KARIM H. KARIM

“My ultimate fantasy would be to find an imam … who goes out to work from nine to five, takes the bus, is dealing with his kid who is picking up a marijuana joint at the age of 13. This is the kind of person that I want instructing me on Friday – not speaking about the battles we won 1,200 years ago.”

Such was the complaint and hope of a Montreal participant at a discussion on intellectual leadership among Muslims living in Western countries.

The discussion was one of a series of focus groups in Canada, the United States and Britain that revealed dissatisfaction among Muslims with their religious leaders’ lack of cultural understanding. Most mosque imams brought over from Muslim-majority countries do not have the knowledge to help congregants deal with life in the West.

An Environics study revealed that most Muslims are keen to integrate into Canadian society. The focus groups’ findings show that they also want to remain faithful to Islam and engage with modernity on their own terms.

As with adherents of other religions, ethics for Muslims are faith-based. Islam favours a close connection between religion and the material world, and its followers see good citizenship as intimately linked with being good Muslims.

However, many feel unable to receive the Islamic guidance that they are seeking in their new environments. Not only are “imported imams” unaware of the socio-cultural contexts of Western countries, most of them appear ill-equipped to handle contemporary ethical dilemmas raised by technological advances.

Focus group participants indicated that they found the advice of Muslim medical practitioners to be more useful than that of theologians in matters of bio-ethics.

“What I am looking for is an intellectual Islam that examines where we are today and how we move forward,” said a participant in Leicester, England. “(But) when I go to the mosque … all I see (is) this red face, beard, and shouting and screaming.”

Members of congregations are often much better educated than mosque imams. Canadian Muslims tend to have high levels of education, contrary to popular stereotypes. “Nearly one in three Muslim women has a university degree, compared with one in five among all (Canadian) women,” notes the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

Women appear to be very keen to conduct their own examination of Islamic theology. They are studying scripture and secondary material, and sometimes challenging the rules that govern their lives. A participant in the all-female focus group in Washington asserted that “when it comes to some issues like women, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is so flawed.”

Participants in various locations said they did look up to some scholars of Islam who had both traditional and Western training. Such intellectuals are praised for their critical examination of received wisdom. Religious leaders working to alleviate poverty, engaging in social development, and seeking ways to prevent extremism are also admired.

In addition to traditional Islamic institutions, there have been established in Western countries some facilities to train religious teachers how to enable Muslims to interact with modernity. The California-based Zaytuna Institute’s seminary program seeks to provide “intellectual tools and understanding to effectively engage Western society and thought.” The Muslim College and the Institute for Ismaili Studies, both in London, seek to educate teachers who can enable Muslims to live productive lives in the contemporary world.

The preparation of such religious personnel might determine the kinds of relations that future generations of Muslims will have with their compatriots. Some of the frustrations currently felt about the quality of Islamic leadership might have contributed to the militancy adopted by some Western Muslims.

One focus-group participant in London referred to an acquaintance who had favoured “martyrdom operations” because he was fed up with the sermons that did not address Muslims’ present-day problems. This discussion took place a few weeks before the July 2005 bombings in that city.

Although much smaller than Christianity, Islam is now the second-largest religion in almost all Western countries. Policy makers and journalists often tend to perceive Muslim communities within the binary frame of “fundamentalists” and “moderates.” Such reductionist views prevent an informed understanding of the complexities in the soul-searching taking place among Muslims regarding their identities, civic ethics and citizenship in Western societies.

Karim H. Karim, director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, is the author of Changing Perceptions of Islamic Authority among Muslims in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, www.irpp.org.  Source: Click here