Article body

Over the past decades, the number of Muslims in Western Europe has increased significantly. In this context, there is, amongst others, a “dire need for a well-educated and well-trained imam corps” in Europe (Hashas et al. 2018: 34). However, in spite of this need, the training of imams in Europe is a contested, delicate and challenging issue (see e.g. Aslan and Windisch 2012; Hashas et al. 2018; Vinding and Chbib 2020; Boender 2021). This is also the case in Belgium, where the number of (practicing) Muslims increased visibly over the past fifty years. Although there are no official statistics of religious affiliation in Belgium, the number of Muslims is estimated at five to seven percent[1]. In large cities and their agglomerations, this number is often over 15-20 percent. This relative high number of Muslims, compared to other religious minorities, is mainly the result of labor migration during the 1960s and 1970s, which attracted many Muslims from Turkey and Morocco. In the 1980s and 1990s, this migration was followed by family reunification, post-communist migration from the Balkans and, more recently still, by refugee crises.

In spite of this relatively long presence of Muslims in Belgium, present Church-State regulations are not adequately adapted to accommodate the diverse Muslim communities. In this contribution, I will illustrate why this is one of the main causes for the failure to establish a Belgian imam-training program. In order to make this clear, I will start with a brief elaboration of Church-State relations in Belgium, with particular attention for the recognition of Islam and the establishment of the Executive of Muslims in Belgium. Subsequently, attention will be given to the local recognition of mosques, which is required in order to obtain state subsidies for their maintenance and for their imams. Furthermore, attention will be given to the recent attempt to establish a ‘Belgian’ imam-training program. At the end of the contribution, I will explain how the Belgian sports policy could be inspiring for the future policy concerning Islam (and other religions) and for the formation of imams and other religious leaders.

Church and State in Belgium and the Recognition of Islam

State Support for Recognized Religions

In Belgium, the salaries and pensions of ministers of recognized religions and non-denominational worldviews are paid for by the State (Const. art.181). The amounts required are charged annually to the budget. In addition, “[s]chools run by the public authorities offer, until the end of compulsory education, the choice between the teaching of one of the recognized religions and non-denominational ethics teaching” (Const. art.24)[2]. At present, there are seven recognized “worldviews”: six religions (the Anglican, Christian-Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Church, Islam and Judaism) and one non-confessional worldview (secular humanism). Three other requirements for recognition are pending: for Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Syrian-Orthodox Church[3]. In order to become recognized, the following requirements must be fulfilled:

  1. bringing together a relatively large number (“several tens of thousands”) of adherents

  2. being structured in such a way that there is a representative body that can represent the religion in question in its relations with civil authorities

  3. having been present in the country for a fairly long period (“several decennia”)

  4. presenting some level of social benefit

  5. not encompassing any activity that is contrary to public order

If these requirements are fulfilled, the Ministry of Justice can give positive advice for recognition, on which the Parliament has a final decisive role. Once recognized, the Ministry of Justice is in charge of the subsidies for salaries, pensions and optional subsidies for the representative bodies of the recognized religions.

However, fulfilling the required criterions for recognition is not evident. One of the main problems is that religious organizations have to be “structured in such a way that there is a representative organ representing the religion in question in its relations with civil authorities”. Because this criterion is based on the internal structure and the hierarchical organization of the Roman Catholic Church, it is very difficult for many religions and worldviews to fulfil it. In the past, protestants and secular humanists struggled with this requirement, which is also an important burden for the pending recognition of Buddhism.

The Executive of Muslims in Belgium (EMB)[4]

“Compared to other religions like Roman Catholicism, European Islam does not have a rigid structure with a monopoly on legitimate power”. (El Asri 2018: 110) Rather, ‘Islam’ is a very diversified religious tradition, with different (local) traditions, religious interpretations and law schools. In spite of this diversity, different Muslim communities in Belgium were, in order to become recognized and thus receive systematic financial state support, required to gather in one single representative body, which is supposed to negotiate between the Belgian State and the Muslims in Belgium[5].

