Prague, 14 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In secular Uzbekistan, religious activities that do not fall under state control -- including religious education -- are punishable by law.
Tashkent is intent on maintaining influence over the country's Muslim leadership, and closely supervises the training of its state-appointed imams -- fearing what it says is a very real threat of rising Islamic extremism.
Igor Rotar is the Central Asian correspondent for Forum 18, a Norwegian-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He says Islamic education for imams in Uzbekistan is provided strictly through institutes run by the state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims, or Muftiate.
"According to Uzbek law it is prohibited to teach Islam if you don't have a special license from the authorities," Rotar said. "[Imams] can only study Islam is special schools: [they go to] madrassahs [for a] middle-level education, and if [they] want a higher education [they go to the] Islamic Institute. But madrassahs and the Islamic Institute really are controlled by authorities."
Rotar says the Islamic Institute in Tashkent currently has 150 students, including 30 women. There are eight madrassahs across the country.
Rotar has interviewed officials at the Islamic Institute and the Mir Arab madrassah in Bukhara, and says that teachers often attempt to gauge the political views of an applicant before accepting them for the school.
He said authorities are intent upon ensuring that prospective students have no links with nonstate approved Islam. Students continue to be subjected to such "loyalty checks" throughout the course of the studies.
Technically, imams can also receive their Islamic education outside Uzbekistan. But again, Rotar says the Uzbek government tightly controls the list of foreign educational establishments it deems appropriate for its future imams.
Efforts to control the training of imams is not limited to Uzbekistan. In France -- which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with an estimated 5 million -- efforts are underway to develop a "French Islam" that reflects the country's traditional values.
"The issue now is to train imams who can speak French, who understand European societies and laws and who respect these laws."
The French Constitution, however, makes a clear division between church and state. The government has no authority to require specific diplomas or special training for the country's imams. Currently, prayer leaders are usually chosen by members of their mosque.
But the question of training imams has been heating up in recent weeks. Mahmood Zuhair directs France's European Institute of Human Sciences, a private organization funded by the Muslim community which is involved in training imams.
"There is a debate [in France] following the expulsion of several imams and [Muslim] association leaders either because their remarks were considered too extremist or because their presence on French soil was illegal. So the issue of the imams' training has again been posed," Zuhair said. "The issue now is to train imams who can speak French, who understand European societies and laws and who respect these laws. [They also have to be] capable of adapting religion in accordance with society, without any impediment to the rules of either [Islam] or the society."
The number of French-trained imams falls far short of meeting current demand, and the vast majority of the country's 1,500 imams come from abroad. About 90 percent are foreign citizens, mostly from North Africa. Half of them do not speak French.
Few young French Muslims are attracted to pursuing life as an imam. The spiritual leaders are typically not paid for their services, and receive few benefits from the state. Most live on welfare, supplemented by donations from the faithful.
France's Muslim community has few economic resources. This has raised questions about who should finance a French-style training institute for future imams.
Olivier Roy, a Paris-based expert on Islamic affairs, says the state will have to overcome constitutional limitations in order to fund such an institute.
"[One solution is that] Muslim associations agree on the establishment of their own private [training] center, which could in certain cases benefit from state subsidies -- if, for instance, the teaching does not only include religion. This is the most likely option," Roy said.
In the meantime, the government and some Muslim leaders are considering the establishment of a list of approved imams and guidelines about training. Criteria would include being proficient in French, long-time residence in France, and sermons strengthening social peace.