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Religion and Society

Spain Considers How to Monitor its Imams

Islamic communities demonstrating against terrorism in Barcelona, Dino Geromella /

After the attacks in Barcelona, the debate on imams’ training and the demand for Islamic education in a secular state gets more intense

Muslim institutions estimate that there are 1,200 imams in Spain. After weeks of debate on the issue, following the tragic attacks in Barcelona, the final message for society is that no one actually has control over them. And no one – neither inside nor outside of the Islamic community – seems to be held accountable for their choice and for their work in the places of worship, which is doubly worrisome if one considers that Spain has an advanced legislation, modified to increase security after the attacks in Madrid in 2004.

According to Law 26/1992, imams have a stable character and some specific functions. They must have a certificate from the Ministry of Justice and another from the community they refer to, having received clearance also from the Islamic Commission of Spain (Article 3.1). Economically speaking, imams are assimilated to workers and are included in the general social security system. In 2004, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s socialist government advanced a proposal to reform the law on religious freedom and to create an imams’ register. However, leaders of the Islamic community showed their disagreement, stating that it was a violation of their rights. While trying to calculate the electoral effects that such a move could produce, political leaders have delayed the creation of this registry until now.

After the August attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, Riay Tatary, president of the Islamic Commission of Spain, told the media that “imams are not monitored” and that they had been working on the registry since 2016. Secondly, referring to a position taken in 2004, he stated that he did not agree with monitoring imams’ sermons, defining such a proposal as “proper of dictatorial governments” and complaining that he had not been receiving governmental reports on imams.

Yet, as already mentioned, the legal figure of the imam is well defined. The community is responsible for his election, and such election is overseen by the Islamic Commission. Despite this, Muslim representatives admit that this reality escapes their effort to control it. This was explicitly stated by Lahsen Himmer, President of the Islamic Community of Andalusia and member of the Permanent Islamic Commission of Spain: “There is no real control over imams”.

The real question is then what is meant by monitoring imams. Experience says that for state’s authorities “to monitor” means to prevent these figures from being part of terrorist networks and from being means to radicalization, without any pressure on the “official” Islam. However, what happened in Barcelona showed how things really are. Many imams are not related to the communities where they practice; they live as outsiders; they supervise payments for places of worship; they hold sermons on Friday; in the vast majority, they do not know Spanish; in other cases, they enroll to other cultural (non-religious) associations, thus escaping the monitoring of the Register of Religious Organization of the Ministry of Justice.

In light of these data, the creation of an imams’ register seems to be necessary. And if, as envisaged by the law, imams are workers registered with the social security system, communication between ministries should occur more effectively. Spain is not an ungovernable territory: there are mechanisms of monitoring granted by legislation. It is necessary to verify and update imams’ information, but also it is necessary to depoliticize the issue, keeping it distant from electoral debates. The matter concerns the state, not the government. Otherwise, we will continue to live in provisional measures regarding such a crucial topic.

Despite the urgency of implementing imams’ control, Islamic representatives linked what happened in Barcelona to an ancient claim of Islam in Spain: the need to set up their own educational system. “There is no imams’ training center and this is a problem [...]. There is no center that verifies the requisites needed for an imam to practice in a mosque”. Lahsen Himmer describes in these terms what is, in his opinion, the root of the problem: “In order to be an imam, some criteria have to be met: you need to have a profound knowledge of Islam and a certificate of suitability issued by a group of scholars who authorize you to practice. All of this does not exist in Spain because there is no designated institution”. And that is exactly what is asked: an educational system “like that of the Catholic Church”. 

It is interesting to note that, once the impact of the attacks has faded, the latter ended up reigniting the political debate on the need to unlock the 1992 Agreement. Far from taking responsibility in conducting internal monitoring, some Muslim leaders point to the refusal of the state to recognize Islamic educational institutions attached to their structures as the main cause. Paradoxically, an organization of Muslim majority countries, but located in a Western, secular and multicultural state, and always claimed as such by Muslims themselves. 

Institutionalization and control of Islamic education in Spain has been, from its origin, a topic that caused internal clashes. However, it should also be said that in Spain there have already been imams’ training projects. After the attacks in Madrid, imams’ training courses were launched by the Ministry of Justice, the National University of Distance Education (UNED), the Islamic University of Rotterdam and the Islamic Commission of Spain. The courses, with limited enrollment, aimed to make members familiar with Spanish and international legislations, “the principles of pluralism and coexistence, uses and customs of our society, the democratic values of the host country, and a vision of authentic Islam, which rejects violence and extremism”. This formative proposal was interrupted two years ago. 

As other important issues, the educational system in Spain has always been a very electorally sensitive issue. Therefore, it is not strange that the imams’ formation was conceived only as provisional, without foreseeing the enormous extent that it would have for security reasons. A mistake in evaluating? Negligence? Political inconvenience? Today we are confronted with another priority, unresolved from its origins, in the late 1980s: exercising control over “educators” is strategic in order to affirm one Islamic vision or another. In this sense, the reaction from Morocco didn’t take long to come. A few days after the attacks, they expressed their intention to reach an agreement on the control over imams and the mosques that welcome second and third generation Moroccan emigrants. According to Moroccan Interior Minister, Abdelouafi Laftit, “these young people born in European countries need special attention to prevent them from falling into the clutches of terrorism”. 

Instead of favoring topics that create divisions, it would be necessary to support the institutions’ effort to comprehensively monitor imams’ speeches and their selection by Islamic leaders in Spain.