its financing by the state. Macron is trying to do what Sarkozy has already done with the so-called “Laïcité positive”: to find a way of dealing with religion instead of a clear, strict separation. But even in Germany, where the training of religious experts is a common task of state and church, it has not yet been possible to establish an Imam training that makes it superfluous to bring Imams from Turkey and other countries to the mosques.

But in Germany the debate about the training of Imams, based on the cooperation commandment of state and religious community, has produced a new perspective: Islamic theology, a course of studies without confession but nevertheless with confessional reference. Here too there are no Imams in the end, but Islamic theologians with whom one hopes to make a start for an academic Islam grown in Germany and its experts. Why don't similar structures also grow in France?

Kamel Daoud is right when he refers to the fundamental dilemma of the relationship between state and religion, which makes it difficult for France to influence religious affairs. But attention should also be paid to the education system: while the German education system is decentralized in the federal states and relies on state education, the French education system is more centralized and - not only with regard to Islamic educational institutions - also more privatized. At the Catholic University of Paris, a programme was created around 2007 that was supposed to be secular but still educate Imams. However, it had little success, as Akgönül explains in his overview of Imam education in France:

“A large majority of those who completed the program were either already Imams, or they have not become Imams later, because, again, the associations claims 'authentic' Imams educated in the homeland, not at the Catholic Institute.“1

As a private Islamic university, the Institut Européen des Sciences Humaines in Saint-Léger-de Fougeret was founded in France in 1990, and now attracts many students from other European countries. But the university is controversial because it is financed by donations from Saudi Arabia and associated with Islamist teachers and teachings (see for example an article in the German conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine). The university has a handful of graduates of Imam training per year: Imams, educated in France and mostly of French origin. What about them - are they the French Imams wanted or do they also stand for the negative image of the Imam? In this case, it should be clear what the call for local Imam training is all about: not French, German or Dutch Imams, but Imams who firmly share state values.

Then there is the Strasbourg model in France. Due to the special historical situation (Laïcité is not valid in Alsace), there is a university with a theology faculty (Catholic and Protestant). In 2009 a Master's degree in Islamology was started here, as well as an Imam training in 2012. A further establishment of the academic path for further education or training of Imams or Muslim experts cannot, however, be foreseen due to the legal restriction of special law in Alsace. Diyanet also made an attempt in 2011 to establish an alternative Imam training programme in France. However, there was no cooperation with the state or official accreditation. Here too a comparative view on Islamic theology in Germany is interesting: The Institute for Islamic Studies in Frankfurt, which also conducts Islamic theology, was created by the financing of an endowed professorship by Diyanet; thus also by a religious organisation from abroad. Meanwhile the professorship stands for the Ankara School and a historical-critical Islamic theology.

If one focuses the question about the Imam on the question about Islam, but also looks at the respective educational system, it becomes clear that in most European countries - due to the respective relationship between state and religion as well as educational traditions - there are already attempts to give Islamic education a place. But it can also be assumed that the success of a private, state or cooperative education depends on how attractive it is for the students and the local religious organisations. Even though in Germany, as in France, all attempts to centralise “Islam” have failed, French and German Muslims are beginning to develop alternatives to the current path in various other areas. These are efforts for which the state has to decide whether it can and wants to support them on a legal and normative basis. The dilemma here: These small initiatives seem to be somewhat overburdened when they are overloaded with the big question about Islam itself. A member of the Islamic Theology staff, for example, with whom I spoke in the context of my doctoral thesis, reported that with every medial and political discussion that is conducted on Islam, the resources for teaching and research decrease dramatically because almost all resources are needed to answer queries from the press and politicians (see also the evaluation of the Osnabrück Islamic Theology). And since in Germany the religious representation of Islamic theology is guaranteed by an advisory board in which representatives of the largest Islamic associations are strongly represented, also the project Islamic theology wobbles if one of the associations gets in the focus of criticism. That is the dilemma of the cooperation model, in which also always the confession-bound studies are responsible, because they seem to be associated nevertheless also with Islam.

French or non-French: Cultural affiliation counts

Why is the Imam considered to play such an important role? Daoud distinguishes between French and non-French Imams, i.e. imported Imams. The Imam's service is imported here, it appears as a commodity of which one has enough (in one's own state) and therefore does not have to import it from elsewhere. The religious service offered by the Imam is regarded as something with which the demanders must be supplied in the most reasonable, simplest and perhaps also cheapest way. The “import” is simpler insofar as it continues an already established practice, which is quite similar in France and Germany, because Muslims and above all the communities organised themselves mainly themselves in the first decades after their arrival. For a long time there was neither attention nor support for it and if at all then by foreign organisations - in both countries Diyanet played an important supporting role. The Diyanet sent Turkish state officials as Imams to Germany and other countries for usually five years, where - as the sociologist of religion Rauf Ceylan shows in his studies - they often took on various tasks without having any linguistic or cultural knowledge of the host country. Even believers therefore often criticized that Imams from abroad could not do justice to this task. Many Imams lack didactic competence, language skills, but above all the cultural and social understanding of their local life situation. If this criticism, like Daoud’s, also aims at the origin of the Imams, then it is more a question of a lack of competence than of questioning a certain confession of values.

