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Prof. Fred Leemhuis: 'The ordinary Imams don’t receive enough attention in the media'

27 May 2008

In recent years there have been intensive discussions about Muslims in the Netherlands in politics, the media and in homes all over the country. Yet until now there have been no hard figures about how Muslims are perceived, and how those perceptions differ from perceptions of other groups.  Researchers from the University of Groningen have tried to fill this gap. In doing so, they discovered that there are far fewer practising Muslims in the Netherlands than was assumed. The researchers’ findings were published recently in a research report entitled ‘Nederland Deugt’ (The virtuous Netherlands). Fred Leemhuis, Professor of Koran Studies, one of the authors of the report, hopes that it will create a more positive perception of Muslims. ‘We sense that this study is a reality check.’

‘We found it strange that, as Islam experts, our perception of Islam in the Netherlands is very different from the picture painted in the media. But we didn’t have the hard facts to substantiate that’, explains Leemhuis. He and his fellow researchers began by establishing the actual number of practising Muslims in the Netherlands. This is more difficult than it might seem. ‘It’s much easier if you want to find out how many Christians there are, because there are lists of church members. But Muslims don’t tend to keep such lists.’ So how do you determine who is a practising Muslim?

Far fewer Muslims

To find out, the researchers made a list of all the mosques in the Netherlands. They then carried out a random survey among Imams at these mosques. They asked the Imams how many people attended Friday afternoon prayers at their mosques. ‘Muslims are required to go to Friday afternoon prayers every week, and listen to the sermon. That seemed a good criterion.’ On the basis of this information, we found that there are around 200,000 practising Muslims in the Netherlands. This figure is much lower than the 850,000 calculated by Statistics Netherlands. ‘Statistics Netherlands ask a random sample of people whether they are Muslims. If the answer is yes, then they are counted as Muslims.’ Leemhuis disapproves of this method. ‘Being a Muslim has cultural as well as religious connotations. Thanks to our method, it is at last possible to compare Islam with other religions. The goalposts are now the same for all religions.’

Fire and brimstone

The Imams were also interviewed about what they consider to be important virtues. It emerged that Imams, like non-Islamic groups in the Netherlands, think that respect is important. ‘Not respect in the sense of “you have to respect me”, but in the sense of showing respect for others.’ It also emerged that Muslims think it is very important to be on good terms with their neighbours (and by neighbours they mean everyone in the street). Leemhuis believes that this knowledge will help to further integration. ‘That can involve simple things. For example, making sure that there is more contact between parents at the school gates. The researchers also analyzed the Imams’ sermons. ‘The sermons are not always progressive, but it certainly isn’t the case that they constantly preach fire and brimstone towards non-believers. The sermons focus much more strongly on believers and the fact that they should lead a good life. We already suspected this, but now we have the figures to support it.

Reality check

Leemhuis hopes that, as a result of the research, policy-makers and the media will see Muslims in a more positive light. ‘We sense that this study is a reality check.’ Almost the only Imams you read about in the media are the extreme Salaphist Imams. There is nothing wrong with keeping an eye on what they are doing, but we never hear or read about the ordinary Imams, who reach many more Muslims. Leemhuis is not worried about criticism of the report. ‘Criticism is fine,  but it should be based on research that shows we are wrong. Show us where the errors are. Of course, there are different ways of defining who is a practising Muslim, but critics should propose an alternative criterion that can be used.’

Curriculum Vitae

Fred Leemhuis was Lecturer in Arabic at the University of Groningen from 1965 to 2007. He has spent two four-year periods on secondment as director of the Netherlands Institute in Cairo, Egypt. In 1989 he published a new Dutch translation of the Koran, which has now reached its thirteenth edition. Since 2001, Leemhuis has spent three months each year leading a restoration and research project at the Dakhla oasis in the western desert of Egypt. In 2003, he was appointed to the endowed chair in Islam (with special attention to Koran Studies) at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.


Prof. Fred Leemhuis, tel. (050) 363 5570 (work), email: F.Leemhuis

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.11 p.m.
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