Islam in Europe now has strong local leadership

Imam Cheppih symbolises a new approach in teaching values that go beyond the "simplistic halal-haram" conversation and touch controversial issues like pre-marital sex and drugs.

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There are major changes underway for Muslims in Europe. They go beyond threats to ban the burqa in France or plans to build the largest mosque on the continent in Marseille. They go beyond the Dutch elections last month, which doubled the number of parliamentarians from the anti-Islam Freedom Party. What is more momentous is the birth of a homegrown form of Islam, an indigenous approach to practising the religion in today's Europe.
And a Dutch imam is leading the way. Himself a product of a cultural melange, Mohammed Cheppih was raised in a family of Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands. Having learnt his faith at the knee of community elders, Imam Cheppih, 33, now believes that it is time for a homegrown form of Islam that is true to the cultural mores of the country that he and many other young Muslims consider their home.
"I personally got fed up with religion promoted by others," he told me over coffee in downtown Beirut during a recent trip to the region. "Culturally, it is not what I believe." He is no stranger to challenging conventional thinking. During his religious training at university in Saudi Arabia, his ideas about Islam's role in the West rattled more than a few cages. "I was always under threat for being kicked out of school for questioning and debating everything," he said.
Similarly the religious texts that are available in the Netherlands are usually translated from abroad, with little relevance to everyday life in his home country. It is a deficit that many critics have identified. Muslim communities in Europe often lack well-trained imams with a local connection who can truly engage both the Muslim and European aspects of a community, especially the youth. Too often imams are the product of a foreign-funded mosque or, as one worshipper once told me, "just about anyone available to lead prayer". Often the imam represents only the views of a few elders in an immigrant community, someone whose preaching might either alienate or radicalise the young.
That state of affairs motivated Imam Cheppih to found Academica Islamica, a training centre for educators and community leaders in the Netherlands, as well as the Polder Mosque, which will begin to broadcast sermons and educational programmes on the radio, television and internet starting this September. "We have a shortage of grassroot scholarship and leadership," he said. Located in the Dutch city of Amsterdam, the mosque breaks with traditional expectations. Men and women pray side by side, and non-Muslims often attend the Friday sermon, then sit on the sidelines during group prayer. Women are not required to wear a hijab.
These practices can draw fire from more conservative clergy, but Imam Cheppih can cite plenty of precedents. There are nearly one million Muslims in the Netherlands who, by and large, lead non-segregated lives. Most women do not wear the hijab. Why should they change their behaviour when they pray? "It's very strange to put conditions on people entering a mosque," Imam Cheppih said. "In old times, people entered from the street community."
The issues the imam addresses with his congregations are also controversial. Premarital sex, homosexuality, and drugs and alcohol consumption are discussed. "It's called jurisprudence of reality, or jurisprudence of the minority in cases when Muslims are a minority in a non-Muslim state." Although controversial, the Polder Mosque is not alone in this school of thought. One of the most prominent scholars today, and a major influence on Imam Cheppih, is the Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University who emphasises the need for a "Western Islam".
The recently deceased Lebanese spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah is another example of Islamic scholarship applying "jurisprudence of the reality". Many of his mourners were Lebanese women whose lives were changed by his leadership, which helped them negotiate life in modern-day Lebanon while remaining faithrul to their religion. Imam Cheppih aims to do the same in the Netherlands, where Muslim youth are often first or second generation immigrants. Unlike their Dutch counterparts, when it comes to peer pressure and personal decisions they must also negotiate a cultural gap with their elders. Without proper guidance, this can lead to disastrous outcomes.
Controversial issues are not going away. Imam Cheppih likes to point out that his approach to teaching Islamic values goes beyond the "simplistic halal-haram" conversation that he says has come to characterise discussions of Islam today, even within scholarly circles. Talk about Islam in secular Europe also seems to be reduced to the burqa or what size a new mosque should be. The rise of an organic and indigenous European Islam may very well change the conversation entirely.
Rasha Elass is a former reporter for The National now based in Damascus. * This article was edited on July 21 2010 to correct the name of the Dutch city that is home to the Polder Mosque.