Belgium’s Catholic universities of Leuven and Louvain will begin educating imams this year in six-year programs that aim to transmit “knowledge of the fundamental values of the Belgian state and the resulting legal principles”.
Courses in Dutch will begin in Leuven in February and in French at Louvain in the autumn. Once one bilingual university, they split into two institutions along language lines in 1968.
The goal, worked out by an official commission launched after Islamist attacks in Brussels in 2016, is to provide a university-level education in Belgium for imams, who will then be registered as clergy and paid by the state as are clerics from other religions.
Another aim is to reduce the influence of Middle Eastern countries, which now send imams to serve their ethnic groups in Belgium or offer western Muslims an Islamic education. Belgian officials suspect both to be a potential source of radical ideas.
The courses in law, politics, sociology of religion and history of the Muslim world have been worked out with the Muslim Executive of Belgium, the official Muslim interlocutor.
The Muslim partner will arrange Islamic theological studies in a separate academy run by Muslims. Catholic theology will not be part of either university’s course. “In every recognised mosque, there should be someone who has attended this training,” said Justice Minister Koen Geens said. “The real purpose must be to have preaching by people educated in Belgium.”
France has a similar programme, with the Catholic Institute of Paris giving courses in the secular subjects and Muslim theology taught at the city’s Grand Mosque.
German efforts to train imams have been complicated by opposition from Turkish-financed mosques but state universities offer degrees in Islamic studies that qualify Muslims to teach Islam in religion classes in state schools.
The Belgian and French programs are an innovation since imams do not need a university-level education in Islam. The secular courses offered at the universities aim to help integrate the Muslim faith into life in the West.
Since Belgium pays salaries for qualified clergy from recognised religions, its imam programme offers students a job upon education. France does not pay clergy salaries so imam there usually need alternative employment to earn a living.