OSNABRUECK, Germany — Ahmed Sami spoke only Arabic when he moved from Morocco to Germany eight years ago to work as an imam. During his Friday prayer services at a mosque in western Germany, he soon noticed that many of the listeners could not understand him.
“The children and teenagers don’t speak a lot of Arabic anymore,” the 31-year-old imam said. “German is their native language.”
Sami is now part of a pilot program at the University of Osnabrueck that started this week to train imams — not only in the German language but also to steer them to preach about Islam in a way consistent with Germany’s democratic values and religious tolerance.
The program comes at a time of growing concern about some young German Muslims becoming radicalized in extremist mosques and turning to terrorism. This month’s terror alert in Europe was sparked by information provided by a German radical of Afghan descent who had been captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“We need imams who are socialized and at home in Germany,” said Rauf Ceylan, a professor for Islamic religious education and one of the founders of the new program in Osnabrueck, in northwestern Germany. “They influence the religious orientation of Muslims in Germany, and they have a big impact on whether young Muslims will practice a tolerant, conservative or extremist version of Islam.”
Other European countries have been taking new measures as well. In France, which has a Muslim population of at least 5 million, the Catholic University of Paris began courses to train French imams in 2008; several imams have been expelled in recent years for what was deemed dangerous teaching.
Experts say the new German academic initiative is much needed. So far, more than 90 percent of the more than 2,000 imams in Germany barely speak any German. Most come from Turkey and only stay here for a couple of years before returning home. Due to the language barrier, these foreign-sent imams cannot interact with younger community members and they are also not aware of the specific problems the 4.3 million Muslims in Germany deal with on an everyday basis.
Imams hold key positions within the immigrant communities. Just like pastors or rabbis, they deliver religious guidance, but they are also the first contact point for parents’ worries when the children don’t perform well in school, they mediate in marital disputes or get involved in cultural clashes with the Christian majority in Germany.
Later this week, the federal government is expected to announce the establishment of as many as three new university departments for Islamic studies in Germany that will include several new professorships. The goal is to educate a new generation of imams and schoolteachers for Islamic religious instructions who believe and teach that western values and Islam are compatible.
“We need mosques that are transparent, in order to create an atmosphere of trust” among Germans and Muslim immigrants, the integration minister of Lower-Saxony, Aygul Ozkan, said at the opening ceremony in Osnabrueck earlier this week. Ozkan, who is the daughter of Turkish immigrants, said in order to create this transparency, it was essential that more imams learn the language and also preach in German.
For Sami, learning to preach in German is one of the main attractions of the Osnabrueck program. While he has already started translating parts of his Arabic sermons into German, he still feels the need to improve his overall language skills.
Sami, one of 30 students enrolled in the one-year, tuition-free program, said he also looked forward to classes about Germany’s political system.
“It’s very important for us to understand the pluralistic, German society,” he said. “It’s very different from the political system in Morocco.”
The curriculum includes a visit to the German parliament in Berlin, a meeting with a rabbi at a synagogue in Osnabrueck and several classes by Christian theologians.