In 1974, when Islam was officially recognized by the Belgian State, the Islamic Cultural Centre, which had been established in 1968 and had strong (financial) connections with Saudi Arabia and the Islamic World League, functioned in practice as the mediator between the Islamic communities and the Belgian State, but it has never been officially recognized as a representative body[6]. Triggered by the success of ultra-right and anti-Islam populism in the 1990s (cf. infra), but also by a new awareness of the needs of the Muslim communities, several initiatives were taken by the Belgian Government in order to create a “new”, official representative body for Islam: the “Executive of Muslims in Belgium” (EMB). However, these attempts did, amongst others due to the internal diversity of the Muslim communities, the different languages spoken in Belgium, and far-going interference of the Belgian State, not always succeed. Up until today, the EMB is criticized for a number of reasons, including: a too lax attitude with regard to the prevention and condemnation of radicalization in Islam; its ongoing policy of importing imams from abroad (mainly from Turkey and Morocco); its failure to establish a full training program for Belgian imams; and its permissive policy with regard to Islamic Religious Education in state schools[7]. Overall, these criticisms share the same common ground: too much state interference from abroad, in particular from Morocco and Turkey. This is one of the main reasons why the Minister of Justice recently refused to donate the EMB a subsidy of €639.000 (Het Nieuwsblad 2021) and revoked the recognition of the present (recently reformed) EMB. At the moment of writing, the EMB seems to be in the most profound crisis since its establishment in 1999.

The recognition of local faith-communities in Belgium

In addition to the abovementioned recognition at the federal or national level, Belgium has also a policy of recognition at the local level. This recognition of local faith communities (e.g. mosques, synagogues, parishes) is governed by the semi-autonomous regions in Belgium (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels-capital) and by the German-speaking Community[8]. An important consequence of this regional policy is that the salaries and pensions of delegates of the recognized religions are only paid by the Ministry of Justice (federal level) if these delegates are associated with a faith community that has been recognized at the regional level as well.

Triggered by increasing Muslim extremism, the Flemish criterions for the recognition of local faith communities have been modified recently[9]. Since 22 October 2021, the Decree for the Recognition of Local Faith Communities (Erkenningsdecreet Lokale Geloofsgemeenschappen)[10] requires, amongst others, the following criterions:

  • financial and juridical transparency in the local faith community

  • no foreign financing or support which detracts the autonomy of the faith community and/or which is related to terrorism, extremism, espionage, or clandestine interference

  • demonstrable societal relevance of the local faith community

  • board members of the faith community respect human rights, in particular with regard to non-discrimination, rejecting hate and violence, and respecting freedom of religion

  • ministers of worship and their substitutes satisfy the civic integration obligation[11] and are not paid by a foreign government

  • a waiting period of four years is foreseen [before recognition]

At present, most mosques in Belgium are not recognized as local faith communities. As a consequence, their imams are not paid for by the State. While the total number of mosques in Belgium is estimated at more than 300 (cf. Rea 2016: 70), only 90 of them are currently recognized: 25 in Flanders, 26 in Brussels-capital and 39 in Wallonia[12]. For this low number of recognized mosques, there are at least three explanations. First, several mosques prefer full autonomy over recognition, as the latter implies a certain level of state control. Second, numerous mosques do, as yet, not meet the required criterions for recognition, amongst others because their administration is inefficient. Third, there is often political reluctance to recognize mosques, as Islam is often associated with fundamentalism and terrorism. In Flanders for instance, there have been no new recognitions since 2013 (Deredactie 2021b). In 2014, the previous responsible Minister (Flemish Nationalist Party) put the recognition officially on hold, until the new, more stringent criterions for recognition were approved.

In addition, we should also notice that there are many Turkish mosques in Belgium, of which around the half are managed by Diyanet (the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs). Even though most of these mosques are recognized by the Belgian state, they do not apply for Belgian financial state support. Instead, they prefer a more generous payment of their imams by Diyanet. Additionally, some Diyanet mosques do not prefer recognition by the Belgian state.

Although the new criterions for recognition are required for all local faith communities (at least if they apply for recognition), their recent update is in particular caused by fear for Muslim extremism, which is often connected to foreign influence. This influence, according to the criterions, should be avoided if it hinders the autonomy of local faith communities or if there are clear bonds with terrorism, extremism, espionage, or clandestine interference. But what does this mean for imams, who preach in Belgium, but who are, up until the present day, not trained in Belgium? Is it possible to reduce foreign influence if most if not all imams are educated and trained abroad? Should we, in order to avoid “undesired” foreign influence and involvement, consider a Belgian imam training?

