New civic education diploma - for imams

France's move aims to isolate extremism, beef up moderate Islamic practices in Europe

France's new university year started this week with the addition of a new course: a diploma in "civic education" designed specifically for imams and other religious leaders working with its Muslim population.

For the moment, only a handful of French universities are offering these courses. However, their progress is being monitored closely not just by the French, but also other European governments.

The hope is that such courses could help isolate extremism and strengthen moderate religious practices throughout Europe's 15 million-strong Muslim population.

A scarcity of mosques and shortages of qualified religious leaders are problems that afflict all Muslim communities in Europe. That is partly due to history: Europe's Muslim communities grew incrementally over decades, and few of those who first settled in Europe expected their new countries of residence to provide for their spiritual needs.

But it is also due to neglect from European authorities. Initially, not many government officials understood the religious requirements of their Muslim communities, and there was some resistance to accepting that such communities were permanent features of the European landscape.

The outcome was a chaotic policy of establishing makeshift mosques in disused buildings, and of importing prayer leaders from outside Europe. Most of those who came had no previous exposure to European cultures or traditions, so they often promoted narrow and socially conservative interpretations of Islam which had little bearing on the societies in the midst of which today's European Muslims live.

And while only a minority of them ever incited violence, governments in Europe feel that they can no longer leave this matter to chance: France's Interior Ministry revealed in June that 40 foreign imams were deported over the past three years for "preaching hatred".

They included hardliners from Mali, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia who justified death for apostates, violence against women and promoted anti-Semitism.

In the wake of January's terrorist attacks in Paris, France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that the country's imams will now be expected to take a diploma course in civic education, as part of a broader anti-radicalisation effort aimed at officials running France's estimated 2,500 mosques.

The diploma requires attendance of 130 hours of evening classes, spread over one year. The programme includes a foundation course on the legal structure which applies to all religious denominations in France, as well as further modules on the rights and obligations of French citizens.

The teaching syllabus is still being refined. "We are still in the test-driving phase," Mrs Catherine Cluzeaud-Delvit, who is responsible for such courses at the University of Toulouse in southern France, told local media. "The first student cohort will permit us to fine-tune the programme, according to the needs which may emerge."

A total of 60 Islamic religious leaders are currently enrolled on these diploma courses across three French universities, and the tuition costs, estimated at €35,000 (S$56,000) per student, are largely borne by the French Ministry of Education.

But the French authorities are aware that the course they are offering does not deal with the teaching of Islam as such.

So they are hoping to close this gap with a recently concluded deal with Morocco, under which the North African kingdom that used to be a French protectorate will also offer Islamic faith courses for French imams at a specially constructed facility in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.

The training would promote "an Islam with the right balance" that conforms to "openness and tolerance" and is "fully anchored in the values of the Republic and secularism", French President Francois Hollande said, after signing the agreement with Morocco's King Muhammed VI.

Under the deal, up to 50 French imams could be trained each year and then return to take the just-launched French diploma course; if all goes well, the objective is that, in a few years from now, France would have established its own group of imams, all trained in institutions approved by the state.

Governments in Britain and Germany, home to Europe's other big Muslim communities, are watching with interest the French experiment. Not everything the French are doing can be copied elsewhere; the French have a uniquely centralised, government-controlled education system which allows the authorities greater scope of action.

Still, there is no question that the French approach, which blends both religious and civic education, is one other European governments would like to follow.

And as Dr Aymeric Potteau, a professor of law at Lille University - another French establishment now offering the diploma course - neatly points out, all with the objective that "one day we won't need such courses at all".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'New civic education diploma - for imams'. Print Edition | Subscribe