Cheat-Seeking Missles

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Islam's Quest For Home-Grown Imams

An interesting article in the OC Register today makes Muslims look very much like the rest of us.

I couldn't figure out what the headline meant: Faith relies on imports. Imports of what? Dates? Prayer rugs? Korans?

No, it turns out, they have to rely on imported imams. In OC, there's not a singe US-born imam at any of our dozen or so mosques.

So why does this make Muslims look like the rest of us? Certainly our churches are not reliant on foreign-born pastors. We don't bring them in from Germany (Protestant) or Rome (Catholic) or Jerusalem (Jews). We have home-grown religious leaders who know our society, our media, our temptations, our fears and our joys like no one from a foreign country could.

But in OC and throughout the US, there is an acute shortage of US-born imams, and as a result, a mosque with a largely Pakistani audience will bring in an imam from Pakistan, and one made up of Egyptians calls Cairo.

As a result, we fear more what's being preached in the mosques and we trust the religion less.

But -- and this is what's interesting about the article -- Islam's reliance on foreign-born imams is jeopardizing the future of Islam in America, as American-born, American-thinking young Muslims are finding less to relate to in the imam's teachings. It's like what happened at many mainstream churches, where a stubborn refusal to make services relevant to younger audiences has resulted in a loss of parishioners.

About half of America's five to seven million Muslims are under 18 so this matters. Here's a young, US-born Muslim quoted in OCR:

"The difference is the imams that have been living here a while, they know how the society is, how the people are," said Omar Azizi, a part-time college student.

"They can make much more difference than the imams [from] overseas. I am not saying the imams overseas aren't as knowledgeable," he added. "The imams overseas, they don't really know what's going on here, especially California, United States."

"Its way better when it's someone who understands the culture, the media," Mostafa Azizi said. "It's like they watch the same news as we do, so they're pretty much translating everything the news is saying … and it's just totally, totally better."

Azizi's imam, Yassir Fazaga, 35, was born in Eritrea but came to America at 14, so he's popular and relevant to the younger Muslims in the mosque. Fazaga told OCR:

"That is the most difficult part – deciding on what is going to be the topic and how can I make it relevant. So sometimes I look into the calendar to see what is happening. What is today? World AIDS Day, Earth Day, today is domestic-violence month awareness."
That sounds fine. Hopefully, these can be the genesis of less dangerous teachings than, say, the recent violence at Islamabad's Red Mosque. That was Fazaga's cue on the week OCR visited, and we don't know what he said about it.

Still, the article seems to bring good news. Islam is concerned about keeping young Muslims in the fold; that's good. To keep the kids in the mosque, they will pressure for more US-born, US-trained imams; that's good.

Islam is a troubling religion full of troubling teachings. But I can't help but think that the more Americanization it undergoes, the less threatening it will become.

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