This episode illustrates a very important point. It is essential that imams who travel from foreign countries to work in the West should be trained well enough beforehand to understand the mindset of the society in which they will live. While the religious training these men receive is often excellent, their knowledge of Western customs and ways of behavior is less so. Muslims in Australia would not deny that Islam presents a very modest dress code for men and women to live by, but that code and those beliefs need to be presented in a way that Australian society understands.
In the UK and the rest of Europe there are, at present, great pressures on the Muslim community. These differ from country to country. In France, the issue of the banning of the Muslim headscarf in French schools is still a very heavy blow to Muslims there. In Italy, for example, immigration problems are being linked very clearly to the presence of non-Italian Muslims. In the UK, as in many other countries, Islam is being used as a scapegoat for the ills of the nation. The aftermath of 9/11 and other atrocities leaves governments and others looking for someone to blame. Islam has, unfortunately, been chosen as the victim.
So in the UK, then, and in many other countries in the West, imams are being faced with a great number of challenges. If it were not a sufficient challenge to be responsible for leading and guiding whole communities of Muslims in the ways of Islam, these imams are being called upon to deal with so much else that makes their mission difficult. They need to lead and guide in an atmosphere that is not conducive to Islam. In the workplace, or at school, it is not always easy for Muslims to find places for prayer, or to have access to halal meat or be allowed to dress in an Islamic way. For many imams, all of this is going on in a country into which they were not born. They have come from abroad to serve the Muslim community as best they can.
Now, some people suggest that the answer is very simple. They suggest that the future lies in having native-born imams to serve the local community. So, there would be British imams for Britain, French imams for France, and so on. Even if this were desirable, it would take a very long time to achieve. But is it even a goal to aspire towards? Is it necessary that an imam in Bradford be born in the UK? Is it not better that the best imam available is appointed to the post, and that he be trained well for his job? We should never fall into the trap of talking about “British Muslims” or “French Muslims,” as governments would want us to. Muslims are Muslims wherever they live, and they play a full and vital role in any society to which they belong. This talk of “British Muslims,” though, smacks of a desire for control by those who are not Muslim and who care nothing for Islam.
It is important that Muslim communities cooperate with the government of the country they belong to, when this is in the best interests of the country. Islam, though, is no threat to any country, and governments who try to sanitize Islam and fit it into their boxes are doing no one any real service. Britain will prosper, not by seeking to control Islam and Muslims, but by allowing Islam and Muslims to thrive. This will enrich the nation as a whole. The notion, then, of having imams solely from the country they serve, is a fallacious notion. It is just not necessary.
What is necessary is that imams be trained well for their mission. But maybe this is precisely what governments don’t actually want. The British government and its embassies abroad, for example, talk much about a desire to promote tolerance and understanding in a country that is multi-cultural like Britain. Real efforts at promoting such dialogue, though, are difficult to be found. There are enough problems in Britain, with even Cabinet ministers putting false ideas about Islam into people’s minds, that the government would do well to sort these out before talking about tolerance and understanding.
Are They Serious?
What is needed, then, if the British and other governments are really serious about having well-trained and educated imams serving the Muslims of their countries, is that they should help those foreign imams to prepare for their mission. Often, the opposite is the case, with obstacles and tests put in the way of those who would serve Muslims in the West.
It is no longer enough for imams to be the spiritual guides of their community. They also need to fulfill a host of other roles. Imams need to be spokesmen for the Muslim community. They need to be able to talk to the press. They need to be able to communicate well with leaders of other faiths. They need to be accountants and organizers, chaplains to schools and hospitals and prisons. They need to be good public speakers, teachers, trainers, and communicators. In other words, in this modern world, imams need the training to use every modern means to speak to a modern world so that the real message of Islam can be heard. On top of all this, if the imams are to come from abroad they need to be trained about the countries they will serve. They need information about their history and geography. They need to know the language of the people they will serve. They need, also, to understand their customs and their way of life.
There are enough experts to provide this training. We need experts in every field and, as Muslims, we have them. What we do not have, though, is a concerted and consistent program that can be applied for all imams who would travel from their home countries to serve Muslims in the West.
Great leaps forward have taken place in places like Britain, for example, in providing training for imams. The Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Foundation, to name but two, have organized some excellent training. We need to work hand in hand with this training, though, and to prepare the imams even before they leave to travel abroad.
It would be a real test of the true intentions of the British and other governments if they were to promote such training — not control it, but promote it. Let us see in the weeks and months ahead if we can, as Muslims, begin to forge this excellence in training for our imams abroad who will travel to the West. Let us not wait always to follow what others would do, or settle for the agendas, which non-Muslims would set for us. Let us, instead, begin now to train our imams to best serve the Muslim community, and in doing so, to better serve the societies in which they live.
British Muslim writer and presenter, Idris Tawfiq, was for many years head of religious education in many schools in the UK. Before embracing Islam, he was a Roman Catholic priest. In February 2008, he will be visiting Ireland. You can visit his website at www.idristawfiq.com.
By Idris Tawfiq