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 Koran in the Middle East, Europe and India — but he is 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 US are foreign-born — but the demand for people like him is growing as US 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 US pop culture, leaders like Umar are trying to help young Muslims embrace their US experience without letting go of Islamic traditions. It is part of a broader trend toward a more US 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 the US. 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 is rapidly taking place, said Philip Clayton, provost at Claremont Lincoln University, which recently started a program for US Islamic leaders.
Mosques that remain insular, focus on ethnic identity and do not engage with the realities of being Muslim in the US will not 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 US 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. However, in the US, the application of those rules can look different.
Teens go on coed 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.”
AbdelRahman Murphy, a 25-year-old assistant imam in Knoxville, Tennessee, is striking that balance with his newly founded Muslim youth group called Roots. Kids play sports, battle it out in video game playing contests or strut in a girls’ Muslim fashion show with the tongue-in-cheek title “Cover Girl.”
Murphy, the son of an Egyptian immigrant mother and an Irish-American convert, was kicked out of a private Islamic middle school and strayed from the faith in high school — an experience he always keeps in mind.
“We can’t change what’s inside the package, but we can repackage it,” said Murphy, who tweets about college basketball and his faith.
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, porn, 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.’”