The Push to Ban Arabic Sermons in Europe's Mosques

Some politicians are calling for more “transparent” services for Muslims.

An imam holds Friday prayers at the Central Mosque in the German town of Hamburg
An imam holds Friday prayers at the Central Mosque in the German town of Hamburg (Christian Charisius / Reuters)

In several Western European countries, some politicians want to force imams to deliver sermons only in the official language: In Germany, imams should preach in German; in Italy, in Italian; in Britain, in English; in France, in French.

To justify this requirement, two rationales are cited. Some say it will function as a counterterrorism strategy. Others say it will promote the social integration of Muslims. A few appeal to both lines of reasoning.

Germany’s Deputy Finance Minister Jens Spahn called last month for an “Islam law” that would make imams’ sermons “transparent,” saying that the authorities “had to know what happens in mosques.” He argued that imams should preach in German and that “imported imams lead to social disintegration.” Spahn, who also proposed an official registry for mosques, is a member of the executive committee of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union party. Other senior Merkel allies like Julia Kloeckner have joined the push for an Islam law, though a Merkel spokesman said this month that such a law is “not now” on the agenda.

In Italy, Islam isn’t officially recognized as a religion, even though it has an estimated 1.6 million adherents in the country. (The Italian Constitution requires non-Catholic faith groups to sign an accord or “intesa”  in order to be formally recognized, after which the groups gain the right  to take days off for holidays, to have their religious marriages acknowledged by the state, and so on.) However, in February, the Interior Ministry agreed to “facilitate the path” toward official recognition in an unprecedented arrangement titled the “National Pact for an Italian Islam.” But the government wanted something in exchange: Muslim organizations had to agree to a registry of their imams, and to a requirement that the imams sermonize in Italian. Interior Minister Marco Minniti described the document as a safeguard “against any form of violence and terrorism.”

In Britain, a counter-extremism task force is working on a plan to encourage imams to preach in English, the Telegraph reported last month. The report noted that the plan arose “amid concern that preaching in foreign languages enforces divisions between Islam and mainstream British society and can foster radicalization.” It cited a senior government source who said, “If imams are speaking in another language it makes it far harder to know if radicalization is taking place.”

In France, this rationale has been offered up by far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen, who claimed in 2014 that, “It’s not difficult to require sermons in France to be given in French. That would also make it much easier to report what subjects are being dealt with.” Le Pen is not the only French politician to call for this requirement; it gained support from across the political spectrum after the 2015 Paris attacks. Another French politician put it bluntly: “Sermons in France shouldn’t be in Arabic.”

Considering that fundamentalist recruiters don’t need to speak in Arabic to be extremely successful at what they do, it’s not clear how clamping down on Arabic-language sermons would represent a viable counterterrorism strategy. After all, Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda propagandist and cleric, gave many recorded sermons in English. In the U.K., prominent preachers like Anjem Choudary, Abu Hamza al-Masri, and Omar Bakri Muhammad likewise delivered their messages in English before they were convicted for supporting terrorism.

“It’s easy to preach a resistance message even when you’re speaking the same language as the people you’re preaching against,” said Brenna Powell, a Stanford scholar who studies civil conflict. “And even when they speak the same language, people are often very good at manufacturing code.”

Although preaching in Arabic makes it harder for those who don’t speak the language to “decode” the substance of the message, that doesn’t mean an Arabic sermon is more likely to be radicalizing anyone. It could just be more likely to make non-Muslim Europeans nervous about what’s going on in mosques.

But experts say that’s not where most Muslims who adopt extremist views are getting them.

“We can’t just pin everything on mosques,” said Mubaraz Ahmed, an analyst with the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics who specializes in jihadi groups and online extremism. “Overwhelmingly there’s an acceptance within the [countering violent extremism] field that radicalization doesn’t take place in mosques; it’s increasingly taking place elsewhere. Certainly in the ISIS era, a lot of it is online, with encrypted messaging services”—like WhatsApp and Telegram—“coming under the spotlight.”

Scott Atran, an anthropologist who studies terrorism through fieldwork with Islamic fundamentalists and others, echoed this statement. “Traditional religious education is a negative predictor of involvement in these movements,” he said in an email, adding that most who join jihadi movements from Europe are young adults who are “born again” into extremist strains of Islam, and that a significant number are converts (more than one in four in France, for example).

