Broad consensus in favour of imam training in Switzerland

21.07.2009 / Bern - SNF
Should imams and Muslim religious teachers be allowed to train at Swiss universities in future? The majority of Muslims living in Switzerland advocate the idea, as do Swiss authorities, universities and legal experts. This is the result of a religious studies survey conducted as part of the National Research Programme "Religious Communities, State and Society" (NRP 58).

Resident Muslims are now the second largest religious community in Switzerland after Christians. Like Christianity, Islam also has religious officials which lead the community and provide support and instruction in religious and everyday matters. In Switzerland, there are, on the one hand, the imams, who are currently trained abroad, and, on the other, the religious teachers who only have the option of a private course in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

Do Muslims residing in Switzerland wish for a change in this status quo? And if so, what sort of change? What do experts from Swiss institutions have to say on this matter? These issues were explored by Ulrich Rudolph from the Institute of Oriental Studies, and Dorothea Lüddeckens and Christoph Uehlinger from the Institute of Religious Studies at the University of Zurich as part of the National Research Programme "Religious Communities, State and Society" (NRP 58).

The researchers conducted around 100 interviews with representatives of Islamic communities and organisations in seven Swiss cantons (BE, BS, GE, SG, VD, VS, ZH). It also carried out around 40 written surveys in which religious communities, political parties, officials, universities and legal experts expressed their opinions. The team"s pioneering study, which combines qualitative and empirical data, concludes that consensus is possible between these key players: The majority of the interviewees advocate training imams and Islamic religious teachers in Switzerland in future.

The Muslims agree that the academic training of imams should ensure that the latter possess a sound knowledge of Islam and are capable of exercising their roles as responsible[SR3] leaders and representatives of their religious communities. Similarly to a Christian clergyman, they should be able to fulfil multiple roles as counsellor, religious specialist, teacher and moral guide. The imam should be familiar with Switzerland, fluent in the national language and have a good knowledge of Swiss society, law and politics. In addition, he should nurture relations with other religious communities.

Respondents felt that Islamic religious teachers should act as intermediaries between generations and cultures, possess a sound knowledge of Islam, and have pedagogic and didactic skills. They also felt that Islamic religious education should be included in public schools, similar to the Christian model. A caveat, however, is that conventional Christian religious education is currently being replaced by non-denominational religious instruction in several cantons. This transitional situation requires flexibility on the part of both Moslem associations and officials when seeking solutions.

The Muslim respondents expressed a wish that the Islam represented by the imams and religious teachers should fit into a Swiss cultural context without being regulated by the Swiss government. At the same time, they felt that the future training courses should be recognised by Islamic universities, but not simply imported. In achieving these goals, the Muslims set store by an active role on the part of the Swiss institutions, not least in warding off extremist influences.

According to the researchers, no legal impediments exist to the introduction of training for imams and religious teachers. In Switzerland, the role of religious communities in government and education are regulated at the cantonal level; thus it would be cantonal officials education and immigration agencies and Islamic associations who would be primarily involved in establishing the training courses. The federal government would be involved in promoting and coordinating the cantonal initiatives.

A short term solution might be supplementary courses to familiarise foreign-trained imams with Switzerland. Longer-term solutions could be oriented similarly to the relationship between the Christian national churches and the state. This approach was referred to by Muslims, interviewed and the authorities and legal experts alike, occasionally based on the principle of non-discrimination.
The NRP 58 was inaugurated at the request of the Federal Office of Justice. It aims to furnish qualified information about the religious communities located in Switzerland and their relationship to the state and society. Federal authorities currently lack this information as a basis for decision-making.
On 2 December 2005 the Federal Council approved the interdisciplinary NRP 58. Some 28 research groups started up in 2007. The project "Should imams and Islamic religious teachers be trained in Switzerland" was the first to reach completion. By the end of 2010 all research groups will have finished their studies.

Prof. Dr. Ulrich Rudolph
Institute of Oriental Studies
University of Zurich
Wiesenstrasse 9
8008 Zurich
Phone +41 44 634 07 30
E-Mail: u.rudolph [and] access.uzh (dot) ch

Prof. Dr. Christoph Uehlinger
Institute of Religious Studies
University of Zurich
Kirchgasse 9
8001 Zurich
Phone +41 44 634 47 32
E-Mail: christoph.uehlinger [and] access.uzh (dot) ch

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