In a study sponsored by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Carleton University professor Karim Karim found bifurcations between Muslims acclimatized to the West and imams "imported" from the Middle East and South Asia.
The result of the study, in which interviews were conducted with 56 Muslims in Canada, Britain and the United States, was not altogether surprising.
Many Islamic centres employ an imam from abroad to minister to the spiritual needs of a diverse, complex community. Some imams don't speak English very well, or at all. But the biggest disconnect, according to the study, is a lack of cultural familiarity.
One Montreal participant summarized: "My ultimate fantasy would be to find an imam who gives a [sermon] who … goes out to work from 9 to 5, takes the bus, is dealing with his kid who is picking up a marijuana joint at the age of 13. This is the kind of person I want instructing me on Friday, not speaking to me about the battles [Muslims]won 1,200 years ago."
This disconnect is being played out in Ottawa, where the city's largest mosque has been embroiled in controversy as it searches for a permanent imam. The mosque's directors initially sought an imam familiar with Western culture. Instead, they chose one from Cairo's al-Azhar University, paid for by the Egyptian government. As a result, many mosque members revolted.
This episode, along with the IRPP study, also points to a growing divide between those who run the mosques and those who attend. Many centres are run in an autocratic manner, without input from youth or women. Now, community members want their voices heard and more accountability from directors, and they are willing to speak up. This is a healthy development.
The IRPP study also revealed that the participants - who were required to speak English well, have knowledge of contemporary intellectual discussions relating to Islam and have lived in the West for at least five years - are seeking to maintain their Muslim identity while trying to navigate modernity. The guidance provided by those who know little about liberal democracies is, not surprisingly, unsatisfactory.
In fact, Muslims accustomed to the West often experience a clash of cultures with their co-religionists elsewhere in key areas such as gender equality, critical analysis and individual freedom.
For example, a female convert to Islam once confided to me that, while the spiritual foundations of her new-found faith were wholly satisfying, dealing with the local Muslim community was akin to "going back 30, 40 years" in terms of women's rights. For all the rhetoric about women's rights in Islam, the reality is that many Muslim cultures (not all) do not accord women the respect they deserve or the opportunity to develop to their full potential.
Critical analysis of culture and faith is still taboo in some Muslim cultures and is often seen as a sign of non-belief. Yet the Koran points to Abraham, who questioned God so that his heart might "be at peace."
In fact, the Koran is replete with questions asked by believers, agnostics and atheists. Questioning, thinking and reflecting are viewed as means to attaining faith, contrary to the view of some. Muslims raised in an environment that encourages critical thinking will approach their faith in a manner different from those schooled by rote learning.
History teaches us that the cultural manifestation of Islam is a reflection of indigenous norms. Gender equality, critical thinking and individual creativity may be seen as a threat by some. However, for Muslims living in the West, these form essential components of an indigenous Islam in harmony with liberal democratic values. Instead of looking for a mythical "Wazir of Oz" from the East to provide solutions for living in the West, Muslims should look for homegrown paradigms.
As for the fantasy sermon, it is already a reality. In June, the PBS documentary New Muslim Cool featured Jason (Hamza) Perez, a former gang member and drug dealer. After converting to Islam, he cleaned up his act. He is now an imam who also performs hip hop and a devoted family man who counsels prisoners (of all faiths) to reflect upon the harm they have done to themselves and to others. He believes in helping humanity, explaining that jihad is foremost a personal struggle to improve from within. Now, he wants to develop a program to get drug dealers off the streets.
As Hamza shows, the solutions are found here.