The Training of Imams in Belgium

Like many European countries, Belgium has “after decades of negligence […], woken up to the fact that Muslim communities lack imams who know the country where they function, its language(s), its history, laws, and other related information” (Hashas et al. 2018: 33). In 1974, Islam has been officially recognized by the Belgian state, but for many years, most politicians and policy makers were not concerned about Muslims in Belgium. This changed in the 1990s, when the far-right political party Vlaams Blok (now: Vlaams Belang), which promotes an anti-Islamic program, was very successful. Although this party, which is still very popular in Flanders, never participated in the Government, they nevertheless challenged other political parties to reflect on the presence of Muslims in Belgium and on their integration. In this regard, it is not a surprise that the first attempts to establish an official representative body for the Muslim community in Belgium dates from the early 1990s.

A decade later, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington (2001) once again triggered “the Muslim question” (Norton 2013) in Belgium. In addition, the terrorist attacks in Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016) and the high number of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters[13] challenged Belgian politicians and policy makers to implement an improved policy concerning Islam. Examples of such a policy are the abovementioned civic integration obligation (2013)[14], the reorganization of the EMB, and the engagement to improve Islamic Religious Education in state schools (2016)[15]. In addition, the Parliamentary Investigation Commission which had been established after the 2016 terrorist attacks[16], mentions amongst others: the promotion of a moderate Islam and the countering of radical ideologies; the recognition of more mosques and transparency of these mosques; an improvement of the EMB’s functioning, which implies a decline of foreign influence; more recognized imams; cooperation between different (monotheist) religious communities; abolishing the concession of the Great Mosque in Brussels (see footnote xxix); and deradicalization programs for detainees.

These initiatives are not a coincidence. Well-organized, global networks of Muslim fundamentalists have an important influence on the West and an increasing number of Muslims who are born and raised in Europe are susceptible to extremist and fundamentalist ideologies. In order to counter this, more and more Belgian politicians plead for a Belgian formation of imams, which is controlled and accredited by the State.

However, in spite of political goodwill and in spite of the present demand for imams, the profession of imam seems, amongst others due to uncertain future perspectives, to be unattractive for most Belgian Muslims (cf. CIRRA 2021, 28). Due to this lack of interest, most imams in Belgium are not trained in Belgium[17], but at foreign madrassas and universities, for instance in Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Morocco and Turkey. Although at least two imam hatib schools are present in Belgium (one in Flanders and one in Wallonia), these schools are neither recognized, nor subsidized by the Ministry of Education, but by Diyanet and Milli Görus (cf. Leman 2018). Besides, several training programs on Islamic theology exist in Belgium[18], but these programs, which are mainly governed and financed by foreign organizations, are not recognized by the Belgian state and/or by the EMB. Examples are the Académie Islamique de Bruxelles (Almizan)[19], l’Institut des Études Islamiques in Brussels[20], the Islamic Faculty of Europe in Ghent[21], and the Jisr Al Amana Institute for higher education in Antwerp[22].

In order to “take preventive actions against radicalization and extremism”, the EMB organized several refreshing courses for recognized imams and Islam consultants[23] in the past[24]. These courses aimed at “the development of an open, tolerant Islam with respect for the Belgian society and for living together” as well as at the perfection of knowledge of imams and Islam consultants “at the level of religious, sociological and juridical matters”[25]. In addition, initiatives have been taken at the University of Antwerp, where a study on the feasibility of training for Muslim professionals has been conducted in 2008 (Piqeray et al 2008). Since September 2014, a master in Islamic studies is organized at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). This is, however, not an imam training, but an academic training which rather aims at profound knowledge about Islam and at interreligious dialogue. The initiative did not attract many students, and most of them were women and non-Muslims – and thus no potential imams.

In the francophone part of Belgium, the Institut de promotion des formations sur l’islam (IPFI)[26] has been established in 2017[27]. This institute, wherein amongst other delegates of the EMB, delegates of the Ministry of Education, and scientific university staff cooperate, is supported by the Ministry of Education. However, although one of its missions is “proposing, supporting and financing trainings for imams […]”[28], this mission has not been realized (as yet).

