We American Muslims seem frozen in a defensive mode, forever having to explain to the public that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance after the occurrence of some horrific event. The Sept. 11 attacks on the United States were not the first strikes on Americans by terrorists claiming Islam as their guiding principle—only the most deadly.
If these defensive apologies continue indefinitely, we risk hypocrisy. However, a new report on U.S. mosques suggests one way we moderate American Muslims can reclaim our faith from the few extremists among us.
By far the most comprehensive survey of mosques ever conducted in the United States, “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait,” was released last April by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C. It hints that the problem may lie in the structure of the mosque, which gives its board of directors—not its imams—decision-making authority.
According to the report, there are 1,209 mosques in the United States, with an average of 1,625 Muslims affiliated per mosque, which translates to a “mosque-going” population of about two million. The total Muslim population in America is between six and seven million people.
A significant finding of the report is the number of Muslims who attend the Friday afternoon congregational prayer called Jum’ah - Arabic for “assembly” - in their local mosques. (Friday is to Muslims what Saturday is to Jews and Sunday to Christians.) The average Friday attendance per mosque is 292, which means that about 350,000 Muslims perform the Jum’ah throughout the United States every week.
The Jum’ah number is significant, because most American Muslims get an opportunity to listen to their imams on the important religious, social, and political issues of the day week after week, only during the Friday services. No other religious gathering has the regularity and the cumulative effect of the Jum’ah in helping to shape the views of American Muslims and impress upon them the tolerant message of Islam.
Unfortunately, the imams often squander this opportunity.
When Osama Bin Laden declared in 1998 that it was okay for Muslims to kill American civilians to realize his distorted version of Islam, there was no widespread condemnation of him and his followers by Muslim clerics in the United States, particularly during the Friday sermons.
Did the imams’ silence imply approval? No, but a strong unequivocal stand in 1998 could have alerted American Muslims to be more proactive in identifying those plotting to harm the United States.
In a majority of the mosques, according to the report, the decision-making authority rests not with the imam, but with a board of directors. Board members are usually educated professionals with moderate views who have a keen sense of the positive role Muslims can play in America. However, in selecting imams, directors are often not as careful and thorough as they ought to be, even when recognizing that improper choices can alienate moderate Muslims and splinter communities.
I have lived in the America for more than two decades and as a practicing Muslim have rarely missed the Jum’ah prayer. I have visited mosques from sea to shining sea. There have been occasions when I listened to sermons that were deeply moving and instructive, but they were exceptions rather than the rule. In most cases, the imams preach the obvious and the irrelevant, or worse, resort to incendiary and opportunistic political rhetoric that engages neither the intellect nor the imagination.
One staple subject is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is a topic that animates Muslims and rightly so, for all Muslims believe that Palestinians must have a separate homeland if there is to be a lasting peace in the Middle East. But I have seldom heard rational discussion on this issue from Muslim clerics.
A reason for this unhappy situation is that many of the imams, educated in religious institutions abroad, have little or no knowledge of American history and how the government works. Comfortable in their cocoons, they have a limited view of the world and cannot frame the salient issues of the day in the light of Islamic principles of tolerance, justice, freedom, and equality.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 atrocity, it is clear that board members must learn to take this responsibility with utmost seriousness. In particular, they should favor imams educated in America who are fluent in English and are voices of moderation, who can talk to the media on issues ranging from education and the environment to threats of global terrorism, and who can sustain a constructive dialogue with Americans from all walks of life not just during a crisis, but also in peaceful times.
When enlightened imams lead mosques and inspire their congregations to actively promote what is right and oppose what is wrong, the risks of some deviants pulling off malevolent deeds are either minimized or made easier to identify and thwart. Only then will America and the world begin to appreciate the true, peaceful message of Islam.
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