Ministers will need to tread carefully to ensure the question of training for imams – a main issue in Wednesday’s ministerial meeting with Muslims in Oldham – does not exacerbate tensions with the community.
The government is under pressure to increase controls on Muslim preachers, most of whom still come from abroad. Tabloid tirades typified by the “sling your hook” campaign against Abu Hamza al-Masri, who used to head the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, have increased in intensity since the London bombings. Action to make it easier to deport extremists will be included in this autumn’s anti-terrorist legislation.
But ministers are considering whether the state should exert some control over all imamsMuslim clerics, and not just the tiny minority who propagate extreme views. It is an issue which has already provoked intense debate in the Netherlands and France.
The argument for state intervention stems from the strong influence imams can exert over young Muslims, through the increasing pastoral role being played by many mosques, as well as the religious teaching. Most imams were born and trained abroad, according to Muslim groups, although the proportion of “home grown” clerics has risen over the past decade. There is no set training course or qualification – imams are usually selected and paid by individual mosques.
Some Muslim groups said they shared concerns about the dominance of overseas imams, who may have different cultural and political values from mainstream Muslim culture in the UK. The Muslim Council of Britain said it was a “sensible move” for the government last year to impose rules requiring imams seeking entry to pass an English-language proficiency test. The council also said that “more needs to be done in this area. It’s only sensible to have more British-trained imams in our mosques.”
But the issue is a sensitive one and the the government is certain to face resistance if it goes beyond broad support for UK training schemes to regulate imams. Reports that ministers were planning a licensing scheme for clerics – rejected by the Home Office – alarmed many Muslims. “Once again, it’s stigmatising the Muslim community,” tThe Muslim Association of Britain said its community was being “singled out . . . it seems as if we are the only people required to have their clerics go through a training programme”.
France has expelled two Islamist leaders after the London bombings and plans to send home 24 more.The interior ministry said that about 1,100 imams have been identified in France, the “vast majority” of whom posed no problem. Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, said in the immediate aftermath of the London attacks that France had to “act against radical preachers capable of influencing the youngest and most weak-minded.”