ANAHEIM, Calif. – Mustafa Umar, an imam in Southern California, is popular with the Muslim teenagers who attend his mosque. They pepper him with questions about sensitive topics such as marijuana use, dating and pornography.
Umar, 31, is a serious Islamic scholar who has studied the Quran in the Middle East, Europe and India. But he’s also a native Californian, who is well-versed in social media and pop culture, and can connect with teens on their terms.
That pedigree is rare; 85 percent of full-time, paid imams in this country are foreign-born. But the demand for people such as Umar is growing as American Muslim leaders look for ways to keep the religion relevant for young people in a secular country that cherishes freedom of expression.
“That’s all you hear in every mosque around the country now: ‘We need someone who can connect with the youth.’ And everyone is waiting for that person, like he’s a superhero who can come and save the day,” said Umar, who took his job nine months ago.
With a foot in U.S. pop and traditional Islamic cultures, leaders such as Umar are trying to help young Muslims embrace their American experience without letting go of their faith’s traditions. It’s part of a broader trend toward a more American style of congregational worship that includes everything from vibrant youth groups to health clinics to community service projects.
“The demand for American-born imams is an articulation of something much deeper,” said Timur Yuskaev, director of the Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, which educates Islamic faith leaders.
“It’s a realization that assimilation is happening and it’s going to happen,” he said. “Now, how do we control it, how do we channel it? These congregations, if they do not provide the services that the congregants expect, then they will not survive.”
For Umar, part of the strat-egy means confronting head on issues such as premarital sex, drugs and pornography. Each is taboo in Islam, but all are temptations that abound in the United States. Umar, a huge soccer fan, also bonds with his young charges over sports before gently steering the conversation back to faith.
“He was just like us,” Tarek Soubra, 17, said, recalling the day he met Umar. “He played sports. He studied for school just like us. It was, like, ‘Oh, he’s just like our friend.’ It was really cool.”
This informal approach is controversial with some Muslims, but those objections overlook the inevitable assimilation that’s rapidly taking place, said Philip Clayton, provost at Claremont Lincoln University, which recently started a program for American Islamic leaders.
Mosques that remain insular, focus on ethnic identity and don’t engage with the realities of being Muslim in the United States won’t survive, he said. The more engaged imams and mosques become, the less likely confused youth are to turn to radicalized forms of Islam, the way the Boston Marathon bombing suspects did.
“I would say either American imams will learn how to be spiritual leaders of these young people or Islam will not flourish in the United States,” Clayton said.
Still, young Islamic leaders here are clear that faith issues such as the five daily prayers, modest interaction between men and women and bans on alcohol and premarital sex are inseparable from being Muslim. But in the United States, the application of those rules can look different, said Nouman Ali Khan, 35, who founded Bayyinah, an Arabic institute in Dallas.
Teens go on co-ed field trips, for example, but chaperones are present. Mosques put on girls-only dances during high school prom season. Islamic seminars for young adults take part in auditoriums divided down the middle by sex.
Umar’s mosque, the Islamic Institute of Orange County, recently started monthly meetings that follow a game-show format, with two imams answering questions that teens text to an anonymous hotline. The organizers were shocked when there were questions about masturbation, drugs, pornography, dating and drinking.
The sessions opened a much-needed dialogue about how to be successful as a Muslim and an American, said Samina Mohammad, who oversees the youth program.
Mohammad, 28, recently told a youth group how she secretly removed her head scarf on the way to school for two years because she loved her hair. Then, she attended a session for teens where, instead of lecturing about the importance of the head scarf, the imam compared a covered Muslim woman to a beautiful pearl hidden within an oyster.
“It really hit home for me because I didn’t understand that beauty was such a part of it,” she said. “I was trying to find my identity and I realized, ‘Oh, he makes sense. That’s what I need to do.’”