SHAFAQNA – Abu Marwan’s job has gotten a lot harder since Donald Trump took office. The president of the Masjid Al-Rahma outside San Diego, Marwan has relied on volunteers to serve as imam of the rapidly growing mosque ever since it opened in a strip mall several years ago. But these days, when he turns to those same volunteers, they always have something else to do. Marwan says it’s because they’re afraid of violenceagainst Muslims, which has been on the rise since the 2016 election. As he puts it, “They always say they’re busy, busy. The truth is they just don’t want to do it right now.”
Bringing in an imam from overseas has been just as difficult. Marwan invited one from Egypt to come for the holy month of Ramadan this past June, but the religious leader was unable to get a visa. And so, these days, instead of a regular imam at Masjid Al-Rahma, there is a changing cast of volunteers, students and borrowed imams—and sometimes no one at all—to read prayers to the 300 strong congregation. “Every Friday it is a nightmare to fill in the gap,” says Marwan. “Sometimes I have to call hundreds of people and still I can not find someone. It’s very stressful.”
It’s also potentially dangerous, Marwan says. He worries that some mosque members, with no imam to guide them, could soon turn elsewhere for direction, with possibly radical consequences. Imams serve as prayer leaders at their mosques, but they also act as religious guides and community leaders. Young people, Marwan says, “have no good place to go without an imam. They go to the internet or Google and they can end up somewhere very bad. A good imam is the best answer to any evil thing.”
A shortage of imams is not a new challenge for America’s mushrooming Muslim population: More than half of the country’s estimated 2,500 mosques lack a full time imam. But the people trying to fill those slots say that Trump’s efforts to impose an immigration ban on Muslim-majority nations together with rising incidents of Islamophobia have worsened the deficit. It’s the kind of problem that members of the Muslim community as well as terrorism experts warn could contribute to a rise in extremism. “A strong leader who provides a sense of structure and what is right and wrong offers certainty,” says Sarah Lyons-Padilla, a researcher at Stanford University who studies terrorists’ motivations. “So when you remove leaders, like an imam, then you’re basically introducing more uncertainty into an already troubled domain.”
The imam shortage was particularly obvious during Ramadan this year. Many American mosques traditionally invite a classically trained imam from overseas to assist U.S. mosque leaders with prayers during the holy month; in the past around 200 foreign imams have traveled to the United States for the holiday. But in 2017, the number was down to just 15, says Omar Shahin, a board member of the North American Imam’s Federation who serves as a matchmaker for mosques looking for imams.
Trump’s travel ban against Muslim majority countries is part of the problem, Shahin says. Although the ban does not impact Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that have traditionally sent the majority of foreign imams to the U.S., the order has made imams more reluctant to risk the trip, for fear they might end up detained. There were also cases of imams willing to travel to the U.S. who found it more difficult under the Trump administration to enter the country, according to immigration lawyers and Muslim leaders. Some were denied visas; others who had visas couldn’t make it out of the airport.
And then there’s the Islamophobia—perhaps the biggest reason imams have been reluctant to travel to the United States. In the first half of this year, 85 acts of violence were brought against U.S. mosques, ranging from firebombing to graffiti, compared to 59 such acts during the same period last year, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).In August, an explosive device was tossed into a popular Minnesota mosque shortly after dawn. It’s target? The imam’s office.
“All of this scares people from working as an imam,” says Shahin, who is also a fellow at the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana. “Who wants to be in the middle of all of these problems, or if your coming from overseas, turned back home at the airport?”
As second generation Muslims in the U.S. seek to adapt their faith to American culture, many in the Muslim community say it’s more important than ever to have leaders who can not just each the faith—but who can teach it correctly. “If people don’t have knowledge about Islam from the right source they wind up going to an extreme, whether it is to the right or the left,” says Shahin. “That is a dangerous thing for everybody.” That’s pretty much what one Florida imam told the New York Times after Uzbeki trucker Sayfullo Saipov drove into a Manhattan bike path last month, killing eight people. Saipov, said the imam, “did not learn the religion properly. That’s the main disease in the Muslim community.”
As America’s Muslim population has grown from 2.3 million a decade ago to a current high of 3.3, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of imams in the country has struggled to keep pace. In 2013, about 43 percent of U.S. mosques employed a full-time paid imam, while about one third made do with a volunteer imam, according to a study commissioned by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the North American Islamic Trust.
