The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (UDC) of Fribourg is gathering signatures for a referendum to oppose an Islamic studies center at the University of Fribourg. The move comes at a time when reaching out to Muslim communities seems more important than ever.
That is certainly the opinion of Antonio Loprieno of the University of Basel, who has sought to put the project together over the past three years. “Now is the time for this centre to open. What’s going on now in Syria and Iraq shows that it is high time to have a look at what academic institutions with a moderate or liberal view of Islam are saying.”
The Centre for Islam & Society, or CIS, was scheduled to open this autumn but opposition in the Cantonal Council in September has delayed the project. Organizers expect it to start up by early 2015. “We want to ensure that this is a purely theological discussion, devoid of politics,” said Loprieno. “This is an opportunity for Islamic scholars of all sects to be present. Only those who believe that their version of Islam is the only one will not be accepted.”
The Centre has received approval from the University of Fribourg which, as with all Swiss universities, is publicly-funded. It has approved a yearly allocation of CHF 250,000 with a corresponding federal contributioin to match. The question of tax payer support for such a project is one reason behind the opposition. Another is concern that the University of Fribourg’s Faculty of Theology might lose its Catholic character.
Fribourg University Rector Guido Vergauwen, who has supported the project from the start, believes it will proceed as scheduled in January under the direction of Ethics Professor Hansjorg Schmid, who will begin the recruitment of moderate Muslim scholars and guest professors. Vergauwen said that he is “not worried that the UDC will get the 6,000 signatures required” for a referendum to overturn the project.
Initially, the concept behind the CIS was to train potential imams and to inform non-Muslims, whether chaplains, medical personnel, police officers or teachers, about this growing Swiss religion. The goal was to give local imams a better understanding of Swiss culture and society leading to better integration of Muslim communities. This last point remains, but the first has been modified. “The formation of Islamic theologians who could then become imams does not come into question,” said Vergauwen, adding that the focus now is on purely theological studies.
Some in the Muslim community have pointed out that their tradition does not provide spiritual training for imams, although most have remained publicly silent on the issue. The elephant in the room is the widening schism between the two main strains of Islam (Sunni and Shia). So is the question about how many Muslim scholars, no matter how moderate, would have the courage to participate in the CIS project in today’s poisonous atmosphere. The hope, said Loprieno, is that “it should be possible for Muslims to be integrated into non-Muslim societies without betraying their religion”.