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France Launches Education Program for Muslim Clerics

Imams living in France will soon be going back to school, not to learn about the Muslim religion, but to learn the French language, along with civics, law, and the history of France. The classes are part of a larger government plan to put a national stamp on Islam, France's second most important religion, after Christianity.

More than 15 years after arriving here, 56-year-old Hocine Mahdjoub is the first to admit that his command of the French language is not perfect. When he preaches to the faithful at Cleremont-Ferrand's grand mosque, an optimistic description of the tiny, run-down former Catholic church that serves as a Muslim prayer hall here, Mr. Mahdjoub normally uses the Arabic of his native Algeria and only occasionally French.

Clad in an elegant purple gown and sitting in his second-floor office, Mr. Mahdjoub says he can communicate in French to fellow Muslims, if necessary. When he wants to make absolutely sure he is understood, he has assistants who can translate.

But as far as the French government is concerned, broken French is not good enough these days when it comes to preaching to the country's five million Muslim community. For one thing, many second- and third-generation French Muslims cannot speak Arabic. And among the estimated 1,200 mostly foreign-born imams, less than half speak French.

So cities like Cleremont-Ferrand, located among the rolling hills of France's central Auvergne region, are launching new language classes for Muslim clerics as early as this month. In September, imams will also be offered lessons in French history, culture, and civics.

Jean-Luc Tronco is the cabinet director of the Auvergne prefecture. Mr. Tronco says the government's goal is to teach imams here how government institutions work and to teach the values of French society. Secularity is one of them, he says.

France's secular creed clashed with the beliefs of devout Muslims last year, when the government banned the wearing of Islamic head scarves and other religious accessories in public schools.

But other concerns also helped shape the new education initiative. French officials fear the preachings of a minority of fiery, largely foreign-born clerics have turned some Muslim youths toward extremism. France has expelled dozens of foreign-born imams since September, 2001, and not only for preaching political violence. Last year, for example, an Algerian-born imam living near the city of Lyon was expelled from France for advocating wife beating and other practices deemed incompatible with French society.

Those problems do not exist everywhere, however. In the Auvergne region, home to an estimated 31 thousand Muslims, Mr. Tronco says the local government has good relations with Islamic leaders. In general, Mr. Tronco says, Muslim clerics in the region want to work constructively and to practice a peaceful form of Islam. There are problems here and there, he says, but they are not common. Nonetheless, he says, it is important that imams in France understand French values like democracy, liberty, egality and fraternity.

At the grand mosque, imam Mahdjoub says he is enrolled in the French language classes which are expected to start this month. He says he is also looking forward to learning about French civics and culture. But he has one favorite subject.

Its history. History, Mr. Mahdjoub says, is the key to a country's culture. And he says he wants to understand French culture.

The president of Auvergne's regional Muslim council, Abdellah Assafiri, agrees it is important the imams speak French. Mr. Assafiri says many local clerics only know enough French to buy a loaf of bread, or a newspaper. But not enough to talk about important topics, like the interaction between Islam and the West.

That is the case of 38-year-old Melvut Yildirim, a Turkish imam in Cleremont-Ferrand. Mr. Yildirim arrived in France last year. Unlike imam Mahdjoub, he speaks no French at all. Mr. Yildirim says he would like to learn more about French laws, along with learning the French language. It's important to integrate, he says, since as a Turk he is almost a European.

But Mr. Yildrim also believes that the Turkish government should continue sending imams like himself to France, party to teach the Turkish Muslim community living here the customs and beliefs of their native country. The French government, however, thinks differently.

Indeed, the new lessons for imams are only part of a larger plan to create a moderate, Western-oriented brand of Islam in France. French officials also hope to institute university-level training programs designed to school a new generation of native Muslim clerics.

France is not the only European country trying to put a national stamp on Islam. Spain, Italy and Britain have all cracked down on radical Islamic preachers and practitioners, while also trying to offer assistance to those espousing moderate views.

But Europe's Muslims have their own concerns.

In Auvergne, Mr. Assafiri notes there is a dearth of Muslim prayer halls, not only in the region, but across France. Many imams also work free of charge. As a result, he says, young Muslims do not see a future in becoming a Muslim preacher. As it transforms into the Islam of France, Mr. Assafiri hopes his faith will gain more clout and understanding along with more funding.