How local imam training can limit radicalisation and terrorism

I would imagine that many people would reject state involvement in religion as a matter of principle Isn’t there, after all, a belief that the two are responsible for different functions? The state is supposed to look after everything that has to do with, well, running a state, and religion is concerned about things like morality and our souls, no? Besides, don’t a lot of countries have laws or constitutions or charters guaranteeing freedom of religion? If so, what role if any, does the state have in religious affairs? Should the two magisteria (to use a term popularised for me by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould) mix?

Maybe they should.

The German government wants its imams – Islamic religious leaders – to be trained locally. To date, most have been trained in Turkey (largely through the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs or DITIB from its Turkish acronym) , reflecting the fact that the vast majority of Germany’s four million or so Muslims are ethnically Turkish. Some would maintain that those acting as religious counselors should come from the same background as their flock and that would make sense intuitively. So why is Germany making this proposal?

For one thing it is seeking to “curb foreign influence and foster integration.” The German government is concerned that foreign-trained imams do not understand German – the government is planning to amend Germany’s residency law to require German language knowledge for foreign religious functionaries coming to the country – the education system or the predominant culture, and there has been criticism over DITIB’s interference in domestic political affairs.

A lot of this makes sense to me. If Islam is to be part of German society it has to truly be part of it, i.e. there has to be a degree of integration and acceptance of German life. You don’t get that by having all your preachers come from the ‘old country’, bringing their old country biases and preferences. And while the transition to local training will not happen overnight as I imagine it takes time to develop educational institutions that have enough religious credibility, it is the right move if Muslims want to develop a truly ‘German’ form of their faith.

There is another reason to call for local input: decreasing radical and extremist thought. In this sense the Saudis are the champions. They have sent imams all over the world and financed Islamic centres that spread their poisonous interpretation of Islam – what is called Wahhabism – for decades and this campaign has led to radicalisation and the emergence of terrorist groups and individuals. I don’t think that Turkey is in the same boat but the current government under President Erdogan does hold a number of ideas, both odd and dangerous, to give us pause. Reducing that influence can only be a good thing.

Questions surrounding the financing of this training and the quality of the new instructors remain valid. Nevertheless, it is high time for the West’s Muslims to take control of their own communities. If they truly want to be part of the West it is high time to cut the apron strings tying them to the Middle East. If at the same time they nip radicalisation to violence in the bud then bonus. It is also possible that moves like this could drain some of the feelings of Islamophobia: if Muslims are seen as our neighbours it is harder to see them as the Other. Worth thinking about, isn’t it?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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