I had the pleasure of meeting with Imam Shamsi Ali, who is the Imam and Director of Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, and picked his brain about some of the issues the mosques in America are facing. He is also the Chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria and the former Imam of the 96th Street Mosque in NY.
What is the Role of the Mosque in the American context?
The mosque in the American context is very much different from the mosque in the Muslim world, because of the nature of the society in which we live. Firstly, we are living in a majority nonMuslim society. We must take into consideration that our neighbors are not Muslims, and we have to know how to deal with our neighbors so they don't have a sense of suspicion in their minds. The mosques should play a role in clarifying the many misconceptions that people have about Islam in these times. After Sept. 11, many mosques were attacked, and we found those specific mosques that were attacked were almost all exclusive. They didn't open their doors to their neighbors, and so naturally, neighbors grew suspicion in their minds. Secondly, the American people are so open minded. The way we express ourselves as a community must be open as well. Thirdly, unfortunately, not many mosques have made teaching Islam to their neighbors a priority. What the mosque has become is mainly a place to pray. Our mosques must also know how to deal with our young generation. The young generation were either born here or came here when they were children, and they must know and feel that the mosque is an important part of their lives. But if they aren to feeling welcome in the masajid, then certainly this is problematic.
I still remember when I joined the ICC, I immediately started a class called "Islamic Forum for NonMuslims." When I started, I had almost 50 people, and out of them, 70% were seriously studying Islam, and I think all of them ended up accepting Islam. mosques need to take this mission up as a priority. We love talking about Dawah, but we don't really know how to do it. It is important to wisely introduce Islam to these people. The purpose if not to convert anyone, but it is important to clarify the many misconceptions.
Should mosques be involved in politics outside the USA?
We have our own issues here in America. What is the percentage of our young generation are coming to the mosques? Issue of educating our Imams is very important. 90% of the Imams in the United States are immigrants. And I don't think the Imams really understand what America is all about. And the knowledge that Imams should inquire is not only that of the Qur'an and the sunnah, but it is about how to apply them in our own society. The Imams should educate themselves about the domestic issues in our communities. They should know the domestic problems that exists between there black and the white, between asians and middle easterners, etc. I think we have a lot of issues that need to be addressed rather than talking about politics from outside. Politics outside the United States is important, but we have to know priorities. There are also some mosques talking about the moon sighting issues, etc. These kinds of behaviors create more tension in the Muslim community rather than peace. These are side issues that don't deserve this much priority relative to the other big problems we have.
You are on the board of many different mosques, and are involved in 3 of the biggest mosques in this area. What are some common problems that you see?
The majority of the mosques in the United States are ethnic based mosques. This is pakistani mosque, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, etc. Among the many problems we are facing are ethnic issues. In some bengali communities, Pakistanis feel unwelcome because they have a political issue back home. Among the biggest issues we have are women's issues. If you see mosque boards, for example, you will find mostly males. I was asked about Amina Wadud, when she led Jumma here in NY. My answer was not the fiqhi perspective, but related to social issues. She knows that it is wrong to lead men behind her, but there is a spirit that I understood from her, and that is resistance to the male dominant society, where in the mosque, you find the male area is so clean, so neat, AC works, but when you go to the women's area it is small, crowded…This is a resistance against a male dominated mosques. When mosques don't take women as part of their community, there is a damage done. There is a self damage…it looks like we conform that accusations that women in our society thinks of us, that women are 2nd class citizens. I encourage all mosques to include women in all their activities, on their boards…
The second one is youth. Recently, a good father came to me and he was tearing, and he asked me to help him with his son. I asked what happened to his son, and he told me "My son doesn't want to come to the mosque anymore…" And I knew his son from our sunday school. So I went over their house and I asked his son over tea why he doesn't want to come to the mosque anymore. He said that every time he goes to the masajid there are always some people who feel that my outfit is not acceptable, because I don't have this south asian dress. So I feel that I am not welcome. People look at me when I pray and make me feel like I'm not a good Muslim. It is important to create an environment there our young generation feel welcome. In fact, they must be included in the decision making in the mosque. Why? Because they know more than the immigrants. They know more America than their fathers and mothers. Our young generation must be trained to deal with the media. Our Imams cannot deal with the media in this culture.
So it seems that there is a problem, we have the mosques run by largely immigrants, and the younger generation does not want to deal with their issues/problems, and hence don't want to come to the mosques. What are some practical steps we can take to move forward?
There are several steps to be taken. The first one is that our immigrant community to realize that it is the time right now to include our young generation. Their number is increasing, and we are now taking part of the mainstream life in America. We have 2 congressman, a high official in the white house…I think it is time time right now to change the mindsets of immigrants. We are already Americans, and we want the new generation in America to play an important role. There must be a representative of the youth on the board of the mosques. Secondly, we must train our American young Muslims to be future Imams. What happens is when an Imam is an immigrant is there is a linguistic barrier. There are still khateebs around that give khutbas in languages that are not English. And so it is a must right now to produce American Muslim imams, that speak the language and understand what America is all about. These days our imams are hard to understand. Young Muslims come and tell me I don't understand what he said because it is not in my language. Thirdly, there must be a process where there is transfer of power in the masajid. If you go to many mosque, you will find all old people, simply because they have money…and I think that is wrong, because no matter what, the young generation must be the ones who receive this transfer of power of the mosque. Gradual, but certain process in transferring it into our second generation, so they feel that mosque belongs to them.. Many younger generation people feel that they don't belong to the mosques, and we are lucky to have MSAs in college where young people go, but they don't come to the mosque. I think this is mainly because they don't feel that mosques belong to them.
What has changed about the ICC over the years?
What changed about the ICC over the years have been the outreach programs. Mosques are not just places of worship, where people pray 5 times a day, but they are places where we need to think about and define how to build our community in the USA. We are dealing with city council and governments, we are dealing with law enforcement, we are dealing with the NYPD and FBI. We are dealing with nonMuslims, are we have interfaith work as a priority at our center. Outreach programs in the USA mosques are one of the most important priorities we need to have. Otherwise, the mosque will play a very limited role in our growth.
More from Imam Shami Ali in part II of the interview.