In order to counter this lacuna, the preceding Minister of Justice (2022) has taken the initiative to establish a full-fledged Belgian training for imams. The training, which was supposed to be organized in the Great Mosque in Brussels[29], should contain two parts: on the one hand, there should be a secular part, containing general courses such as sociology of religion, law, and Arabic philosophy. For the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium (Flanders), these courses would be organized at the KU Leuven, while the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), located in Louvain-la-Neuve, would organize these courses for the French-speaking part of Belgium (Wallonia).

In addition, the planned imam-training should also contain a theological part. In order to establish this, an academic council (AFOR) was established within the EMB. Hereto, a subsidy of 192,000 euros was granted by the Minister of Justice in 2020[30]. However, in spite of this subsidy and the establishment of AFOR, there is still no theological part for the imam training. Because Salah Echalloui, who was the president of AFOR, resigned the EMB following state security allegations (cf. infra) and because the Region of Brussels refused to recognize the great mosque which should house the planned imam training, the whole process came to an impasse. Hence, the Minister of Justice canceled further subsidies for AFOR.

The present uncertainty about the theological part – and thus about a full-fledged imam training – has also consequences for the enrolment of students for the secular part: for the academic year 2020-21, only five students were enrolled at the KU Leuven (Flanders), while no students were enrolled at the UCL in Wallonia (Lesoir 2021).

No undesired foreign Influence?

With the planned Belgian imam training program, policy makers hoped that imams in Belgium would be better aware of the Belgian context which is, in addition to profound theological knowledge, a requirement for imams preaching in the secular European context:

Whereas the essential qualification of imams in Muslim majority countries is a first and foremost profound knowledge of the Islamic scriptural sources, legal-ethical traditions and ritual guidance, the European secular context requires new skills of imams to answer questions facing Muslims here.

Boender 2021: 2; see also Hashas et al. 2018: 23

In addition, a Belgian formation of imams is considered a means to diminish “undesired” foreign influence (DeStandaard 2019). In order to establish such a training, there is, within the EMB, an urgent need for consensus on this matter. However, in addition to persistent differences between amongst others Turkish and Moroccan communities, there is also an increasing discrepancy between, on the one hand, an older generation of members of the EMB who strongly emphasize their Turkish or Moroccan ethnicity and, on the other hand, a younger generation of Muslims (including some Islamic experts) which are born and raised in Belgium and do not have much affinity with this older generation (cf. Deredactie 2022; Destandaard 2022). These internal dissensions do not only trigger Belgian state intervention, but they also cause foreign state intervention. And this, in its turn, impedes the establishment of a Belgian training program for imams.

In order to illustrate this, we will have a closer look at some recent problems with AFOR. First, Salah Echallaoui, who was the previous president of the EMB as well as the president of AFOR, has been accused by state security of espionage for the Moroccan Government (Deredactie 2020). In addition, Coşkun Beyazgül, who is the current vice-president of AFOR, is also president of the Belgian department of Diyanet, which is closely connected to the AKP and thus with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish nationalist views on Islam (Destandaard 2021a). Even though Echallaoui rejected the accusations of state security, both cases show at least that a complete abolishment of foreign influence is, at present, an illusion.

According to the present Minister of a.o. integration and equal opportunities (2022), there is a “fundamental problem with the Executive of Muslims”, where “too much influences from abroad” exist (Deredactie 2021a). In order to counter this, the Minister pleads for a profound reform of the EMB: “It is important to have another climate [within the EMB]. Another kind of people, which can far better build bridges between a religion and our Flemish society, should be put forward” (Deredactie 2021a). In a similar vein, the current Minister of Justice (2022) wants to end foreign involvement in the EMB:

There are reports from our nation, but also from abroad, which make clear that organisations such as Diyanet and the Rassemblement des Musulmans de Belgique[31] are vehicles for foreign governments in order to hold a grip on the Muslim community. […] This is foreign involvement, and this proves once again that there really is a problem with the Executive.

Deredactie 2021a

Islam in Belgium: Religion as a Sport?

