Michael Kelly SJ. Treating Islam’s clerics like their Christian equivalents will save lives

Dec 1, 2015

There is an unexpected upside to the mayhem and carnage across the world, visited on the unsuspecting innocents of countries where Muslims are not a majority of the population – Europe and beyond. It’s something the Catholic Church has had to learn, too.

And that is the simple fact that that misbehavior among religious adherents towards members of the faith community as well as those outside it – requires external intervention to be rectified and hopefully crushed.

This can be done by subjecting the verification and authorization of religious officials and organizations to the same stringent tests that have either long been applied – or should have been applied to those of the Catholic and other mainstream Christian Churches.

The worldwide crisis of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is nothing of the sort. That tragedy was and is a crisis of episcopal mismanagement. In country after country, bishops have demonstrated their incapacity to handle the scale of clerical sex abuse and the necessary measures required to address it.

In other words the Catholic Church, in too many places, and until very recently with the implicit authorization of the Vatican, has demonstrated its inability to manage its own affairs. And in country after country, state and their police and judicial processes have had to intervene to protect the vulnerable, doing for the Church what it should have done on instinct and in line with its own moral teaching.

But this intervention by the State and the Courts is only the latest instance of the Church and its personnel being made accountable, Internally and externally, Church institutions and their managers and operatives are held accountable in manifold ways.

Across the world, in authoritarian polities such as China or Vietnam and democracies alike the institutions, personnel and operations of the Church are accountable to State authorities on behalf of the wider community.

Individual Church workers – clerics and lay people – are, in some places registered for payment by the State, in most places for taxation under various forms and are subject to determinations by civil authorities if they wish to alter buildings. In many parts of the world, clerics have to undergo training and receive accreditation before they can work with or near children.

As well, church workers are appointed to positions in church institutions provided they have qualified with degrees and periods of probation in educational settings that frequently are subject to State scrutiny and accreditation.

Church buildings are registered in various ways. Places of worship come under specific zoning regulations and are subject to various types of taxation. Charities, schools and hospitals are similarly scrutinized for their meeting performance criteria set by the State, which in turn issues permits to operate.

Much of the agitation coming from the Islamic community is either stirred up or rationalized by Muslim clerics. Islamic communities will have their own standards and criteria for selecting and appointing Imams. But how does the wider community in countries where Muslims are a minority effectively minimize fears for the safety of their communities ?

The recruitment locations for the suicide bombers and murderers terrorizing Western cities, as shown in Paris, London, Madrid and Brussels in recent times are in fact in mosques in European and other capitals. And recruits in their hundreds, perhaps thousands are coming to Daesh, or the self-styled Islamic State from across the world – Europe, North Africa, Asia, Australia.

Ordinarily, immigrants to any country go through a process of assessment before a visa is granted to the migrant by the country of welcome. Frequently, there are processes in place to see that new arrivals are inducted in the values of their new home, that institutions and processes are explained and sometimes that the new arrival has the opportunity to join an existing community already inserted into the social fabric of the host nation.

In the case of skilled or professional migrants, assessments of the international standing of the migrants’ qualifications are made. It happens with academics, doctors, engineers and accountants. It happens with Catholic clerics too. In an age where clerical numbers are not equal to the requirements of Catholic communities in Europe, the US and Australia, imported clerics have to establish their professional bona fides.

One way of ensuring that clerics recruited from Muslim majority countries to serve Islamic communities in countries where Islam is a minority faith, is to insist on processes of acculturation and tertiary qualifications that are recognized in the country where the cleric arrives to work.

The first step is to insist that Muslim clerics get a full cultural and intellectual acculturation to the country they land in to serve the Muslim community there. What is its cultural mix? What is the history of the ethnic and religious make up of the country? What are the academic courses inducting the Muslim cleric into the context where he is to serve? What are the standards the host country insists on for a cleric to be accredited?

Then there are the internal processes within Islam for the accreditation of the cleric serving in the host country. The insistence on training and formation standards within Islam works well when the Muslim denominations have a structure to fall back on, where the formation of the clergy and laity, their expressions of faith and theology are shaped by a structure that follows a pattern and some guidelines applicable to all within those communities.

The Islamic world has many such groups that follow a systematic framework of formation. For example, a Bohra Muslim in Asia will have the same training and background if he wants to be a cleric as in the United States or anywhere because he comes under the same scrutiny and sanctions everywhere to be able to do what he is ordained to do.

This cannot be said for the whole Muslim world where very often local people in local communities are answerable to no one but themselves and very often follow an interpretation of doctrine that has no direct connection with the rest of those professing the same faith.

This is where the challenge to integrate and regulate what are essentially maverick Islamic communities in the West must to be addressed.

The groups that are hierarchical and structured within the Shia and Sunni communities tend to have more cohesion and follow checks and balances that make their clerics accountable.

Otherwise, patterns akin to some of the practices in Pentecostal and Protestant sects, for instance – where pastors may proclaim themselves pastors and create their own congregations – develop that have nothing much in common with the common expression of faith with others, except following the same scriptural source. Indeed, this has led to problems of sometimes violent Christian fundamentalism, especially in the United States as witness by increasing frequent and often deadly frequent attacks on pro-abortion staff and proponents.

Making Islamic communities accountable in societies where they are not majorities is not difficult and there is an existing model to follow. Pluralistic societies throughout the West have the means to do it via long tested rule of law regimes and tested regulation. Those means need to be urgently extended and adapted to Islam forthwith.




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