Imam Shortage Crimps U.S. Mosques


Even as the Muslim population in the U.S. multiplies, the number of religious leaders, known as imams, lags behind.

Many Muslim immigrants have steered their children away from religious leadership roles and toward careers in medicine, engineering, law and business, said Jihad Turk, an imam and president of Bayan Claremont, the Islamic graduate school at Claremont School of Theology in Southern California. Many American mosques are run on shoestring budgets by volunteers and can't always guarantee a leader a steady paycheck.

According to 2011 study sponsored by a multifaith coalition, only 44% of U.S. imams are full-time and paid, with volunteers filling the role in many congregations.

Finding an imam who can relate to young, American-born congregants is especially tough, said U.S. Muslim leaders.

Younger American Muslims expect more than traditional scripture-recitals from imams, said Edgar Hopida, spokesman for the Islamic Society of North America, a network of Muslim leaders and groups. Like other American clergy-members, imams are expected to be "marriage counselor, youth director, scholar and fundraiser," Mr. Hopida said. "Like the local priest, they're put into this role of community leader."

Most imams, born and educated in the Middle East, have a hard time ministering to Americans, said Mr. Turk, a 43-year-old Phoenix native whose program aims to train American imams with courses on nonprofit management, psychology, civic engagement, gender relations and the media.

"The older immigrant generation has to understand it doesn't matter where you're from, your kids are American. And there's a very real concern that that younger generation will not find the mosque a place that resonates with them if imams aren't prepared to help them with their world," said Mr. Turk.

Some congregations are beginning to understand this, Mr. Turk said. One Boston imam recently gave a "Breaking Bad" sermon, incorporating ideas from the popular television show. A congregation outside Los Angeles hired an American-born Midwesterner who had converted to Islam. Other congregations are offering coed activities, encouraging civic involvement and openly discussing the challenge of establishing an American Muslim identity.


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