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Grassroots push for homegrown imams struggles in Europe’s climate



At the top of a small building in Osnabrück, with only a tiny plaque denoting its name, sits Germany’s first school for imams.

The Islamkolleg, in north-west Germany, is the cautious fruit of a decade’s efforts by Muslim scholars, including academic director Bülent Ucar, who have struggled to convince both politicians and their own communities that Germany needs homegrown clerics for its new generation of Muslims.

Their project could be a model for European officials seeking to build a “European Islam” — if they can draw the right lessons.

In the wake of extremist Islamist attacks, France, Austria and Germany took aim at foreign funding they say spur teachings at odds with Europe’s secular values and can radicalise Muslims. Charles Michel, the European Council president, last month proposed a European imam training institute to fight the “ideology of hatred”.

But amid this heated ideological debate, many clerics worry that support for their grassroots efforts will be treated as a counter-terrorism strategy, thereby alienating the very communities they hope to reach.

Chart of Muslims as a share of total population, 2016 (%) showing that Muslims are minorities in every European country

“Muslims in Europe are hurt doubly by Islamist religious extremism. To non-Muslim Europeans, we become a fifth column . . . but from the perspective of religious fanatics, we have sold our souls, we are not authentic,” said Mr Ucar, working amid towering stacks of embossed religious texts.

Founding such a school, he said, which starts its all-German classes in April, could not be forced for political expediency on to wary communities. “It’s a process, we can’t make it happen overnight. And many Muslims worry what we’re doing isn’t real Islam.” 

He keeps the school’s external plaque small, meanwhile, for fear of Islamophobic attacks; the Islamkolleg regularly receives hate mail.

Bülent Ucar joins officials, scholars and educators in a panel discussion at the start of a conference on Islam in Berlin © Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy
Tareq Oubrou, imam of Bordeaux, speaks before a public gathering to pay tribute to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015 © Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, have led a push in Europe against what they identify as “Islamist separatism” and “political Islam”, respectively. Proponents have zeroed in on foreign funding, which comes mostly from Turkey, north Africa and the Gulf, and which they say fosters conservatism that leads to radicalisation.

Such claims frustrate Tareq Oubrou, the imam of Bordeaux, who has long demanded a break with foreign funding — but not because of extremist attacks. That has “nothing to do with it”, he said. He, like other Muslim leaders interviewed, argues most attackers are radicalised online. He sees foreign influence as problematic because it can increase alienation among younger generations that cannot connect with clergy who do not speak their first language or understand their lives as a European minority.

Mr Oubrou seeks a “French Islam” for integration. Over the past 10 months he has worked with fellow clerics on an initiative for training French imams. But that has been undermined, he said, by Mr Macron’s turning, after the latest terrorist incidents, to France’s Regional Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM), which the president enlisted to develop a programme for French-trained imams. 

Chart showing nationality of 301 French imams funded by foreign governments; 151 from Turkey, 120 from Algeria and 30 from Morocco

Mr Oubrou sees a bitter irony here: the CFCM is made up of disparate Muslim organisations, some of which come from divergent political and religious backgrounds and are themselves dependent on foreign countries for funding.

“The intention is good, but the method? I do not agree at all,” he said. “It’s hard to see how this will be able to stand.” 

State-directed initiatives are risky. The Netherlands abandoned attempts to establish imam training after losing local participation, according to an academic survey, in which some respondents said it felt more like a security programme than a societal one. By contrast, some clerics have pointed to Britain’s Cambridge Muslim College, an initiative launched by Muslims, as a success.

A placard reading ‘Macron, you are looking at the wrong target, we’re not terrorists’ is held aloft during protests in Toulouse against France’s proposed Law on the Principles of the Republic © Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/Getty
Sebastian Kurz, left, and Emmanuel Macron host talks with other leaders at the Elysée in Paris in November on an EU-wide response to attacks blamed on Islamist radicals © Olivier Hoslet/POOL/AFP/Getty

The Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ), the official Muslim authority, has launched educational schemes at several Austrian universities. “Intercultural sensitivity and awareness of what it means to live as a minority in a secular state is essential for a community leader,” said Valerie Mussa, its spokesperson.

The problem for the IGGÖ programmes, like all others in Europe, is funding. Foreign financing is so prevalent because Muslim minorities often are too small to be able to self-finance their own clergy or training. Cengiz Kalayci, of France’s CFCM, said his community considered taxing halal food, then discovered it was unconstitutional.

Mr Ucar said he and his peers had sought state support for an imam college since 2007 but had been repeatedly rebuffed by local and federal officials. Germany was once happy to let Turkey foot the bill for imams, he said. Only as relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan soured had the government started to battle foreign funding.

Even now that the college exists, the dilemma of paying imams remains. Mr Ucar said Germany could provide indirect help by supporting congregations’ social programmes and freeing up their funds for imams’ salaries.

“That’s what they do with Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Why not with Muslims? ” he asks. “This is a political problem. People tend to feel wary of Islam.”

Chart showing variations in French Muslims' religious practices - over half are believers and practising

Newly proposed laws across Europe could heighten tensions and undermine efforts like those of Mr Ucar and Mr Oubrou. Austria proposed a security law with a ban on “political Islam”, a term IGGÖ leaders say is uncomfortably vague.

Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar, said France’s proposed Law on the Principles of the Republic targets Muslims despite never explicitly naming them. “The government keeps repeating that extremists, not French Muslims, are the target of this law, and yet we keep asking ordinary Muslims . . . if they ‘are with us or against us’.”

In Germany, Europe’s toughening approach comes at a time of growing harassment of Muslims. Aiman Mazyek, of the Central Council for Muslims in Germany, said communities report three to four cases of attack or vandalism each week, which makes it harder, he argues, to encourage Muslims to “see themselves as German”.

For Mr Oubrou, the debate has reached what he calls a “critical stage” in Europe. “Emotions are taking over discussions between people. The rational voice isn’t being heard today,” he said. “We’re in a phase of ‘anything could happen’.”

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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor




Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.

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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland




The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.

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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 




France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.

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