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NEW YORK – Islamic education is penetrating the public schools and universities of the European Union with little concern to separate mosque and state, providing evidence of the growing religious and cultural impact that steadily increasing Muslim populations are having on the continent.

The decision of the Catholic University of Leuven – the oldest university in Belgium and a major contributor to the development of Roman Catholic theology for more than 500 years – to offer a degree in Islamic theology beginning in 2014 caught the attention of Soeren Kern, a senior fellow with the New York-based Gatestone Institute as well as a senior fellow at the Madrid-based Strategic Studies Group.

“The proliferation of degree programs in Islamic theology is being justified by European governments – which are subsidizing the teaching of Islam in European universities with taxpayer money – as a way to ‘professionalize’ the training of Muslim imams, or religious teachers, many of whom do not even speak the language of their European host countries,” Kern wrote in an article titled “Islam Conquering Higher European Education,” published this week by the Gatestone Institute International Policy Council.

“Some European governments believe that by controlling the religious education of imams, they can promote the establishment of a ‘European Islam,’ one that combines Islamic principles and duties with European values and traditions such as the rule of law, democracy, human rights and gender equality, Kern noted.

“But critics say such efforts to create a ‘European Islam’ are naïve and misguided, and will serve only to contribute to the ‘mainstreaming’ of a religious and political ideology that is intrinsically opposed to all aspects of the European way of life.”

University Islam courses in Belgium

The Catholic University of Leuven degree in Islamic theology will be offered in the department of World Religions, Interreligious Dialogue, and Religious study. The Islamic courses, to be taught in Dutch only, are intended for those who have a bachelor’s degree, a restriction that will eliminate from participation the vast majority of imams currently in Belgium and elsewhere in the EU.

To earn the degree, students will have to complete an internship as an Islamic counselor in public institutions, such as hospitals, youth programs and prisons, as well as prepare and defend a thesis.

Soret reported that Flemish Education Minister Pascal Smet, who has headed a steering committee of representatives from universities and local Muslim leaders, has been instrumental in getting allocated 100,000 euros, approximately $135,000, of public funds to compensate the Catholic University of Leuven for teaching the courses on Islam during 2014 and 2015.

An 80-page study – “Imams and Islamic Consultants in Flanders: How are they organized?” – argues that Muslim leaders in Belgium suffer from being mostly unfamiliar with Flemish language and culture, making them ill-equipped to advise the younger generations of Muslims in Belgium who are looking for guidance in their attempt to integrate into Belgian society and the EU.

Kern noted two additional programs in Islamic instruction funded by the Dutch government.

The first government-sponsored program in Islamic theology was a 2 million euro, or $2.7 million, grant to teach Islam at Holland’s largest Protestant Christian university, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where students can earn bachelors and master’s degrees by taking courses in Islamic theology, Arabic language and religious studies with a focus on Islam in the Netherlands and pastoral care.

The Dutch government also awarded a 2.4 million euro, or $3.1 million, grant to the University of Leiden to launch an Islamic theology program there.

“Both of these programs have suffered from an inherent disconnect between the demands of Dutch politicians to promote a ‘moderate’ form state-sponsored Islam, and the demands of local Muslim leaders to teach the authentic and true Islam,” Kern wrote.

In addition to the Islamic theological offerings at VU and Leiden, the Dutch Ministry of Education has also awarded public funds to the Amsterdam-based Hogeschool InHolland, a practical training university that prepares Islamic educators for work in Dutch secondary schools.

Islamic education and the EU

“The growth of immigrant Muslim communities and the concern for the spread of extremism amongst Muslim youth has provided impetus for standardized education programs in Islam across nearly all of Western Europe,” begins an extensive essay not attributed to any designated author titled “Islamic Education in Europe.” It’s published on the website of Euro-Islam.info, a network of researchers and scholars sponsored by CSRL Paris/CNRS France and Harvard University.

“This need is currently being addressed through policies that reflect the unique political and cultural contexts currently surrounding Islam in each nation,” the essay says. “While some countries make room for state-regulated Islamic programs alongside Christian, Catholic, and other religious education programs in public school settings, others opt instead to support private Islamic institutions in varying political and financial capacities. To support either approach, university programs for the training of imams and Islamic teachers has also become necessary.”

The essay notes laws regarding religious courses in Islam vary country-by-country in the EU.

For instance, Islamic instruction has been offered in Austrian public schools since 1983, with some 37,000 children participating in Islamic education programs at 2,700 public schools across the country, taught by 350 teachers.

In public schools in France, chaplains are permitted to teach religious courses provided religious instruction is structured outside the school timetable.

As of 2004, however, no Islamic chaplain operated in any French public secondary school. Additionally, the banning of the hijab in public schools has prompted the establishment of independent Islamic schools in France.

In Germany, various federal states have offered Islamic instruction in the public schools on a voluntary basis. Islamic instruction in the public schools is being tested in North-Rhine/Westphalia, Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen, Lower Saxony, Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Yet, in Germany, Islamic theology courses are widely taught at the university level.
Soren reported The Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Tübingen – the first taxpayer-funded department of Islamic theology in Germany – was inaugurated in January 2012 and is the first of four Islamic university centers in the country.

In addition to the center in Tübingen, Islamic theology departments have also recently opened at universities in Erlangen/Nürnberg (September 2012), Münster/Osnabrück (October 2012) and Frankfurt/Gießen (June 2013).

“The German government will pay the salaries for professors and other staff at all four Islamic centers for the next five years, at a total cost of 20 million euros, or $25 million,” Soren wrote.

“According to the German Ministry of Education, Germany has a demand for more than 2,000 Islam teachers, who are needed to instruct more than 700,000 Muslim children. The German government claims that by controlling the curriculum, the school, which is to train Muslim imams and Islamic religion teachers, will function as an antidote to ‘hate preachers.’”

As Soren pointed out, imams currently in Germany are from Turkey and many of them do not speak German.

German Education Minister Annette Schavan has claimed the Islamic centers are a “milestone for integration” for the 4.3 million Muslims who now live in Germany.

Soren stressed that Schavan’s assistant at the Ministry of Education, Thomas Rachel, has further claimed the rise of taxpayer-funded Islamic centers in Germany is a “historic development, comparable to the rise of protestant Christian theology after the Reformation 500 years ago.”

According to Rachel, “Muslim theology will be firmly established in German universities, and thus also in German society.”

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