Islamic Centers in the USA - Past, Present and Future
By Nasim Hassan
There was indeed a time in the USA when Muslims of all sects including Shia, Sunni, Wahabi, Brelvi, Salafi, and even Ahmedis, prayed in the same Mosque. At that time Muslims from various countries like Egypt, Turkey, India, Pakistan and Arabian Peninsula joined hands to provide basic Islamic education to their children.
Mot Muslims were not concerned about the sectarian divide. The purpose was to preserve their Muslim identity and pass on Islamic values to the next generation. Here I am referring to the decade of the 1970’s. This is certainly linked to the immigration policies of the USA that made it possible for people from non-European countries to migrate to the States.
Although the first Mosque in America was constructed in 1915 in Maine, the Muslim community continued to be very small till 1960. The immigration reform act of 1965 opened the doors for people from South Asia and other countries. The first generation immigrants were highly educated professionals who easily found a space within the American system and established Islamic centers across America.
In fact, these highly educated professionals laid the foundation of the all-inclusive Islamic centers without any discrimination or prejudice based on ethnicity, sect, caste or color. Anyone who had good knowledge of Islam could deliver the Friday sermon, lead prayers or teach at the Sunday school.
I saw many Islamic centers where the Imam leading the prayer or teachers in the Sunday school performed the task on a voluntary basis. This continued in many Muslim communities for about two decades - till 1990 to be precise. After that the second wave of immigrants who came on relationship basis started to get active in the Islamic centers.
This second wave is now running the centers. Although the majority is educated but growing sectarianism in most of the Islamic centers is becoming noticeable.
In this write-up I have tried to document my observations about the present state and make some educated guesses about the future of the Islamic centers.
Passing out of first generation immigrants
I can safely say that the generation of professionals who built the Islamic centers in the1970’s has passed on the control to the second wave of immigrants. These people are more conservative and rigid in their religious attitude and thinking. This generation certainly has educated professionals but they simply cannot devote much time to the religious services.
There was a time when in many Islamic centers women were treated as equal and sat in a designated section. Now they are completely isolated in their own areas with walls or partition.
This led the professional women to leave the Islamic centers. Many women doctors and professionals come only for Eid prayers and avoid being ridiculed by pious Muslims.
Segregation of Islamic Centers
With the exception of a few centers, the majority of Islamic centers are dominated by the sect, ethnicity or country of origin. You can find Shia, Sunni or Salafi-dominated centers. Also you can find centers where Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Turkish communities dominate the decision-making executive committee and board. There are a few centers where the Friday sermon is in Urdu, Bengali, Turkish or Arabic. Although they try to translate the sermon in English, there is hardly any time to explain the message.
These days most of the Islamic centers have a paid professional Imam. These Imams come from other countries and the younger generation born in the USA has a hard time in understanding their accent. There are also centers where the congregation consists of black Muslims. In these centers other people also come but the day-to-day operation is controlled by the majority community.
Conflict of Interest Issues
There are a few Islamic centers where the board of directors or authorities understand the meaning of this conflict. I have seen centers where a father is president and other family members are in other positions. There are boards where people from one ethnic group exercise control for years and provide jobs or construction contracts to their own relatives. In some centers, the president and treasurer are related to each other and do anything and everything they want to with the money. In fact, this has caused financial losses because the president and the treasurer join hands and spend the money on loss-making ventures without the approval of the board. I have also seen Islamic centers where three members from one family (father, son and wife) were elected to the board of directors.
Emotional attachment instead of rational decision making
Perhaps Muslims are the most religious people with great emotional attachment. The attachment to the imam or president reduces the checks on the operational aspects of a center. The argument goes by saying that Qur’an and Sunnah tell us to propagate Islam. So we should not be concerned about financial issues because Allah will provide us with everything. As a result the Islamic centers are planned in a big way with schools and Imams etc. and often run into financial problems.
Many times people park their cars blocking the traffic and trespass other people's property. They get tickets with cars towed away but still continue the same behavioral pattern. Many a time in their zeal they break the county and state laws and pay heavy fines but do not learn anything from their mistakes.
Most Islamic centers are being run like privately owned businesses. Although elected by the membership, the ruling group controls the information about the finances and does not share it with the general public.
I believe the majority of Muslims living around are not active members of the centers. They come, pray and leave their donation in the box. I have seen thousands of people coming to the Eid prayers. This number goes down to hundreds on Friday while a smaller number comes for regular prayers. As a result the people running the Mosque make their own decisions. There have been instances of mismanagement of money in many Islamic centers. This mismanagement sometimes comes to light when differences surface among members of the board. After sometime the story is forgotten and the same group of people continues on their original course.
In a nationwide scandal many people lost money while planning for Hajj. Many of these hajj operators took advantage of their positions in the board and people trusted them for honest transactions.
This amazes me when I look at the American non-profit groups who continuously invite people to join them. In many Islamic centers the executive committee tries to exclude people from the decision-making process.
Looking Forward to the Future
Based on my analysis in the state of Delaware about 30 percent of the Muslims will retain their Islamic identity. The rest of the Muslims will submerge in mainstream America. This figure is a rough estimate and may differ from state to state. There are multiple reasons for this decline. Here are a few of them.
Lack of understanding of American culture
The people currently running the Islamic centers do not take into consideration the needs of the younger people born in the USA. The Friday sermons are packed with stories and events that happened centuries ago. They do not address the challenges faced by the younger generation. Many times the Imams fail to communicate due to language and accent problems. The people leading the prayers are immigrants and it is hard for them to touch upon contemporary issues.
This issue will linger on till the younger generation takes over the responsibilities from immigrants born in other countries.
Few Model Islamic Centers
Based on my observations of Islamic centers on the East Coast of the USA, I found a few centers that cateed to the needs of the younger generations. They are conscious of the prevailing conditions and communicate with the generation born in America.
These centers are in every state including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. They participate in interfaith dialogue, feed the homeless and follow the enlightened approach to religion.
I do not see any future for the Islamic centers that use Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, Turkish or any other language for delivering sermons. There are a few centers where the first generation immigrants feel at home while listening to sermons in their native languages. The attendance is gradually declining while they continue on their selected path.
The second trend that I am witnessing is the decline of strict adherence to Shia, Sunni, Salafi or Brelvi traditions. The younger generation simply does not understand the differences between various sects.
In fact this would be a great plus for the new generation that will join any local area Islamic center regardless of the sectarian association. This change will come slowly in decades, not in few years. I believe religious traditions and values have to penetrate the American culture to survive in this ocean of humanity. We have examples of the propagation of Islam at the grassroots level in South Asia. The great mystics and Aulia Karam communicated the basic tenets of Islam using the South Asian methods and traditions.
This will happen when the younger generation of Muslims born in America replaces the current immigrant generation.