The recurring malfunctioning of the EMB hinders the establishment of a Belgian imam training program. At this point, however, one may ask whether it is necessary for all Muslim communities in Belgium to unify in one representative body. As noticed by Veit Bader (2017: 155), a certain administrative and/or legal recognition of religions/worldviews is unavoidable in a liberal state. It is, however, unrealistic to expect that different faith communities which are amongst others characterized by theological, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity, gather in one single representative body which then represents one single religion or worldview. Because different religions and worldviews are internally dynamic and diversified, a uniform recognition seems impossible. I therefore agree, with Bader (2017), that a system of recognition, organized in a bottom up way, is to be preferred over a top-down approach. Such a system, which is labeled by Bader (2017: 170) as associational democracy...

… keeps the type of representative organization open (one centralized vs. federations or pluralist representation by some independent organisations); and it does not insist that Muslims are represented by one organization while Christians are represented by several denominations.

In this “realistic utopia” (Bader 2017: 172), “a central, nation-wide, « public » or legal recognition is not required for representation and cooperation on provincial or local levels” (Bader 2017: 170). Although faith communities have the possibility to “develop national organisations or associational structures […] in order to more effectively propagate and proselytize, to influence civil society and […] to lobby”, this cooperation is not imposed by the state, but comes, in an open, pluralistic and voluntary way, from the religious associations themselves.

In view of this, the present Belgian policy concerning sports could be illustrative. In Belgium, the policy concerning sports is not a federal (national) matter, but a local matter, which is governed by the three semi-autonomous Communities (Flemish, French, German). In the Flemish Community, the public agency Sport Vlaanderen is responsible for the recognition of sports federations and their associated sports clubs. In order to be recognized as a sports federation, several criterions must be fulfilled, such as financial transparency, geographical spread, sustainability, and a minimum number of members. At present, 1,4 million sportspersons are members of one (or more) of the 18,000 sports clubs which are associated with a recognized sports federation. In total, 66 federations are recognized: 51 of them are recognized and subsidized, while 15 are only recognized. Sports clubs can freely decide whether or not to affiliate with a recognized federation.

In addition to the recognition of the sports federations, Sport Vlaanderen is also responsible for the recognition and financial support of particular sports clubs. In order to become recognized as a club, several criterions, e.g. with regard to safety, infrastructure, ethical and health policy, and skills of the trainers, must be fulfilled. With regard to the latter, the Flemish training school (Vlaamse trainersschool – VTS) organizes training courses in diverse sports disciplines. Hereto, Sport Vlaanderen, several Flemish Universities (KULeuven, Ghent University, VUB) and university colleges as well as the recognized sports federations, cooperate.

Of course, a mosque is not a sports club, Islam is not a sport, and an Imam is not a sports trainer. Nevertheless, since religion as well as sports are in Belgium considered to be common goods and are therefore supported by the state, it is evident that some objective criterions, amongst others with regard to skills of trainers and religious leaders, must be fulfilled in order to receive this state support. Obviously, society does not benefit from poorly educated sports trainers and likewise, it does not benefit from poorly educated religious leaders.

In order to break the deadlock of the planned imam training, a policy wherein different local Islamic organisations are voluntary recognized and cooperate with the (regional) state could, like a policy wherein different sports federations are recognized and cooperate with the Flemish or French Communities, be an improvement. Although for instance judo, taekwondo, jiujutsu and karate are all martial arts, they all have their own sports federation – and thus also their own trainers and training programs. In a similar way, tennis, squash and badminton are all racket sports, but no one would question the fact that they are represented in three particular sports federations, with three different training programs. Why, then, should this be different for religions and for the training of religious leaders?

In view of a Belgian training for imams – or better: Belgian trainings for imams – a bottom-up recognition of different Islamic faith communities, with different training programs wherein these (sometimes voluntarily associated) communities cooperate with the state (for instance with regard to language training and the organisation of “secular” courses such as philosophy, law and sociology), could be taken into consideration. By extension, such an approach could also have its merits for other faith communities in Belgium, which often face similar problems with their ‘representative body’ and of which religious leaders are, due to a lack of ‘Belgian’ training programs (and thus similar to imams in Belgium), often trained abroad.[32]