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Dutch Treat

The Netherlands tries to assimilate its Muslim immigrants.

12:00 AM, Jul 13, 2007 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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Amsterdam

MERGING MUSLIM COMMUNITIES with European societies is a trying task. This is particularly noticed in the Netherlands, where legalized vices and laissez-faire attitudes grapple with finding the right formula to successfully integrate its own Islamic population. Several initiatives have been tried over the last quarter century but with little success.

Approximately 1 million of Holland's 16 million inhabitants are immigrants from Muslim societies. Islam is now Holland's fourth largest religion and ready to eclipse the nation's long-established Calvinist and Dutch Reform faiths. A cursory introduction to Dutch history and cultural attitudes won't change a traditionally trained imam's basic outlook, especially if he was schooled in an Islamic country. Such patchwork expediency fails to address a systemic problem.

To remedy this, the Dutch government recently began a new initiative known as the imam licensing program. It aims to create a new generation of homegrown Muslim clerics cognizant in both Western and Islamic thinking.

The separation of church and state in the Netherlands prevents the government from directly dealing with Muslim clerics. So selected universities become governmental agents and are responsible for implementing the licensing program. It's an arduous task, with many structural, historical, and psychological barriers to overcome. "There's a lot of work, you have to start from the beginning," admits Mohammed Ghaly, a lecturer of Islamic theology at Leiden University, a program participant. "The major problem is not having the precedence of combining Western thinking with the traditional ways of teaching Islam. I hope that our program can teach that being integrated won't be at the cost of practicing your religion." Rasit Bal, director of curriculum development at Hogeschool Inholland, a vocational training institute involved with the project, adds, "We want to make our students responsive to particular situations. An individualized approach is novel in Islamic theology."

Applying a different philosophical standard is just one of several dilemmas. Unlike the ethnically homogenous atmospheres that largely define England, France, and Germany's Muslim communities, Holland is split between Arab, Turkish, and post-colonial émigrés. The connection between Islam and imperial legacy is more nebulous for the Dutch than French or English cultures. And despite having ruled over Indonesia and its huge Muslim population for several centuries, Indonesians who settled in the Netherlands after independence were predominantly Christian. (A sizeable Muslim community hails from the former Dutch colony of Surinam, but their influence is limited.)

Two thirds of Holland's Muslim population is Moroccan and Turkish. Although both communities adhere to the Sunni version of Islam, there are noticeable differences. The Turks are well organized, with one association looking after their essential needs. The Turkish government closely regulates which imams lead prayers in the Netherlands and other overseas enclaves. While questions arise regarding Turkey's governmental interference, the monitoring essentially helps achieve what the Dutch authorities are now seeking with their new program.

It's a different matter with the Moroccans. An estimated 400 organizations represent this community and there is no administrative overseer. The result is fragmentation, with theological views determined by the mosque's biggest financier or board of directors. "Every mosque is a kingdom" is a familiar refrain heard about the Moroccan situation.

Gender is another problem. Nearly 70 percent of the students attending Leiden University's program are women. Bal speculates that more women will likely stay with his school's undertaking in the future. But considering Islam's male-dominated conservatism, it seems impractical that local mosques will accept Western-educated female preachers. The program's innovators, however, see things otherwise. "Women are Islam's best conveyors," says Bal.

The training of Western-oriented imams, of course, is just one of the ideas being pursued by the Dutch. Other proposals include the recruiting of Islamic specialists who can advise the government in socio-cultural matters and talk of creating "spiritual caretakers" who will service hospitals, prisons, and the military--structures outside an imam's realm of responsibility.

If such is the case, then calling this an imam training program is misleading: It appears that the ultimate aim is to create a new level of "mujtahid"--Islamic scholars with Western know-how. This may be little more than a wishful attempt at social engineering, yet nowhere else in Europe is a similar endeavor underway or being contemplated.

Gerald Robbins specializes in Turkish affairs at the Foreign Research Policy Institute.