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America is Running Out of Muslim Clerics. That's Dangerous. - POLITICO Magazine - 0 views

  • A shortage of imams is not a new challenge for America’s mushrooming Muslim population: More than half of the country’s estimated 2,500 mosques lack a full time imam. But the people trying to fill those slots say that Trump’s efforts to impose an immigration ban on Muslim-majority nations together with rising incidents of Islamophobia have worsened the deficit. It’s the kind of problem that members of the Muslim community as well as terrorism experts warn could contribute to a rise in extremism. “A strong leader who provides a sense of structure and what is right and wrong offers certainty,” says Sarah Lyons-Padilla, a researcher at Stanford University who studies terrorists’ motivations. “So when you remove leaders, like an imam, then you’re basically introducing more uncertainty into an already troubled domain.”
  • Many American mosques traditionally invite a classically trained imam from overseas to assist U.S. mosque leaders with prayers during the holy month; in the past around 200 foreign imams have traveled to the United States for the holiday. But in 2017, the number was down to just 15
  • As second generation Muslims in the U.S. seek to adapt their faith to American culture, many in the Muslim community say it’s more important than ever to have leaders who can not just each the faith—but who can teach it correctly. “If people don’t have knowledge about Islam from the right source they wind up going to an extreme, whether it is to the right or the left,” says Shahin. “That is a dangerous thing for everybody.” That’s pretty much what one Florida imam told the New York Times after Uzbeki trucker Sayfullo Saipov drove into a Manhattan bike path last month, killing eight people. Saipov, said the imam, “did not learn the religion properly. That’s the main disease in the Muslim community.”
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  • Increasingly, America’s Muslims, many of whom were born in the United States, want imams trained in U.S. ways and culture, rather than those versed in the more formal ways practiced overseas and who sometimes do not speak English. But there are very few schools in the U.S. that can provide the necessary training. While efforts are under way in a dozen U.S. cities to develop seminaries to prepare homegrown American imams and chaplains, Bagby thinks the Trump era is likely to slow progress. “The big challenge on everyone’s mind now,” he says, “is that the imam’s position is just not a particularly desirable one.”
  • Without a robust U.S. training operation, the vast majority of full time imams in American mosques are either trained or born overseas. (The percentage was more than 90 percent in 2013, according to the ISNA study, and Bagby and others estimate that it hasn’t changed much in the past four years.) Most of these visiting imams enter the U.S. with a R1 visa for temporary religious workers; the visas are often good for up to five years, but most imams remain only for a few months. In an effort to stem fraudulent applications for such visas, the number of R1s issued during the Obama era declined significantly from 10,061 in 2008 to 2,771 in 2009. In the following years, though, the number rose steadily and in 2016 the government issued a total of 4,764 R1s. It is unclear whether or by how much those numbers have dropped during the Trump administration, as statistics for fiscal year 2017 will not be available until next year, says a U.S. State Department spokesman. But judging by the experience of several U.S. mosques this past Ramadan, foreign imams are finding it harder to enter the country in the Trump era.
  • “Now, imams overseas are saying they don’t want to come,” Musri adds. “They don’t want to be humiliated at the airport, or to be turned around. Even if they have a visa, they don’t want to bother. So a lot of mosques aren’t even asking anymore.”
  • Lorenzo Vidino, director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, questions whether the imam shortage would lead to violence. He says that extremists rarely spring from a mosque community, but are more often lone wolves or Muslim converts with little understanding of the Islamic faith. While some imams may have dissuaded a few potential terrorists, Vidino adds, it is difficult to prove. “I think it’s a bit of a simplistic narrative to say that imams serve as a bulwark against radicalization,” says Vidino. “No one denies that an imam might do that, but it’s very hard to prove. It’s like proving a negative. How would anyone know if an incident hadn’t occurred?”
  • “Simply put, Islamophobia is a reminder that you don’t belong,” says Lyons-Padilla, author of a Behavioral Science & Policy article called, “Belonging Nowhere: Marginalization and Radicalization Risk among Muslim Immigrants.” “To the extent that the imam shortage is perceived as an act of discrimination through the visa approval process, or another consequence of Islamophobia, that could lead to support for extremism down the road,”
  • The nation’s Muslim community has been highly cooperative with law enforcement; nearly half the tips on potential extremists come from other Muslims, according to one former State Department official. Some feel that fewer imams—as well as the general perception within the Muslim community that its leaders are being discriminated against—could mean a decline in communications with law enforcement and interfaith groups including other religious institutions like churches and synagogues
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