Australia set to train own imams

July 14, 2006

Geoff Maslen reports on government moves to thwart extremism

Melbourne and Sydney universities are considering proposals from the federal Education Department that they train Islamic clerics.

The courses would provide an alternative to the training offered at centres in Egypt and Saudi Arabia where many aspiring imams go. The plan is to prevent students being subject to fundamentalist and terrorist teaching.

Prime Minister John Howard established a Muslim Community Reference Group last year to advise him on how best to tackle terrorist threats from local Muslims. The group suggested that local imams should study a curriculum that emphasised spiritual rather than political Islam.

Brendan Nelson, former Education Minister, indicated support for the federal Government providing funding for the development of imam training.

Victoria University in Melbourne held discussions with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils about developing a joint curriculum offering Australian-based training for Muslim clerics.

The university has one of the most multicultural student enrolments in Australia and is located in a community with a significant number of Muslims.

The Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria backed the plan for local teaching of imams. It said the proposed courses would range from undergraduate to PhD level while the degrees would be taught by academics and local and visiting imams.

A council spokeswoman said that although some universities already offered Islamic courses, they were not designed to train imams. She said that all other religions in Australia had access to similar types of degrees.

Fehmi Naji El-Imam, a prominent Melbourne Muslim cleric who chairs a clergy training sub-group within the council, said he would ensure only moderate theologians were hired to lecture students.

Mr El-Imam warned that the proposal should not be seen as a means of eradicating Islamic extremism.

But he said: "The more people fluent in Islam, the less power hardline preachers are going to have."

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