London, 9 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- New government regulations coming into force in August stipulate that foreign imams must demonstrate a basic command of the English language before being allowed into Britain.
Many in Britain's Islamic community agree with the ruling. Young Muslims especially want English-speaking, home-educated imams to whom they can relate.
"I think it's very important for an imam who works in Britain to be able to speak English, because that is the language of this country," said 39-year-old imam Ibrahim Mogra, who chairs the Mosque and Community Affairs Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain. "And it makes sense that we train imams in this country so that also they understand the British culture in which they will be preaching to the people who are in their congregations."
Mahjoob Zweiri is a research fellow and lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Durham.
"I think the imams need to understand the circumstances which they live in," he said. "They could not apply the things which might be applied in the Middle East, for example, here in the U.K. They have to understand there is a difference. There is diversity, there [are] a lot of cultures, a lot of people who have their own way of thinking, who have their own lives. The imams have to respect all of these things and the law."
Zweiri said he can understand the government's position in light of fears among some in the British populace about controversial foreign imams coming into the country to preach:
"I think the government is trying to do all this stuff just to maybe help the Muslim people to understand that the world today has changed after 9/11 [11 September 2001], and they have to have a kind of flexibility and to understand these circumstances," Zweiri said. "And in many ways, they have to help the government to set the new legislation, and they have to accept this."
Imam Mogra explained that this is precisely what the Muslim Council of Britain did: "I was involved in those meetings we had with the Home Office, representing the Muslim Council of Britain, along with other members of Muslim organizations. And we said to the government, 'You can start with a "Level 4" English, so that the imams, when they come to this country, get a chance to get English up to scratch. In the meantime, those who are abroad and are planning to come to this country, it gives them two years' time to start learning English before they put in their application for a work permit to work in the U.K.'"
Mogra disputed the idea that the new regulations constitute an attempt by the British government to regulate Islam.
"I think it's not a question of regulating the religion," Mogra said. "I think it's important to regulate the kind of people that we have teaching religion. I don't think the Muslim community in Britain would welcome any move by the government trying to regulate Islam. We would not accept that at all. We live in a democracy, and we have religious freedom."
Mogra said the government originally wanted to apply a much more demanding level of English proficiency. But he said this would have complicated life for imams already in Britain. Mogra said imams from abroad are still urgently needed, as only some 20 percent are "homegrown" at present.
"I think the government is trying to do all this stuff just to maybe help the Muslim people to understand that the world today has changed after 9/11." -- Mahjoob Zweiri, a research fellow and lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Durham
Even with a number of Muslim colleges across Britain, the process of having a "homegrown" imam in every mosque is bound to take time, Mogra said. Not that that's even desirable. He noted that many first-generation immigrants might want to be preached to in their mother tongues.