Switzerland: Imam school – New Islamic training centre aims to build bridges

The majority of practising imams in Switzerland do not speak a national language according to a 2009 study by the National Science Foundation (Keystone)

The majority of practising imams in Switzerland do not speak a national language according to a 2009 study by the National Science Foundation (Keystone)

by Abdelhafidh Abdeleli, swissinfo.ch
April 8, 2014 – 15:05

The first modules of a training course for imams in Switzerland may begin in the autumn at the University of Fribourg, eventually making it possible for locally trained Islamic prayer leaders to join the ranks of the country’s 150 imams, all of whom trained abroad.

“The project is now moving into its operational phase,” Antonio Loprieno, rector of the University of Basel, who has chaired the working group for the course for the past two years, told swissinfo.ch.

The new inter-faculty Islamic training centre will provide courses for imams on Swiss culture and society context, courses for social services, courses for health professionals on accommodating the Muslim community and, ultimately, a training programme for new imams.

Despite fears expressed by some opponents to the new Islamic training centre, a conference held in Fribourg in March moved the planning process forward.

“I am happy to confirm that a major step has been made,” Hicham Maizar, of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Switzerland and current president of the Swiss Council of Religions, told swissinfo.ch.

“Muslims have lived in Switzerland for 50 years. We should therefore build bridges between them, society and the authorities. From the beginning, we have staked a lot on dialogue, which will be encouraged by the centre, as a way of demonstrating that one can be both Swiss and Muslim,” he added.

Guido Vergauwen, rector of the University of Fribourg, which will house the centre, would like to see the first modules available in autumn 2014. The full course should begin from spring 2015.

The director of public education in Fribourg, Jean-Pierre Siggen, is also satisfied with developments, noting that the cantonal government, in giving its support to the centre, wishes to encourage inter-faith dialogue. In his view, “the university offers the ideal framework for this”.

Muslims in Switzerland

A joint cantonal and governmental report published in 2013 found that most Muslims in Switzerland were well-integrated and didn’t generally experience problems related to their religious faith in everyday life.

Switzerland’s 350,000-400,000 Muslims don’t belong to a single faith community; instead, they tend to be divided along ethnic and linguistic lines.

Religion isn’t the most important identifying factor for many of them. According to the report, only 12-15% actively practise the faith by regularly visiting a mosque, and Muslims from the Balkan region in particular see the religion as a tradition rather than a strict belief system.

An initiative banning the building of minarets was voted into law on November 29, 2009, and triggered a debate in Switzerland and abroad about the acceptance of Muslims in the country.

Fears of Islamism

Despite these assurances, some voices have raised objections to the centre. Among them, local parliamentarians from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and the centre-left Christian Democrats who asked the local government to intervene to get the university to abandon the project.

“We don’t know what is going to be taught at the centre. Islamist influences could exploit it,” said Roland Mesot, president of the Fribourg branch of the People’s Party.

Loprieno does not share this worry. “It is unlikely that Islamism would get a foothold at the heart of a university with such a great liberal tradition. On the contrary, a centre like this could lead to an Islamic discussion in accord with our own values,” he said.

The original idea for this project came from a national research programme, “Religious groups, state and society”, carried out in 2009. It found that most of the imams and teachers of Islam did not speak Swiss national languages and did not know Swiss society, culture and laws.

More than 150 imams officiate in Swiss mosques. They come from the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East. There is a need for Swiss-based training, according to Vergauwan, who wants to build bridges between the Muslim minority and Swiss society.

Diverging opinions

Project leader Hans-Jörg Schmidt sees things differently. According to him, the expression “Islam and society” does not really reflect the content of the training course.

“Islam does not exist on the margins of society. It is part of it,” he said.

The working group charged with developing the training programme comprises universities, imams and representatives of civil society. At the conference in March, divergences between the three categories were apparent.

For imams and Islamic organisations, the importance of this training lies in the fact that “Islam in Switzerland has become a challenge for the state and society, and secular life a challenge for Muslims”, Maizar explained.

The goal of the centre is therefore to find a way of living together that protects the interests of both. According to Maizar, the training should be available to imams, but also teachers in state schools and social workers in hospitals, prisons and retirement homes.

Encourage debate

For the university representatives, the important thing is to create a new course in Swiss universities, which differentiates itself from both the German experience based on study of the Koran, ethics and Sharia law, and the traditional Islamic university tradition, limited in critical thinking.

“The centre should encourage an Islamic debate which would not be locked into a system,” Reinhard Schulze, professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Bern, told swissinfo.ch.

