CA: A GROWING DEMAND FOR THE RARE AMERICAN IMAM
Sheik Yassir Fazaga regularly uses a standard American calendar to provide inspiration for his weekly Friday sermon.
Around Valentine’s Day this year, he talked about how the Koran endorses romantic love within certain ethical parameters. (As opposed to say, clerics in Saudi Arabia, who denounce the banned saint’s day as a Satanic ritual.)
On World AIDS Day, he criticized Muslims for making moral judgments about the disease rather than helping the afflicted, and on International Women’s Day he focused on domestic abuse.
“My main objective is to make Islam relevant,” said Sheik Fazaga, 34, who went to high school in Orange County, which includes Mission Viejo, and brings a certain American flair to his role as imam in the mosque here.
Prayer leaders, or imams, in the United States have long arrived from overseas, forced to negotiate a foreign culture along with their congregation. Older immigrants usually overlook the fact that it is an uneasy fit, particularly since imported sheiks rarely speak English. They welcome a flavor of home.
But as the first generation of American-born Muslims begins graduating from college in significant numbers, with a swelling tide behind them, some congregations are beginning to seek native imams who can talk about religious and social issues that seem relevant to young people, like dating and drugs. On an even more practical level, they want an imam who can advise them on day-to-day American matters like how to set up a 401(k) plan to funnel the charitable donations known as zakat, which Islam mandates.
“The problem is that you have a young generation whose own experience has nothing to do with where its parents came from,” said Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in the Near Eastern studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, who surveys Muslim communities.
But the underlying quandary is that American imams are hard to find, though there are a few nascent training programs. These days, many of the men leading prayers across the United States on any given Friday are volunteers, doctors or engineers who know a bit more about the Koran than everyone else. Scholars point out that one of the great strengths of Islam, particularly the Sunni version, is that there is no official hierarchy.