US born Muslim Imams on the rise
Mohamed Mabrouk wears the traditional white robe of an imam. But instead of the foreign-accented English that for decades has been the norm among American Muslim religious leaders, the new 21-year-old leader of a California mosque speaks with the Detroit accent he has carried with him from childhood.
Mabrouk’s appointment last month as imam of the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley in California is a sign of a changing Muslim community that is shifting from being almost entirely immigrant-led to one in which young, U.S.-born people are increasingly taking leadership roles.
The membership of mosques is also becoming more American-born, as the children of Muslim immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s make up a rising percentage of worshippers.
When Sudanese-born Mustafa Kuko became imam of the Islamic Center of Riverside, Calif., in 1998, only about 2 percent of those attending the mosque were born in the U.S. Today, Kuko said, about 15 percent are, and the number continues to rise.
Kuko, 63, welcomes the trend toward more U.S.-born imams. He freely acknowledges that young, U.S.-born Muslims often can relate better to an imam who grew up in the United States than to a foreign-born man like himself.
“These are the people who know the culture, who know how to eat hamburgers and know baseball,” Kuko said with a laugh.
The new imams also can help guide youths through the post-9/11 era, when Muslims have faced prejudice and misunderstandings, said Munira Syeda, spokeswoman for the greater Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley endured protests when it applied to construct a new, permanent building in Temecula to replace its temporary locations. Other non-Muslims supported the proposal. The city in January 2011 approved the request.
Syeda said she is buoyed as the growing U.S.-born population in Muslim congregations is producing imams immersed in American culture.
“It helps young people develop a Muslim-American identity – not just a Muslim identity and not just an American identity, but a Muslim-American identity,” she said.
Many foreign-born imams in the United States were recruited directly from abroad and had little knowledge of U.S. culture, said Muhamad Ali, an assistant professor of religious studies at UC Riverside.
Hadi Nael, 57, chairman of the Murrieta mosque, said when the former imam, Syrian-born Mahmoud Harmoush, declined to renew his contract in November, the board made “youth” and “U.S.-born status” among its top factors in its search for a new religious leader.
“The new imam needed to attract the youth of this community because the future generation will be leading this community,” Nael said.