As for the representatives of civil society, some, such as Rifa’at Lenzin, member of the Federal Commission against Racism, and Bashkim Ihsani, researcher at the University of Lausanne, also want the centre to encourage an open Islam which favours critical thought.

According to Ihsani, the centre should also focus on the themes of immigration and integration of Muslims. Likewise it should reflect “the cultural and linguistic diversity of Muslims in Switzerland”.

Several key unanswered questions remain. Who will pay for the course?

What professional avenues are open to the imams – or others – who benefit from the training? A third conference may be required to deal with these matters, as some have suggested.

(Translated by Clare O’Dea)


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2 replies

  1. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is (as usual) ahead of the rest of the Muslim Community by having Imams that do speak a national language and furthermore have ‘Imam training colleges’ in Europe already (England and Germany so far).

  2. Legally, the state has an obligation to respect the rights of parents to ensure that ‘education and teaching(of their children) is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’The schools must satisfy the spiritual, moral, social, and cultural needs of Muslim pupils. State schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers are not in a position to satisfy their needs.

    A good school is not just a knowledge factory or a conveyor belt for churning out exam passes – it is a community, a family. A community is held together by common values and principles.

    Multiculturalism is not about integration but about cultural plurality. It is not about separation but about respect and the deepening awareness of Unity in Diversity. Each culture will maintain its own intrinsic value and at the same time would be expected to contribute to the benefit of the whole society. Multiculturalism can accommodate diversity of all kinds – cultural, philosophical and religious – so that we can create a world without conflict and strife. Britain can assume the role of accommodation and concern for all peoples, for our planet and indeed for our survival. Multi-culturalism is even more important and crucial after 9/11 and 7/7. Muslim youths are also likely to feel alienated by a focus on shared Brutishness, rather than multicultural diversity. Rather than promoting a single British “us” teaching should acknowledge that “us” can be diverse and plural. Children should be encouraged to explore differences in appearance, history and religion to reduce social and educational fears.

    It is absurd to believe that Muslim schools, Imams and Masajid teach Muslim children anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-western views. It is dangerously deceptive and misleading to address text books and discuss them out of their historical, cultural and linguistic context. It is not wrong to teach children that Jews are committing the same cruelty in Palestine what German did to them before or during Second World War. It is not wrong to teach children that anti-social behaviour, drinking, drugs, homosexuality, sex before marriage, teenage pregnancies and abortions are western values and Islam is against all such sins. This does not mean that Muslim schools teach children to hate westerners, Jews and homosexuals.

    Extremism, homophobia and anti-Semitism are nothing to do with Islamic teachings and beliefs. Islam does not teach that Jews and Christians are pigs and monkeys. The Policy Exchange Think-tank should concentrate on institutionally racist British schooling with chicken racist teachers. Muslim parents do not want their children with behaviour problems that include unprovoked aggression, promiscuity, violence, eating disorder, bullying and alcohol. According to ATL, teachers believe behaviour is worse than it was five years ago, with even five year olds being disrespectful, intimidating and violent. This is the true picture of British broken society and the Muslim community does not want to be integrated.

    Who says that Europeans are civilised. They are the most savage people in the world. They are guilty of massacre during the time of Crusade in Jerusalem. They not only slaughtered Arab Muslims but also Arab Christians and Jews. They massacred American Indians in millions. They slaughtered Aborigines who welcomed them in the first place. British massacred millions of Indian Muslims after the War of Independence in 1857. Millions of their children were converted to Christianity by the Christian Missionaries.

    You better teach your children in your own schools and let migrant communities teach their children according to their needs and demands. British Establishment and society should concentrate on the evils of their own society and stop trying to change the way of life of Muslims. Muslim community does not want to integrate with the British society, indulging in incivility, anti-social behaviour, drug and knife culture, binge drinking, teenage pregnancies and abortion. Prince Charles, while visiting the first grant maintained Muslim school in north London, said that the pupils would be the future ambassadors of Islam. But what about thousands of others, who attend state schools deemed to be “sink schools”? In education, there should be a choice and at present it is denied to the Muslim community. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I floated the idea of Muslim community schools, I was declared a “school hijacker” by an editorial in the Newham Recorder newspaper in east London. This clearly shows that the British media does not believe in choice and diversity in the field of education and has no respect for those who are different. Muslim schools, in spite of meager resources, have excelled to a further extent this year, with couple of schools achieving 100% A-C grades for five or more GCSEs. They beat well resourced state and independent schools in Birmingham and Hackney. Muslim schools are doing better because a majority of the teachers are Muslim. The pupils are not exposed to the pressures of racism, multiculturalism and bullying.

    There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands.
    London School of Islamics Trust

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