In Europe, a new approach to teaching Islam


Deep in the misty hills of Burgundy, fervent young European Muslims are forging an Islam of their own. Depending on the point of view, they are either budding fundamentalists or Europe's best defense against extremism.

The European Institute of Human Sciences lies at the end of a winding country road in a drafty 19th-century chateau in the town of St. Leger-de-Fougeret, France. The site was a corporate retreat until 1992, when a federation of French Muslim groups bought the 27-acre campus of craggy trees and moss-lined brick paths.

Every year, 150 men and women from across Europe, ranging in age from 14 to the mid-30s, pay $3,500 a year to study theology and Arabic language and memorize the Quran. Most are second- or third-generation immigrants, and some are converts. They are the proudly conservative vanguard of European Islam.

"I used to go dancing with my friends, but my life was not close to Islam. Islam was not deep in my heart," said Lazare Boufeta, walking under a canopy of towering pine trees on the path to his small dormitory room. "One day I started thinking, where am I going? Do I have an aim in my life?"

Boufeta was like any other young French man in the southern city of Grenoble, snowboarding and playing clarinet, until he made the change. The tall and slim 25-year-old arrived at the institute last year and began growing his beard. He adopted the brown robe and sneakers favored by other men on campus. His mission, he says, is to help his nation understand Islam.

"I am French, I know French history and theater. I feel closer to France than Algeria," he said. "But France is afraid of things it doesn't know. As we see, nuns can wear a head scarf, and the French are not afraid of them. But not Muslims?"

The school's declared mission is to train a new generation of homegrown clerics. Its backers call that a vital step in supporting Europe's burgeoning Islamic population. Government officials across the continent are cautiously welcoming the project as well because they are eager to reduce their nations' dependence on foreign imams and foreign financing of mosques, on the belief that ties with the Arab world are fomenting extremism and stymieing integration.

France has about 1,000 Muslim places of worship, and all but a handful are funded in part by foreign governments, according to the Interior Ministry. Ninety percent of the imams in France don't speak French, the ministry says. Spanish officials are also trying to reduce their 400 mosques' links to Libya, Morocco, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. The Netherlands has launched state-financed integration courses to tutor all imams in Dutch views of tolerance, such as the thorny issues of euthanasia and drug use.

State support of Islam stirs deep unease in Europe's secular societies. Former French Cabinet minister and rising political star Nicolas Sarkozy sparked controversy last month with the suggestion that the government should finance the construction of mosques.

Doing so would mean revising a century-old French law on the separation between church and state, a particularly hallowed principle in France known as laicite. Sarkozy believes that, not unlike Turkey - where authorities directly manage the religion as a means to control it - France must no longer maintain a hands-off approach to Islam.

France has deported at least 10 clerics in the past three years for endorsing violence or for spousal abuse, including Algerian-born imam Abdelkader Bouziane, who argued that the Quran allows men to beat unfaithful wives. Britain and Italy have also expelled or jailed imams for expressing what authorities consider statements in support of violence.

By some measures, the European Institute of Human Sciences, with branches in St.-Denis, France, and near Lampeter, Wales, presents a possible solution. Still, there is much about it that makes the French government uneasy; a senior Interior Ministry official said the textbooks, training and lectures at the school are "being watched."

The wariness begins with the school's sponsor, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, an influential federation of local Muslim groups. The union has long-standing ties - though it denies formal links - to the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's largest Islamic militant group, which has renounced violence but remains banned in Egypt.

The campus has a conservative atmosphere: Men and women do not socialize; bearded men study at one end of the room and veiled women at the other. The cafeteria is split by a screen like those found at restaurants in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Most of these young men will not become full-time imams because they could not earn enough to make a living.

Some stick with Western clothing, while others adopt the traditional Arab robes. But those hints of orthodoxy should be seen as a sign of healthy Islamic practice, not a drift toward radicalism, said the school's Iraqi-born director, Zuhair Mahmood.

"The government prefers non-practicing Muslims to practicing Muslims," he said. "But it is the non-practicing Muslims who steal, commit crimes, cause problems. ... The young people who have only read one book about Islam and think they understand it, those are the people who misunderstand Islam."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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