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 like 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 own terms.
That pedigree is rare — 85 percent of fulltime, paid imams in the U.S. are foreign-born — but the demand for people like him 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 started his job nine months ago.
With a foot in both traditional Islam and U.S. pop culture, leaders like Umar are trying to help young Muslims embrace their American experience without letting go of Islamic 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. Now, how do we control it, how do we channel it?” he said. “These congregations, if they do not provide the services that the congregants expect, then they will not survive.”
For Umar, part of the strategy means confronting things like pre-marital sex, drugs and porn head-on — taboos in Islam but temptations that abound in America. 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. He played sports, he studied for school just like us,” said 17-year-old Tarek Soubra, recalling the day he met Umar. “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 America won’t survive, he said. And 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 in the U.S. are clear that things like the five daily prayers, modest interaction between men and women, and bans on alcohol and pre-marital sex are inseparable from being Muslim. But in America, the application of those rules can look different.
Teens go on co-ed field trips, for example, but chaperones are present. Mosques put on girls-only dances during high school prom season. And Islamic seminars for young adults take part in auditoriums divided down the middle by gender, said Nouman Ali Khan, 35, who founded Bayyinah, an Arabic institute in Dallas.
“There are some guidelines in Islam that are there and they’re not going to be compromised,” he said. “But these things are unfairly assumed to mean that we’re not social people and that we’re not going to be successful in society.”