Kamel Daoud calls the imported Imams an ideological trap because they promoted segregation and non-French values: “[they] work against integration, because they are not French”. He criticizes that France passes on its Islam to other states and pleads for the recognition of a French Islam. This demand also strongly reminds of the German discussion about Islam - which belongs to Germany or not - and Imam education - which was and is about the hope for “democratically unsuspicious” Imams. The cultural affiliation of Islam and the origin of Imams are therefore the core categories that are called for here. Thus a core question of Imam training is whether Islam “belongs to it”. The imported Imam is so politically relevant because he does not belong to Germany, France or Denmark, which means: does not share their values.So while the political debate is about belonging to a community of values, the Muslim communities are above all concerned with practical questions in which origin as a yardstick for the authenticity of religious teaching is just as relevant as its appropriateness for the life situation of the local Muslims. When we talk about Imams as integration commissioners, from a political perspective it is above all about how they can become representatives of state values and not about which services they can provide to Muslims in the communities. However, the focus on the figure of the Imam could also be questioned. Don't the communities seem to lack more versatile professionals with religious, social, cultural and linguistic competence than prayer leaders? With the different interests of politics and communities, belonging via values (“French”) and belonging qua understanding of culture (migration) are also opposed as criteria for “good” Imams.

Narrowing the view to the Imam as a symbolic figure

The present strong attention to the Imams, their selection and education has little surprisingly to do with political Islamism and Islamist terrorism. It is assumed that radical Islamists are mainly recruited in mosques. The call for a French/German/Danish Imam training is therefore at the core the call for institutionally anchored religious value formation. This figure of thought claims that a French Imam preaches French values rather than an Arab or Turkish one. However, the high value-political relevance assigned to the Imams forgets one thing: In Germany and France, the community life of the mosques is shaped to a large extent by volunteers, from janitorial work to social services to Koran instruction. The majority of these volunteers live in local society and have done so for a long time, sometimes in the fourth generation. As far as one can say so far, because many graduates do not yet exist and even less is known about their whereabouts, there are indications in Germany that these tasks of community life are some of the fields of work in which Islamic theologians are active. Thus at least some large Muslim associations in Germany try to employ graduates of Islamic theology, for example in youth work, often part-time for financial reasons.

Nevertheless, this shows that in addition to Imam training there are many other fields of activity and training in which the promotion of religious competence appears relevant but is at the same time less politically controversial than in the case of the Imam. It is precisely for this reason that it is interesting that the controversy about “the right Imams” is repeatedly so heated. Obviously there is more being argued about here than the Imam.

The common main interest of many politicians, Muslim intellectuals and also of the communities are Imams who represent values that seem politically, culturally and socially appropriate and reasonable. For politicians and the media (see Daoud), reasonable means reasonable in terms of security policy; for Muslim intellectuals and communities, however, it is more about reasonable representation, sensible religious education and an understanding of the living conditions and needs of believers.

For all those involved, the question of identity with regard to the Imams remains central. For example, Kamel Daoud describes how Algeria sees it as interference when France tries to control who comes to France as an Imam. From an Algerian point of view, Muslims, who live in France in the umpteenth generation, continue to belong culturally and religiously to Algeria. Conversely, France complains that they are Muslim citizens who should represent a French Islam. And the believers themselves? As far as I can say, despite all the limitations of my research field, it is crucial for many young Muslims whether the training of religious experts is done by someone who believes and how this person believes and teaches. Therefore Daoud is right when he speaks of a dilemma: Without Muslim representation in education the claim to representation of the believers will be as difficult to realize as the claim to representation of the political forces. In this respect, it was a strategically clever move to introduce a “Muslim elevator” into the university in Germany: In Islamic theology there are now Muslim students who would otherwise have stayed away from the university, including those who work voluntarily in religious organisations that repeatedly come under political criticism. If one thinks of Kamel Daoud's argument that it is ultimately a question of establishing a French Islam as an alternative to an Islam controlled by other states in France, these students, however, show just one thing: they are not currently opting for a German or a non-German Islam, but combine their German study of Islamic theology often with a DiTiB scholarship for several semesters in Turkey.

So there seems to be another Islam than a German and a non-German one.

References: [1] Akgönül, Samim. "The Debate on Imams and Imam Training in France." In: The training of imams and teachers for Islamic education in Europe. Edited by Ednan Aslan und Zsófia Windisch, 175-188. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2012, 185.

Inaugural conference of the Research Training Group "Islamic Theology", Berlin. Copyright: Stiftung Mercator.