By Niels Sorrells
Religion News Service
BERLIN (RNS) As Islamic life and society claims an ever larger place across western Europe, imams increasingly are being asked to provide guidance to their immigrant and native-born Muslim congregations.
But that leads to the question: Who provides guidance for the imams? New educational and certification programs in Germany and neighboring Austria hope to be the answer.
It's becoming increasingly clear that imams who are telling their Muslim congregations how to respond and adapt to their new homes were themselves trained and educated far from Europe. Often basic concepts -- democracy, or church-state separation -- don't resonate with either
spiritual leaders or their flocks.
A new educational program in the western German town of Osnabrueck is about a month into an experiment to help imams learn about European society so that they, in turn, can give better advice to their followers.
A similar program is about to see its first graduates in Vienna, and two other German universities are also working on similar ideas.
Supporters of the German programs eventually want to go beyond filling knowledge gaps on Western society to providing university degrees for would-be imams or Islamic teachers in grade schools.
"There's a deficit here in the area of civic studies," says Rauf Ceylan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Osnabrueck who has been instrumental in creating the curriculum. The imams "have really discovered a need here."
In some ways, grafting Islamic education onto the German system is simple. The country has a long tradition of providing religious education in grade schools, and university degrees in religious studies can be a springboard into the clergy or becoming religious education
But whereas Germany's Catholic and Lutheran churches have hierarchical structures that allow a central curriculum, Islam has no central decision maker. That's left Ceylan wondering whom to pick as a representative for Islam as he develops his imam education program.
"We had to try to find a way to pull the Islamic model in," Ceylan said. "We settled on an advisory council model," which includes members of all major Islamic groups, as well as theologians, academics and politicians.
Getting all those groups to agree on one curriculum could prove a challenge but "it's absolutely possible," said Christine Langenfeld, a law professor at Georg-August University in Goettingen.
"The curriculum has to make sure that the different influences of Islamic society are included."
In practical terms, that means different curriculum plans could reflect different theologies within Islam, such as Sunni or Shia or Sufi. The various Muslim groups will have to be "flexible," she said. "They can't expect that the curriculum exclusively reflects their beliefs."
Erol Purlu, public affairs director with the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers, said he's confident the different Muslim groups can eventually agree on a curriculum.
"I think we've got a long way ahead of us," Purlu said. "But if we work together, it will happen."
There are other kinks to be worked out. Purlu wants Islamic education teachers to be able to also hold jobs at mosques. Currently, most religious education teachers in German grade schools are professional teachers, with no formal ties to their church.
In addition, even if curriculums can be drafted and the first class of imams can be graduated, some wonder whether Germany's Islamic communities will accept imams trained in Germany and not in traditional centers of Islamic culture.
"These imams will have to fight for acceptance," said Langenfeld.
There's also the practical hurdle of compensation. Adnan Eslan, who is about to graduate his first class of imams in a continuing education program, said imams with a European degree will be able to command a higher salary than an immigrant imam, and not every mosque can afford an imam of that caliber.
"We want good imams, but the good imams are expensive," he said.
Many advocates look to Vienna for guidance, where a popular program for training grade-school Islamic teachers has been up and running for years. It's a model Ceylan hopes to replicate in Germany, where only 3 percent of the country's 900,000 Muslim students have access to a qualified Islamic teacher during set-aside religious instruction hours.
So far, Ceylan is optimistic -- an extended education program meant for 15 imams was expanded to 30 after 100 attended an informational evening and 50 applied.
"We see that the need is there. They are seeking us out," he said. "They don't have these kinds of opportunities in Islamic countries."
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