Breaking down Prejudices against Islam
According to the Dutch government, imams who have come to the Netherlands from Islamic countries to preach at local mosques bear some responsibility for the radicalization of young Muslims. These imams often have little or no understanding of the European way of life.
The government would therefore prefer to have imams who have been trained in the Netherlands. In response, the University of Amsterdam began this fall to offer a program in Islamic theology.
Christians and Muslims in the same classroom
One of the students, a 34-year-old Moroccan, prefers not be named. The young man, who actually is quite used to speaking in public, appears somewhat nervous. This is because he has to explain the Christian concept of God to, of all people, his Christian fellow students.
He finds it difficult as a Muslim to explain something about Christianity. "When I speak about my own religion, I have arguments. Here I have to first find a basis from which to talk. In order to prepare myself, I had to do a lot of research on Christianity in books and on the Internet."
The Moroccan is one of around 40 students who chose to study Islamic theology at the University of Amsterdam. The new degree program began accepting students this fall.
In the first year of the Bachelor degree program, Muslim and Christian students study together and must familiarize themselves with each others' religion. The students are later divided according to their particular specialization.
The murder of Theo van Gogh provided the impetus
This kind of program has long been discussed in the Netherlands. The turning point came with the murder of Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker critical of Islam. Last December, he was stabbed to death on the street by a fanatical Islamist. This was followed by violent outbreaks in Holland, with Muslim as well as Christian institutions being the target of attack.
"After this, the time was ripe to push through with our plans," said Professor Henk Vrom, who is responsible for the new course of studies. "The government discussed matters with Muslim organizations for a long time, yet couldn't come to any agreement. Now something is finally happening. It is important that Muslims are given the opportunity to pursue their own theology and also to reflect upon their beliefs."
Learning about others
The Muslim students don't only learn about the history of their own religion, Islamic law, and verses from the Koran. They also have to know something about other religions and cultures.
"For a third of their studies, Muslim students take courses with other students. There they study the philosophy of religion, learn to argue, and become acquainted with other points of view," explained Henk Vrom.
The aim is to help Muslim students expand their horizons beyond their own communities. They will also learn something about Christianity, secular ethics, and religion and politics.
Over 180 persons expressed interest in the program. Around 40 students were finally chosen, most of Egyptian or Moroccan heritage, although the majority were born and brought up in the Netherlands.
After successfully completing their studies, most graduates will work in prisons and hospitals, providing Muslims in these institutions with spiritual comfort and mediating with the authorities on any possible problems.
Up until now, hardly any of the imams from the approximately 70 officially registered mosques in the Netherlands can speak Dutch.
There is no talk of the program graduates actually being able to preach in the country's mosques. It remains a matter for the mosques themselves to decide who will preach to the believers, just as it is for Christian churches as well.
Building bridges between the religions
Regardless of their future workplace, the students are encouraged to build bridges between Muslims and Christians, and thereby help in breaking down prejudices.
"I decided to enroll in this program because so many Europeans are critical of Islam and there is a distorted image of our religion," explained the Moroccan student.
"This is why I want to have arguments to explain to others that our religion is a joyous one, and not something that merely corresponds to their preconceptions. I also want to know what Christians are thinking so that I can better discuss the issues with them."
He says that reactions from his community have been mixed. Most feel positive about this new course of studies. Others, however, are opposed.
"They say things like, 'Our way is the right way! Why, then, do you have to know what the other side thinks?'"
Students are expected to graduate in three years. The language of instruction is Dutch, although some Arabic is also spoken in order to fully explain specific terms and concepts.
If the new program proves itself a success, Henk Vron and his faculty would like to take a further step. Muslim students from other faculties should be given the opportunity to study Islamic theology for a few months, in order to provide them with a better understanding of their religion. Henk Vron believes that such a move would result in many radical views and misunderstandings simply evaporating on their own.
© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE/Qantara.de 2005
Translated from the German by John Bergeron