The upshot for the proposed Islam laws? “As a counterterrorism strategy, it’s likely to be worthless,” Atran wrote. “More generally, mass programs—such as those aimed at reducing marginalization and encouraging integration, if not assimilation, including teaching religion in the host country vernacular—massively overreach, wasting resources (and perhaps lives by crowding out more targeted forms of engagement). That’s because considerably less than 1 percent of ‘susceptible’ populations (those targeted by these mass programs) ever come close to joining violent extremist movements, so that any such mass program is somewhat like using carpet bombing to kill a rat, and the rat still may get away.”

“At best this will alienate people, at worst it will radicalize them,” Powell agreed. “Anytime you feel like your culture is being taken away, that’s what happens.” She cited the example of Northern Ireland, where narratives about the loss of Gaelic language have become a force for political mobilization.

Several European Muslims have spoken out against the idea of a language law for imams. When the National Pact for an Italian Islam was signed, Milan-based scholar Yahya Pallavicini derided it as “a document that Muslims had to sign in order to prove we’re good citizens and not bad people.” Sumaya Abdel Qader, a sociologist also based in Milan, called it “unfair,” and said that some of the requirements “have made some Muslims feel like they’re being treated unequally.” The proposed law strikes critics as a double standard because other religious groups in Europe aren’t forced to preach in the local language. For instance, in Italy, Catholics can and do offer masses in Spanish and English as well as Latin. Rabbis can give synagogue sermons in Hebrew.

Even so, there are imams who believe that they should deliver their sermons in the local language and who are doing so of their own volition. In France, where most imams preach in Arabic, popular Bordeaux imam Tareq Oubrou makes it a point to preach in French as well.

“We have to take Islam out of the context of ancient Arab-Muslim civilizations and adapt it to a modern, globalized, secular society, like France,” Oubrou told NPR in February. And on a purely practical level, he noted, clerics who don’t preach in French risk losing the next generation, because a majority of young French Muslims don’t understand Arabic.

Some clerics are also acceding to the language requirement because it’s easy to comply. “We’re already encouraging imams to preach in Italian,” Florence imam Izzedin Elzir told the Washington Post. “If having this written down in a document is making non-Muslim Italians feel a bit safer, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

This observation—that the requirement may be more about quelling the nervousness of non-Muslim Europeans than about actually curbing terrorism—seems like a plausible reading of the underlying rationale, according to Atran. It’s psychologically comforting to be able to understand what’s being said by groups one perceives as threatening. And for politicians, promising to deliver this comfort through a new Islam law may provide a boost in popularity.

“It is in part driven by electoral ambitions,” Atran wrote.

With France and Germany preparing to hold federal elections (in April-May and September, respectively), taking a harder stance on Islam could help politicians in the polls—particularly where they are facing challenges from their right, as has been the case for Merkel with the Alternative for Germany party. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte successfully used this tactic to forestall a Geert Wilders victory in the recent election.

“It could help them in their election push,” Ahmed agreed. “But it’s wrong for politicians to play along these lines, not only because it’s a divisive tactic but also because even if they were to follow through with those policies, I don’t think they would offer any great protection against the spread of extremism.”

The language requirement may run into unsurmountable legal problems, anyway. But it won’t be an open-and-shut case, according to Mark Movsesian, the director at the Center for Law and Religion. As parties to the European Convention on Human Rights, these countries will have to contend with that treaty’s religious freedom provision, which says that a government cannot substantially interfere with the manifestation of religion unless it has a compelling interest—for example, public safety. The interference has to be proportionate to that compelling interest.

“Telling Muslims ‘you can’t preach in your own language’ I think we’d say is interfering with their freedom of religion. It might also just be a flat-out free speech violation,” Movsesian said. “But the European Court of Human Rights gives each country a lot of leeway in deciding what they need to do to maintain public order,” as it demonstrated in 2014 by approving France’ s burqa ban. “So who knows, maybe the court would defer to these countries.”

If a new language law isn’t a viable strategy for countering Islamic extremism in Europe, then what would be a better strategy?

One answer lies in combatting online radicalization. “Tech companies are working hard,” Ahmed said, citing the anti-radicalization methods of Twitter and Google, “but they could be doing more.” Another answer is to work with Muslims, not against them. “We have to empower those already within the Muslim community who want to take on extremism,” he added. “I think they’re vital not only in fighting the extremist ideas that hate preachers use, but also in helping identify where this stuff is taking place.”

Atran suggested that the latter method is better than the first. “If you look at enlistment patterns to ISIS and al-Qaeda, they are heavily clustered in certain towns and neighborhoods; if it were mostly social media and such, the pattern would be much more dispersed … The key, then, is counter-engaging with [extremists’ preexisting social] networks through the communities they are embedded in.”

There’s just one problem with that: “This is labor intensive and requires intimate knowledge of local conditions—something governments and law enforcement have no patience for.”