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French Islamic School Attempting to Fill Scarcity of Religious Teachers


Islam is France's second largest religion, after Roman Catholicism. Yet half the country's Islamic places of worship lack trained clerics.

At an Islamic school in the working class Paris suburb of St. Denis, Nawal Lachhab, a French woman of Moroccan origin, is learning Arabic for the first time.

Here, in a small cement building overlooking the muddy waters of the Seine River, is also where supermarket clerk Abdullah Douroire recites a verse from the Koran for the first time.

And where Maher Md'alah analyzes the teachings of the Islamic faith - teachings that his poorly educated Tunisian-born parents could never explain to him.

The school, the European Institute for Human Sciences, is part of an effort to fill a void in France. Most of the country's 1,500 mosques and Muslim places of worship face a critical shortage of preachers. The Islamic clerics in the country are from North Africa or the Middle East and have a limited understanding of France, and of its five million French-speaking Muslims.

Abdesslam Hafidi, director of the St. Denis school, hopes to change that.

Mr. Hafidi says the school's purpose is to serve the community, which includes offering Arabic courses to the many French Muslims who don't speak the language. But its main goal, he says, is to train imams.

The institute, France's first imam training center, opened a decade ago, as a boarding school in northeastern France. The St. Denis branch of the institute was launched in January and has an enrollment of 350 students, most of them from the Paris area.

Five days a week, the institute provides its students with a curriculum consisting of courses in Koranic studies, religious jurisprudence, Islamic civilization and history.

Twenty-eight-year old Nawal Lachhab, like other women at the St. Denis school, wears a headscarf and long, loose-fitting clothes.

The institute's conservative interpretation of Islam forbids women from becoming imams at local mosques. Nonetheless, Ms. Lachhab hopes to teach women-only religious classes. But she and the other students at the school are going against a trend in France.

Few French Muslims are interested in becoming imams. Indeed, few second-generation Arabs, Africans and Turks practice their parents' religion at all. A recent survey by France's IFOP polling agency found only about 20 percent of the younger generation regularly attend Friday prayer services and only about 33 percent describe themselves as practicing Muslims. They want well-paying jobs and to fit into French society.

Abdelaziz Chambi, a member of the Union of Young Muslims in France, believes part of the reason for the lack of interest in Islam is that young Muslims are disenchanted with the Islam preached by the foreign imams.

Mr. Chambi says young French Muslims want to learn about their religious heritage, but within a French context.

The French government, too, has a stake in developing a "French Islam." Ever since Algerian guerrillas launched a wave of attacks in France during the mid-1990s, French police have kept a close watch on suspected Islamist extremists and fiery preachers. That scrutiny has become even more intense since the September attacks in the United States.

But French officials are worried about more ordinary expressions of Islamic religiosity as well. More than a decade ago, for example, the government banned Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools. That is also why today Alain Billon, a government adviser on Islamic affairs, says the European Institute, which endorses a more conservative interpretation of Islam, is not - as he put it - "as secular as the government could hope."

French experts say the preferred face of establishment Islam is presented by Dalil Boubakeur, the head of the Paris Mosque, the biggest in the city. Mr. Boubakeur is a trained dentist who opts for wearing suits and ties, rather than his native Algerian jellaba. He says it is important to understand that European Muslims are different from Muslims in the Arab world and elsewhere.

Mr. Boubakeur says despite the small percentage of practicing Muslims, Islam in Europe is thriving. He says unlike other parts of the world, European Muslims are not using their religion to fight against poverty or political oppression. He says they see Islam as simply responding to their religious needs.

A few months ago, the Paris Mosque opened an imam training center, enrolling 40 students in a new theology program. Four years from now, if all goes well, at least some of them will graduate as imams.

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