The Catholic University of Leuven, the oldest university in Belgium and one that has been a major contributor to the development of Roman Catholic theology for more than 500 years, will offer a degree in Islamic theology beginning in 2014.
The decision by KU Leuven, as the university is commonly known, to focus on Islam follows similar moves by other leading universities in Europe and reflects the growing influence of Islam on the continent.
Castle Arenberg, part of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. The university will offer a degree in Islamic theology beginning in 2014. (Image credit: Juhanson/Wikimedia Commons)
The proliferation of degree programs in Islamic theology is being justified by European governments -- which are subsidizing the teaching of Islam in European universities with taxpayer money -- as a way to "professionalize" the training of Muslim imams, or religious teachers, many of whom do not even speak the language of their European host countries.
Some European governments believe that by controlling the religious education of imams, they can promote the establishment of a "European Islam," one that combines Islamic principles and duties with European values and traditions such as the rule of law, democracy, human rights and gender equality.
But critics say such efforts to create a "European Islam" are naïve and misguided, and will serve only to contribute to the "mainstreaming" of a religious and political ideology that is intrinsically opposed to all aspects of the European way of life.
The KU Leuven degree in Islamic theology will be offered within the department of World Religions, Interreligious Dialogue and Religious Studies (WIDR). The program is intended only for those who already have a bachelor's degree, a requirement that would appear to eliminate the chances for admission for a vast majority of the imams in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.
Moreover, KU Leuven's Islam courses will be taught only in Dutch, a linguistic barrier that will presumably exclude many other practicing imams from participating in the degree program. In addition, the university has not yet revealed who will be teaching the courses on Islam, nor has it published information concerning the academic credentials of the professors who will be running the new program.
In order to earn the degree, students must prepare a thesis and also complete an internship as an Islam counsellor in public institutions such as hospitals, youth programs and prisons, etc.
Belgian opinion-shapers are casting an overwhelmingly positive light on KU Leuven's decision to teach Islamic theology, a move that has been closely coordinated with the government in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium.
Flemish Education Minister Pascal Smet says the new program, which will be launched in February 2014, will be an important step in creating an "academic framework for Islam" in Flanders.
Smet, who has headed a steering committee of representatives from universities and local Muslim leaders, has been instrumental in funneling €100,000 ($135,000) of public money to compensate KU Leuven for teaching the courses on Islam during 2014 and 2015.
Flemish MP Ludo Sannen, who has studied the approaches to training imams used by other European countries, says that working with existing universities is more cost-efficient than starting an Islamic theology program from scratch.
In an interview with the Flemish daily newspaper De Standaard, Sannen says, "We need to train our own imams and Islamic theologians so they approach Islam from our environment and are better integrated."
The KU Leuven Islam program has also benefited from the support of the Flemish Minister for Integration, Geert Bourgeois, who sponsored a major study on Islam in Flanders that was carried out by a consortium of Flemish universities in 2011.
The 80-page study, "Imams and Islamic Consultants in Flanders: How are they Organized?," states that Muslim leaders in Belgium are mostly unfamiliar with Flemish language and culture, and often make reference to the reality of Islam as it is practiced in the Middle East. As a result, imams are ill-equipped to answer the questions of the younger generation of Muslims in Belgium and help them with their problems. Feeling misunderstood, "the younger generation of European Muslims is therefore looking for religious leaders who speak their language and know their world."
In an interview with the Flemish newspaper De Morgen, Bourgeois says the KU Leuven Islam degree as currently conceived has a number of shortcomings. He says that over time the program should be customizable for the needs of individual imams, and that courses must be taught in a second language, presumably Arabic. In this way, according to Bourgeois, the degree program will "better reflect the specific needs of imams."
The training of imams is also moving apace in other parts of Belgium, where Muslims now comprise roughly 6% of the total population, one of the highest rates in Europe.
In northern Belgium, the Antwerp University and College Association (AUHA) is launching a pilot project in which imams and imams-in-training will earn college credits for taking courses such as introduction to Belgian law, introduction to Belgian social and political history, intercultural communication, and Western ethics.
