French student imams study at Catholic university

February 1, 2008

Imams at the Grand Mosque of Paris, 31 Aug. 2004/Victor TonelliFrance’s long-awaited programme of university training for Muslim prayer leaders and chaplains was launched this week — at the Catholic university in Paris. We wrote about this not too long ago when the project was announced. It was third time lucky for Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Muslim Council and rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, who had earlier tried in vain to get the Sorbonne and another section of the University of Paris interested in the project. The Institut Catholique de Paris finally stepped up to take on the project, which the French government has been encouraging for several years now as a way to ensure imams in France are properly educated. It thinks the fact that 3/4 of the 1,200 imams in France are not French citizens, 1/3 of them don’t speak French and almost all have little or no real religious training is a potential source of radical ideology.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of ParisAccording to Sophie de Ravinel in Le Figaro, the average age of those on the programme is about 40 and just over half of them are French citizens. The rest come mostly from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. Three women — two of them wearing headscarves — are among the students. “Twenty of the 25 students come from the Grand Mosque of Paris. Among them is Abdelkader Khali, a 52-year-old computer specialist born in France. This future chaplain, son and grandson of French officiers, wants to defend ‘an open, tolerant and enlightened Islam’ in the army.”

The imam training project never got off the ground at the Sorbonne and the other section of the University of Paris because professors there thought it would violate laïcité, France’s legal separation of church and state. But from the start, the project foresaw all theological training at the Grand Mosque of Paris. The university was meant to teach secular subjects, such as French law, history and sociology. The idea was that the university education would round out the Islamic training the imams got at the Grand Mosque and give them a recognised university degree. It sounded like a reasonable idea, but laïcité got in the way.

Not all Muslims like the idea of future imams studying at a Catholic university, either. The large Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) declined to send students, catho.jpgsaying it preferred a “neutral academic framework” for the courses.

Pierre Cahné, rector of the Institute Catholique de Paris, made very clear in an interview with La Croix that the programme at his university “has nothing to do with theological training. Our guidelines are clear: we have foreigners who will live in France and hold leading social and religious functions. Our duty is to see that they can accomplish this in the most efficient and humane way possible, with the least conflict. French society has a certain number of values. Why should we refuse to transmit them?

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