London, 6 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Over three-quarters of Britain's 2,000 imams were born and trained abroad, and speak little English.
Islamic community groups say this makes it difficult for young British Muslims -- many of whom were born in the U.K. -- to build relationships with the religious leaders.
Hoping to change all this, Muslim organizations have set up a new national advisory council.
Ghayasuddin Siddiqui heads the Muslim Parliament, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting the interests of Muslim communities in the United Kingdom. He also directs the Muslim Institute, a well-known center of Islamic thought and activism.
He applauded the move to make British imams more accessible to Muslim youth.
“This is what ought to happen," Siddiqui said. "Because one of the biggest problems that we face is that our young people are not able to relate with the existing imams. They do not speak the same language, the same logic, or they have no understanding of British society, so they cannot basically guide them.”
Siddiqui said the advisory council is long overdue, and that all imams coming to the U.K. should be appropriately trained -- not only in English, but in the realities of a multi-faith society.
“This is a major, major issue. And this is the reason why some of the young people went outside the mosque, and joined various extremist groups," Siddiqui said. "So, this is something that we have always said we would welcome.”
Imam Ibrahim Mogra -- who chairs the mosque and community committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, one of the most prominent mainstream Islamic organizations in the U.K. -- said the advisory council is not going to dictate to the imams what they should do.
"One of the biggest problems that we face is that our young people are not able to relate with the existing imams." -- Muslim Parliament head Ghayasuddin Siddiqui
“This is a purely advisory body, which will have no judicial powers," Mogra said. "It will be independent of the government, and it will give advice to imams and mosques, and also to government.”
Mogra added that the advisory council is also new in the sense that it will have all Muslim schools of thought represented -- as he puts it, “Sunni and Shi'a and everything in between."
The council is also set to act as a central hub for advice and resources for imams, mosques, and teachers. It will also encourage participation by young people and women on mosque governing councils.
Mogra said the advisory council will help support the training of new "homegrown" imams. It will also tackle the inadequacies of those 1,700 foreign-trained imams who so far form the majority of Britain's Muslim clergy.
“We will help them to bring their English up to scratch, to help them be able to operate within the U.K., create more awareness of British society, and awareness of other religions that are represented in Britain,” Mogra said.
Siddiqui said the retraining of foreign-born imams will probably be the council's most important work.
“The understanding of Western culture is very, very important, [as is the understanding] of the historic development which has taken place in British or the Western philosophies," Siddiqui said. "And [the] rise of the West as a political power, a military power. So that they understand the kind of issues they are dealing with.”
Siddiqui said that if the advisory council is successful, it will prove a major boost in fighting the rise of extremist influences on Britain's younger Muslims.