SAINT-LEGER-DE-FOUGERET In an attempt to fulfil the needs of French Muslims for religious leaders, an Islamic school in central France is training homegrown imams to help present a true image of Islam.
"The training of imams who are products of French society is vital, Zuhair Mahmood, director of the European Institute of Human Science de Saint-Leger-de-Fougeret, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Tuesday, October 30.Today 70 percent of the faithful don't speak Arabic.
The school, located in the wooded hills of Burgundy, is training French Muslims to become imams to help fulfil the religious needs of the growing minority.
It now hosts 200 students from across the country where they learn to recite the Noble Qur'an and study Islamic theology and Arabic literature.
The school started 20 years ago when the Union of Islamic Organizations in France converted a former children's holiday center into the institute.
Its stated aim is to train imams equipped "with a solid knowledge of Islam and the socio-cultural realities of Europe."
Initially financed by the Gulf States, the school depends heavily on fees of about 3,400 euros ($4,400) a year -- board and lodging included.
Apart from the rural setting, the atmosphere in the run-down prefabricated corridors of the institute is like that of any other college.
After seven intensive years of study, including Qur'an, Islamic theology and even French law, only 10 or so graduates each year to lead prayers or preach at mosques.
"Since I was small I have dreamed of becoming an imam," said 18-year-old Wahib, who did not want to give his last name.
But seven years is long and there are no grants."
Said, another student who didn't wish to give his last name, was born in Morocco and now living in Nice in southern France.
He took correspondence courses for two years and has now left his family to "deepen my knowledge of Islam" and "if I succeed, become an imam."
"It's my vocation," he says.
"I would love to pass on my knowledge to others and above all fight against extremism."
The six to seven million Muslims in France form the largest such minority in Europe and it has long argued it needed to train home-grown imams to help Muslims integrate into society.
There are about 2,000 imams in France and many lead prayers and offer spiritual and practical advice to the faithful with little or no formal training.
Three-quarters of them are not French citizens and one-third do not speak French.
Many Muslim students at the school wish that they would help present the true image of Islam tarnished by radicals.
"Being an imam, it isn't something that happens," the 33-year-old Said told AFP.
It's a real responsibility.
We have to be safeguards, he said, lamenting the fact that "moderate imams are ignored by people in the middle of an identity crisis".
Said's theology teacher Larbi Belbachir agrees.
"Radicalism is always the result of ignorance," Belbachir said.
"You cannot pass on a message without knowing French. Islam can adapt and does not forbid you to respect the law."
French Muslims have been complaining of growing restrictions on their religious freedoms.
In 2004, France banned Muslims from wearing hijab, an obligatory code of dress, in public places. Several European countries followed the French example.
France has also outlawed the wearing of face-veil in public.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has adopted a series of measures to restrict Muslim freedoms in an effort to win support of far-right voters.
Under Sarkozy, the French government a national debate on the role of Islam in French society.
The French government also outlawed Muslim street prayers, a sight far-right leader Marine Le Pen likened to the Nazi occupation.
Muslims have also complained of restrictions on building mosques to perform their daily prayers.
A recent survey has found that almost half of French see Islam as a threat to national identity and that the majority of French believe that Islam has too influential role in the society.
Taking the initiative, the institute hopes to introduce new imams to the society to be able to deal with the growing anger among the French with consecutive governments."When this profession is recognized and paid as such," Said suggested, "perhaps there will be more vocations."