Part of the reason for the shortage, says Ihsan Bagby, the study’s author and a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, is that there aren’t enough American imams to go around. Increasingly, America’s Muslims, many of whom were born in the United States, want imams trained in U.S. ways and culture, rather than those versed in the more formal ways practiced overseas and who sometimes do not speak English. But there are very few schools in the U.S. that can provide the necessary training. While efforts are under way in a dozen U.S. cities to develop seminaries to prepare homegrown American imams and chaplains, Bagby thinks the Trump era is likely to slow progress. “The big challenge on everyone’s mind now,” he says, “is that the imam’s position is just not a particularly desirable one.”
Bagby is also concerned that current controversial political issues such as the travel ban will divert energy and funds from school development. For example, the Boston Islamic Seminary plans to open a graduate school in 2019 that would prepare imams and chaplains. Fundraising continues, but lately money has been going to other causes, such as defense against Islamophobia. “We are struggling with a lot of competing issues,” says Salma Kazmi, the seminary’s executive director. One of them being that “people are very sensitive to how they are treated as Muslims by the Trump administration.”
Without a robust U.S. training operation, the vast majority of full time imams in American mosques are either trained or born overseas. (The percentage was more than 90 percent in 2013, according to the ISNA study, and Bagby and others estimate that it hasn’t changed much in the past four years.) Most of these visiting imams enter the U.S. with a R1 visa for temporary religious workers; the visas are often good for up to five years, but most imams remain only for a few months. In an effort to stem fraudulent applications for such visas, the number of R1s issued during the Obama era declined significantly from 10,061 in 2008 to 2,771 in 2009. In the following years, though, the number rose steadily and in 2016 the government issued a total of 4,764 R1s.
It is unclear whether or by how much those numbers have dropped during the Trump administration, as statistics for fiscal year 2017 will not be available until next year, says a U.S. State Department spokesman. But judging by the experience of several U.S. mosques this past Ramadan, foreign imams are finding it harder to enter the country in the Trump era.
For the past two years, the Islamic Society of New Hampshire, which meets in a makeshift mosque above a hair salon in a mini-mall, has invited a London prayer leader to preside over Ramadan. This June, the leader was able to get a visa but was detained in the Boston airport for six hours before he was allowed to come into the United States. Mohammed Ewiess, mosque president, says the imam won’t be returning. “When he left, I said, ‘See you next year,’” says Ewiess. “But he said no, he didn’t think so. What we will do now, I don’t know.”
Several U.S. Muslim leaders told me stories of foreign imams who managed to get visas, but never made it out of the U.S. airport in which they landed. No sooner did they step foot on American soil than they were sent back home by federal authorities citing unspecified “security reasons.” In one case, an imam coming to the U.S. from Egypt with a visa was detained in the St. Louis airport for several hours before being sent back home, according to two Muslim leaders involved in the case. In a couple of other cases, mosque leaders declined to provide details saying they were concerned about political consequences.
Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, which has 10 member mosques, says that this spring one of his mosques invited an imam from Canada rather than the Middle East as it usually does during Ramadan to avoid problems. But at the last minute, that imam too was refused a visa. (A spokesman for the U.S. State Department declined to comment, saying the agency does not keep a record of the denials of applications for R-1 visas.) “Now, imams overseas are saying they don’t want to come,” Musri adds. “They don’t want to be humiliated at the airport, or to be turned around. Even if they have a visa, they don’t want to bother. So a lot of mosques aren’t even asking anymore.”
For Muslim leaders, the aggravated imam shortage is partly an inconvenience that has them scrambling on Friday mornings. But many are alarmed that the larger consequence of a lack of stable leadership in the mosque will push Muslim Americans—especially young ones—towards radicalization. Absent a spiritual leader, and specifically one versed in American ways, they may turn to roaming the internet just as many ISIS converts have been known to do.
To be sure, that fear has yet to materialize. So far this year the number of cases of ISIS-related terrorism in the U.S. has declined by about one third, according to the U.S. Department of Justice reports. Experts attribute the decline largely to counterterrorism efforts at home and the disruption of ISIS’s organization abroad.
