Amsterdam imam doubts government plans can work

Amsterdam, Holland - With its chrome crescents gleaming atop four tall minarets, the nearly completed Taibah Mosque looks like it belongs somewhere in South Asia.

It has the sound and feel of the subcontinent, too, when its black-turbaned imam Mohammed Shafiqur Rehman calmly explains Islam in sonorous Urdu or quotes the Koran in classical Arabic.

In fact, the mosque big enough to hold 3,000 worshipers stands in the shadows of an elevated railway line and a derelict shopping center in a modest area of southwest Amsterdam.

The political landscape around it is unsettled. An impatient Dutch government has zeroed in on imams as key community leaders it must educate in Western ways to help combat radical Islam.

But it only takes the time for a cup of tea with Rehman at his cream-colored mosque, almost finished after three years of construction, to notice the gap between the way the government and Islamic prayer leaders themselves approach imam training.

"I studied in my native India for 12 years," says Rehman, 42, when asked if a government-backed three-year university course would be enough to train home-grown imams. "If you don't do all that, my experience says, the imam will be a joke."

Not wanting to be obstructive, he thought this over and shortened it a bit. "At least 7 to 9 years are needed," he allowed. "An imam should be well educated in the Koran, Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence)."

Rehman, from the traditionalist Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, had a hard time imagining the Netherlands could create a university to match those in the subcontinent or Turkey and Morocco -- where most of its 1 million Muslims come from.

"It is almost impossible," he said. "It would be better to get people from there and teach them the Dutch language here."

That is exactly what the Dutch do not want to do. Alarmed by the killing of outspoken film maker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Islamic radical last November, they want to stop importing imams and make sure all prayer leaders are raised and trained here.

Rehman, who also speaks some English and Dutch, is not against local training but still sees it falling short.

"I have a feeling it will not be good," he argues. "The imams that will come out of these courses will maybe be half qualified, not good ones."

He brushes off a theory popular in several European states that a moderate "European Islam" would help Muslims here to integrate better. "There is no such thing as liberal Islam or British Islam, for example. It is the same all over the world."

Rehman has a suggestion, but it would surely fail to clear the separation of church and state hurdle.

"The government should organize a university for Muslims, run by Muslims and professors would be all Muslims," he said. "They could invite very good people from India, Pakistan, Turkey and Morocco to do all the training for many, many years."

The imam agrees that Muslims in Europe must understand and live in harmony with their new surroundings -- but sees no reason why this should require much change from them.

On the role of women, a flashpoint for many Dutch critics of Islam, Rehman said he tells them they should certainly get an education and be able to work.

"But you should not forget the rules of Islam," he tells them, including the need to cover their hair. "If you adhere to Islamic rules, you can live better."

Rehman says he feels little prejudice in the Netherlands and thinks the country will eventually get used to its newest religion.

"It may be a bit new for the community and some people may not be able to understand it," he said. "But as time passes, they will be able to understand these things too."