In neighboring Holland, the government has financed several programs in Islamic theological training.
The first Dutch government-sponsored program in Islamic theology was a €2 million ($2.7 million) grant to teach Islam at Holland's largest Protestant Christian university, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), where students can earn bachelors and master's degrees by taking courses in Islamic theology, Arabic language and religious studies with a focus on Islam in the Netherlands and pastoral care.
The Dutch government has also awarded a €2.4 million ($3.1 million) grant to the University of Leiden to launch an Islamic theology program there.
Both of these programs have suffered from an inherent disconnect between the demands of Dutch politicians to promote a "moderate" form state-sponsored Islam, and the demands of local Muslim leaders to teach the authentic and true Islam.
In addition to the Islamic theological offerings at VU and Leiden, the Dutch Ministry of Education has also awarded public funds to the Amsterdam-based Hogeschool InHolland, a practical training university that prepares Islamic educators for work in Dutch secondary schools.
In Sweden, the University of Uppsala in November 2012 hired its first professor of Islamic theology and philosophy. According to the dean of Uppsala University's Faculty of Theology, Mikael Stenmark, "The idea is to develop a new profile at the Department of Theology, and in the long-term offer a complete degree program in Islamic theology."
In Germany, Islamic theology courses at German universities are so popular that they are "changing the German religious landscape," according to the news service Deutsche Welle.
The Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Tübingen -- the first taxpayer-funded department of Islamic theology in Germany -- was inaugurated in January 2012 and is the first of four Islamic university centers in the country.
In addition to the center in Tübingen, Islamic theology departments have also recently opened at universities in Erlangen/Nürnberg (September 2012), Münster/Osnabrück (October 2012), and Frankfurt/Gießen (June 2013).
The German government will pay the salaries for professors and other staff at all four Islamic centers for the next five years, at a total cost of €20 million ($25 million).
According to the German Ministry of Education, Germany has a demand for more than 2,000 Islam teachers, who are needed to instruct more than 700,000 Muslim children.
The German government claims that by controlling the curriculum, the school, which is to train Muslim imams and Islamic religion teachers, will function as an antidote to "hate preachers."
Most imams currently in Germany are from Turkey and many of them do not speak German.
German Education Minister Annette Schavan says the Islamic centers are a "milestone for integration" for the 4.3 million Muslims who now live in Germany.
But the idea has been criticized by those who worry that the Islamic centers will become a gateway for Islamists who will introduce a hardline brand of Islam into the German university system.
In Tübingen, for example, the three professors who will be teaching at the department (eventually there will be six full professorships) had to satisfy an Islamic advisory council that they were devout Muslims.
One of the professors, Omar Hamdan, a Sunni Muslim, says that critical analysis into whether the Islamic Koran was actually written by God is "completely out of the question."
Pointing to double standards, some of those opposed to the Islamic center say there should be critical distance between text and interpreter, as when Christianity is taught in German universities.
Critics also fear that conservative Islamic groups will exert their influence over teaching and research at the center. There are only two independent experts on the advisory board of the Tübingen center. The other five individuals belong to groups such as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Islamic Affairs (DITIB), which is actually a branch of the Turkish government.
DITIB is being used by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to exert control over 900 mosques in Germany -- and to prevent Turkish immigrants from integrating into German society. Erdogan believes that the assimilation of Muslims into a non-Muslim society "is a crime against humanity."
During a meeting with German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich in February 2013, Erdogan said that Berlin's insistence that Turkish immigrants who want to live in Germany must integrate and learn the German language is "a violation of human rights."
Education Minister Schavan says she is "placing a lot of trust" in the new Islamic centers, which she hopes will "contribute to the further development of Islamic theology."
Schavan's assistant at the Ministry of Education, Thomas Rachel, says the rise of taxpayer-funded Islamic centers in Germany is a "historic development, comparable to the rise of protestant Christian theology after the Reformation 500 years ago." According to Rachel, "Muslim theology will be firmly established in German universities, and thus also in German society."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.