European imams meeting in Vienna have pledged to work harder to prove that Islam is compatible with democracy and that the majority of Muslims living in the West support human rights, free speech and pluralism.
More than 130 prayer leaders from across the continent, whose meeting was sponsored by Austria as current European Union president, agreed Islamic theologians in Europe must do more to establish that their faith does not clash with Western values.
Their declaration published on Sunday amounted to a catalogue of home-grown moderate views that Western politicians have been urging Muslim leaders to draw up as a bulwark against radical Islamist ideologies coming from the Middle East.
But an attack on an Islamic cemetery being built in Vienna reminded them of the hostility Muslims meet throughout Europe.
“Muslims in Europe are making history,” said Mouddar Khouja, a senior official of the Islamic Community in Austria, which organized the two-day meeting where several speakers urged “new thinking” to develop a theological basis for Islam in Europe.
He said European imams were issuing fatwas (religious edicts) dealing with modern challenges, such as condemning terrorism, instead of leaving the field open to radical Middle Eastern preachers who glorify violence on the Internet.
“We have shown how to protect ourselves from fatwas from other countries,” he said. “We have fatwas from imams living in Europe and they speak for themselves.”
Imams, who lead Friday prayers in mosques, play an important role in Islam because the faithful often ask their advice on what the faith allows or forbids Muslims to do.
This is routine in Muslim majority countries, but Muslims in Europe face new challenges as minorities in non-Islamic societies. They also have fewer Islamic scholars and little or no tradition of Muslim life in the West to refer to.
Theology part of the solution?
This Conference of European Imams aimed to strengthen moderate voices sometimes drowned out in Muslim discussions by radical anti-Western preachers whose sermons and writings on the Internet inspire small groups of radical Muslims in Europe.
It stressed that Muslims might better adapt to Europe, which some of them see as corrupt and immoral, if imams stressed in their sermons that core Western values of democracy and freedom meshed with their own Islamic faith.
“Imams, as teachers and preachers, have a duty to emphasize to their congregations to play a positive role ... in addressing the plagues of Europe—hate, bigotry, racism, extremism and terrorism,” said British imam Abduljalil Sajid.
The meeting was clouded by an attack on an Islamic cemetery being built in a suburb of Vienna. The building shell of the prayer room was set on fire at the weekend. Its outside walls were smeared with graffiti saying: “Will be blown up.”
“The graffiti shows this was an anti-Islamic attack,” said Omar al-Rawi, head of integration affairs at the Austrian Islamic Community. A similar attack on a mosque happened after another Islam conference last November.
Fitting in with Western values
The imam meeting’s declaration urged Muslim theologians to point out chapter and verse how Islam fits with Western values.
“Theological arguments have a good chance of leading to lasting changes in attitudes,” it said. “These should be seen as part of the solution and fostered in public discussion.”
Among practical steps they sought were Islamic arguments against immigrants isolating themselves in self-made ghettos, refusing to integrate or rejecting the separation of church and state in Western democracies.
Imams should also show that violations of women’s rights—through forced marriages, female circumcision and “honor killings”—were rooted in traditions from outside Europe and not justified by Islam, they said.
“We need some new thinking,” said Ayatollah Sayed Abbas Ghaemmagami, head of the Imam Ali Islamic Center in Hamburg, a leading Shiite Center in Europe.
“Today we are in dire need of a social model that is just and realistic (and can) arrive at solutions to the problems that prevent integration and peaceful living together,” he said.