Lorenzo Vidino, director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, questions whether the imam shortage would lead to violence. He says that extremists rarely spring from a mosque community, but are more often lone wolves or Muslim converts with little understanding of the Islamic faith. While some imams may have dissuaded a few potential terrorists, Vidino adds, it is difficult to prove. “I think it’s a bit of a simplistic narrative to say that imams serve as a bulwark against radicalization,” says Vidino. “No one denies that an imam might do that, but it’s very hard to prove. It’s like proving a negative. How would anyone know if an incident hadn’t occurred?”
Plus, some violent extremists attended mosques where imams were present before they strayed to violence, indicating that such leadership is not always a sufficient deterrent. The Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, for example, attended the Prospect Street mosque in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before he stopped attending in 2012, one year before the attack. So, too, Syed Farook, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino massacre, was a devout Muslim who attended mosque regularly until he stopped shortly before the assault.
But in both of those cases, the perpetrators were individuals who felt disconnected from American cultural life. And some experts believe that the imam shortage could exacerbate that alienation, resulting in further radicalization.
Sarah Lyons-Padilla, the Stanford researcher, says that Muslims who feel discriminated against or who experience a lack of meaning in their lives are more inclined embrace extreme ideologies in an effort to find meaning. The absence of imams resulting from harassment or immigration restrictions, she believes, could easily contribute to those feelings. “Simply put, Islamophobia is a reminder that you don’t belong,” says Lyons-Padilla, author of a Behavioral Science & Policy article called, “Belonging Nowhere: Marginalization and Radicalization Risk among Muslim Immigrants.” “To the extent that the imam shortage is perceived as an act of discrimination through the visa approval process, or another consequence of Islamophobia, that could lead to support for extremism down the road,” she says.
There’s another huge potential downside: The nation’s Muslim community has been highly cooperative with law enforcement; nearly half the tips on potential extremists come from other Muslims, according to one former State Department official. Some feel that fewer imams—as well as the general perception within the Muslim community that its leaders are being discriminated against—could mean a decline in communications with law enforcement and interfaith groups including other religious institutions like churches and synagogues.
Yussuf Abdi, the imam of Salt Lake City’s Madina Masjid Islamic Center, says he encountered just that kind of discrimination earlier this summer when he tried to return to his home in the U.S. from Kenya where he was collecting his wife and children. Abdi, a U.S. citizen, was barred from his flight in June after federal authorities apparently placed him on a no-fly list, and he was unable to preside over Ramadan services back home. Only after his attorneys filed a lawsuit were Abdi and his family able to return to the U.S. “It is very clear that the Trump administration is using these watch lists to exclude Muslims. We call it extra-judicial exile,” says Gadeir Abbas, an attorney for CAIR who is handling the case. “It is very common that the individuals who are being barred have leadership roles in the Muslim community, like imams or teachers. The community is very aware of this discrimination by the federal government.”
The community is also very aware of increased violence against Muslims and mosques since Trump and his incendiary rhetoric—“I think Islam hates us,” he said in March 2016—joined the campaign trail in 2015.
The Masjid Al-Salaam in Lynn, Massachusetts, has been without an imam for most of the five years its been around. The mosque, which operates out of a former shoe factory, has been presided over by a series of local volunteers. But now that the mosque’s membership has grown to over 200, its leaders are getting ready to start looking for an imam, and security is a prime concern.
So far, they updated cameras on the property, and added additional lighting. At one recent event, they hired a police officer. And Fawaz Abusharkh, the mosque’s spokesperson, is preparing for what he calls “the conversation,” which he expects he’ll be having with any prospective imams. “It’s the conversation you don’t really want to have, but these days you have to,” sighs Abusharkh. “It’s about security and how you are going to keep that imam safe. These days, it’s a pretty crucial aspect of the job.
But security is also expensive, and mosques already have enough trouble trying to find the money to hire a full time imam. The Islamic Society of New Hampshire, for example, collects $100 from 30 regular members every month to contribute towards an “imam salary fund.” But every month, president Ewiess worries that they won’t come up with enough. Ewiess, the father of two teenage boys, thinks imams are crucial to the Muslim experience in America. “An imam is someone people listen to and do not argue with, a figure of respect,” said Ewiess. “I am for having an imam in every mosque. It’s safer.”