Cultures clash in US mosques
Young Muslims steeped in American life are tuning out imams brought in from foreign countries to teach Islam.
Like any good Muslim, Ali Karjoo-Ravary went to mosque on Friday seeking spiritual inspiration. What the 19-year-old Iranian-American found, however, was something completely different.Skip to next paragraph
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At the head of a mosque in upstate New York, a foreign imam was leading the Friday service. Sitting on the floor with the other congregants, Mr. Karjoo-Ravary strained to understand the religious leader's thick accent. Even as he made out the imam's words, the message made little sense. "The entire sermon was about 'Don't let a girl pat your back. It can lead to things,' " Karjoo-Ravary recounts.
The imam's disconnect with American culture shocked Karjoo-Ravary. Trying to gauge the reaction of other young congregants, he spotted a cluster of teenagers and 20-somethings toward the back of the mosque. They were hunched over and appeared to be earnestly listening to the imam's every word. But looking closer, he realized their attentive postures were meant to conceal cellphones. The entire group had tuned out the sermon and was texting busily.
For many American-born Muslims, experiences like Karjoo-Ravary's are not uncommon. Over the past 40 years, hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world have emigrated to the United States, bringing their own cultural interpretations of Islam and electing imams who support their views. This practice worked well until recently, when large numbers of these immigrants' Westernized children reached adulthood, creating a disconnect between faith and culture. Foreign imams are at the center of this fast-growing divide between immigrant Muslims and their American-born children.
When Muslim immigrants flooded into the US from the Middle East and South Asia in the 1960s and '70s, their "first priority was to preserve their cultural integrity," says Johari Abdul-Malik, an American-born imam in Sterling, Va., and president of the Muslim Society of Washington, Inc. "The need for an imam from their background is … to preserve the cultural authenticity of that community."
Immigrant imams have served this purpose well, but the children of this immigrant wave – now adults – identify more with US culture than the one found in their parents' homeland. As a result, they find themselves increasingly at odds with foreign imams, who lead 85 percent of non-African-American mosques in the US, estimates the Islamic Society of North America. A mosque's imam is selected by its congregants, who often want someone fluent in Arabic, which is the language of the Koran.
Regional strains of Islam clash in US
Given the important role an imam plays in a Muslim community, having one who understands the Islamic faith and American culture equally well is vital, say many American Muslims. Most communities rely on imams to give religious guidance, lead prayers, deliver sermons, and serve as a community representative. (Islam has no central authority, such as the papacy, to issue official decisions. It falls upon local imams to help the community deal with the various challenges it faces.)
Some American-born Muslims now question whether an immigrant imam can adequately fill this role. "There is a strong feeling that not just the immigrant imams, but also the first generation often can't relate very well to the society around them," says Umar Abd-Allah, chairman of Nawawi, a Chicago-based group that aims to provide relevant Islamic teachings for American Muslims. "There's just a very different worldview."
Though much attention is given to sectarian differences within Islam – such as Shiites versus Sunnis – equally sizable gaps can exist between regional variants. Every culture that adopted Islam infused its local traditions into the religion – from the food eaten at religious holidays to the social boundaries between men and women. Provided these indigenous customs don't clash with the theological core of Islam, this is perfectly permissible, says Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who leads the Al-Farah Mosque in New York City.
In the US, however, the regional varieties are coming closer together, which can create friction.
"The immigrant generation is still living psychologically in their homeland," says Imam Abdul Rauf. "The second generation is the one that begins to assert itself as belonging to the new society."
Though Abdul Rauf moved to America at age 17, he spent his childhood in Egypt, Malaysia, and England. The experience, he says, taught him the difference between "what is religious and what is cultural."
"In our communities, the challenge is people who just won't let go of ideas that they think define Islam when in fact it just defines the culture in which they were born," says Asra Nomani, a second generation Muslim-American in Morgantown, W. Va., and author of "Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam."