SHAFAQNA- “We are facing a complex and somewhat two-sided challenge, Muslims in the west are either not completely engaged in society, and hence not able to contribute or cause positive change, or like the new generations, are fully integrated but are lacking religious identity and the ability to properly organize and present a true Islamic voice. I strongly believe that Muslims in the west need to plan ahead of time and take a strong leadership role to promote good values, work for change, and advocate for their rights,” the Vice Chairman of Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya expressed in an interview with Shafaqna.
Sayyid Mohammad Baqir Kashmiri is Representative of Jurist and the Vice Chairman of Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya (I.M.A.M.) in Dearborn, Michigan, USA. In an interview with Shafaqna English he talks about Shia Islam in North America.
“USA’s Shia Muslim communities are thriving, however, they are facing a number of serious challenges”
Shafaqna: What share of the American Muslim population do Shia make up and what are the special issues and problems they face?
Sayyid Kashmiri: There are various estimates of how many Shia Muslims live in North America, ranging from 400,000 to over a million. The official census and data from research organizations suggest that Muslims account for 1-2% of the population, but the numbers may actually be higher. Thus, if it is assumed that Shias make up around 10-15% of Muslims, then there are approximately 500,000 to 900,000 Shia Muslims across the United States. Regardless, the numbers are growing very quickly. Most Shia Muslims live in major metropolitan and urban areas like Washington D.C., New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Jose, Atlanta, Chicago, and certainly in the Detroit metro area where they are densely concentrated within a 5–7-mile radius (i.e., Dearborn and suburban) where there are more than twenty Islamic centers and three full-time schools.
All things considered, the Shia Muslim communities are thriving, however, they are also facing a number of serious problems and challenges. These include issues with religious identity and navigating secular society, reconciling religious identity and fulfilling good citizenship, confidence in religious leadership, extreme liberalism/conservatism, integration in social life, lack of robust Islamic curricula that cover K-12 education, and a shortage of qualified scholars, clergy and imams who can serve and adequately connect with adolescents and youth.
“I.M.A.M. is dedicated to the advancement of all aspects of Muslim communities”
Shafaqna: Please introduce the Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya and its activities.
Sayyid Kashmiri: The Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya (I.M.A.M.) is a religious organization that serves as the liaison office of the Supreme Religious Authority in North America. I.M.A.M. is devoted to building a strong Shia Muslim community in North America by serving as the central point of contact between the religious authority and the Islamic centers, schools, institutions, and faithful believers. I.M.A.M. is passionately dedicated to the advancement of all aspects of Muslim communities in North America, including the religious, spiritual, educational, and social facets, and its goal is to implement the teachings of Almighty God, the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and his Holy Progeny (AS) through the direction of the Supreme Religious Authority (Marjaeya).
As such, I.M.A.M.’s projects, initiatives, programs, and services, which focus on local, national, and international matters, are categorized into five core functions: Religious teachings, religious services (marriage, family affairs, etc.), Religious dues (khums, zakat, etc.), Hawzah liaison, and Community cohesion. To achieve these objectives, I.M.A.M. has a vibrant, knowledgeable and skilled team of religious scholars, who not only provide the intellectual content but serve as religious leaders both nationally and in their local communities, information technology and media professionals, who develop and deploy the content, and an invaluable administrative staff and volunteers.
Finally, I.M.A.M. continuously networks and builds mutual collaborations with other organizations across the continent to provide important resources that are accessible to all.
“Youth should be encouraged to practice in a variety of religiously-acceptable ways that they feel comfortable with”
Shafaqna: What is the best way to hold religious ceremonies such as Eid Al-Ghadir and Ashura in western countries and how can pure Islamic beliefs be introduced to young people?
Sayyid Kashmiri: Much of how we commemorate religious events and ceremonies in the West is just a continuation of how we used to practice in our previous homelands. There is nothing wrong with this and it is important to preserve our traditions, especially when they strengthen religious identity and adherence. On the other hand, today’s generations are very advanced in the way they learn and their approach to religious commemoration is creative and different from what is traditionally practiced. Therefore, we should not limit our youth to one method or a certain national or cultural tradition, rather, they should be encouraged to practice in a variety of religiously acceptable ways that they feel comfortable with. The main goal is to preserve and continuously revive Islamic events and maintain the sacred Islamic rituals. So, how can this be achieved? The answer is to leave it to them to develop their own form of expression while simultaneously providing them with support and guidance so they can thrive and also remain within the limits of religion.
“Muslims in the west need to plan ahead of time and take a strong leadership role to promote good values, work for change, and advocate for their rights”
Shafaqna: In general, what is your assessment of the life situation of Muslims in America, and considering the occasional presence of Muslims in elections and Congress, as well as the increase in the American Muslim population, what future do you foresee for this community?
Sayyid Kashmiri: This is a challenging matter because it seeks to reconcile two aspects of who we are as residents in a western country, maintaining our religious identity and being fully integrated citizens. As a whole, I think the Muslim community is gradually becoming more engaged in American society, but my concern is about Muslim leadership and planning for the next few decades. We are facing a complex and somewhat two-sided challenge, Muslims in the west are either not completely engaged in society, and hence not able to contribute or cause positive change, or like the new generations, are fully integrated but are lacking religious identity and the ability to properly organize and present a true Islamic voice. I strongly believe that Muslims in the west need to plan ahead of time and take a strong leadership role to promote good values, work for change, and advocate for their rights.
Shafaqna: In what forms is Islamophobia and Shiaphobia going on in the United States and to what extent does it directly affect the lives of Muslims?
Sayyid Kashmiri: There is not a significant difference between Shia and Sunni when it comes to Islamophobia. Islamophobia affects Muslims in general, and it occurs in the media, certain extreme organizations, and some political movements. Yet, it bears mentioning that the vast majority of Americans do not harbor these hateful tendencies and see Muslims as their fellow citizens. On the other hand, for decades, American Shia Muslims have suffered from hatred and criminal attacks. Just recently, we lost three Shia Muslim men in Albuquerque, New Mexico during Muharram, and unfortunately, it was due to hate and nothing else. But, I think it has decreased significantly during the last ten years due to two important facts, first is the retreat of Wahhabism and its extreme rhetoric, and the second is the significant impact of the tireless activities of a few responsible and wise Shia and Sunni leaders to bring the Muslim community together as a whole and promote true unity.
“Islam places the responsibility of social awareness and effort to help those with no support”
Shafaqna: What is Islam’s approach to racism? Could this approach inspire citizens and anti-racist movements in the West?
Sayyid Kashmiri: I believe that anyone who reads the Holy Quran and the traditions narrated from the Prophet (PBUH) and his pure family will notice that humankind has been assigned a sacred and elevated position in the universe. Moreover, the role and responsibilities that God has given to human beings as His vicegerents on earth point to the development of a harmonious system in which not only they will flourish, but also all creatures. This social system is based on conscientiousness, empathy towards others, and recognizing that the only difference between people in the eyes of God is through 1) piety, 2) knowledge, and 3) good deeds.
It is very possible for harmony to exist among human beings irrespective of their race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. Islam also advocates for every human’s right to be fulfilled and seek advancement in life, and it decries the disenfranchisement and marginalization of any group. In addition, our religion places the responsibility of social awareness and effort to help those with no support squarely on all of our shoulders. Thus, implementation of this will promote and give strong support and impetus to all who seek to eradicate hate, racism, and intolerance, and it will help to promote civil discourse, peace, love and opportunity for all human beings.
“Interfaith dialogue should occur on two levels”
Shafaqna: How do you evaluate the atmosphere of inter-religious talks in the United States and what activities have been done or are in progress by Shia scholars in this regard?
Sayyid Kashmiri: There is a positive and cooperative atmosphere for interfaith dialogue in the U.S. Many places of worship, synagogues, churches, and Islamic centers are continuously involved in such activities all over the country. Furthermore, there has been an increased movement in academia to promote high-level discourse and activities that not only address past misconceptions and seek to build bridges, but also develop active means to solve problems. This is not easy when it involves well-known and well-established universities, but there are many well-meaning and sincere people who are working on this day and night. So, overall it’s good and it is growing.
On the other hand, it is tough to evaluate the benefit of all these activities. I am not sure how many of them are truly productive and make an impact? In my humble view, I think interfaith dialogue should occur on two levels, a basic level that focuses on commonalities and explains the differences so that when implemented it can help foster co-existence and bring harmony to the society. Secondly, it should occur at a higher level and must be limited to the subject matter experts to discuss it from a theological perspective without it necessarily being in the public. If we see these two levels are active in parallel, I think the community as a whole will be propelled to a different level of understanding and brother/sisterhood.
“We must educate our children a to live in a diverse world by being strong in their identity while simultaneously holding hands with their fellow citizens”
Shafaqna: How can interfaith dialogue lead to lasting peace in the world to come?
Sayyid Kashmiri: To be honest and realistic, we should acknowledge that there is no such dream unless God hastens the reappearance of the savior “the Awaited One”. This will bring about an end to tyranny, injustice, and oppression and mankind will see the world in true peace. In the meantime, we can reflect on what we can do to enhance the peace and limit conflicts, violence, and war. This comes through concrete action and not just dialogue and discourse.
One of the most important actionable items is actively dispelling misconceptions about each other, and denouncing any kind of hate speech, especially if it is official in any capacity. We also must seek to educate our children and give them the knowledge to live in a diverse world by being strong in their identity while simultaneously holding hands with their fellow citizens. As such, I think the religious scholars and religious authorities can do a lot and they can play a very direct and positive role for a wide-world peace.
“Najaf summit had inspired the faith communities in different parts of the world”
Shafaqna: In 2021, we witnessed the historic meeting of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis, as an example of interfaith dialogue between the world’s leading religious leaders. How do you assess the impact of this meeting on strengthening peace, mutual understanding and interfaith relations?
Sayyid Kashmiri: Let’s take a look at the summit of Pope Frances and Grand Ayatollah Sistani in March 2021 in Najaf, Iraq, and let us reflect on the statements issued by their offices right after the historical meeting. It clearly shows how and why this level of religious authority influences the world and the decision-makers with their advice and guidance.
No doubt, the Najaf summit had a huge impact and inspired the faith communities in different parts of the world. We witnessed more interfaith dialogues during the last year because of it, pushing back against Islamophobia, promoting the closeness between the followers of different religions, and opening an ambitious window for better peace in the future. I hope that religious scholars from different backgrounds take this exceptional summit seriously and move forward through it. For this reason, I.M.A.M. is always ready and willing to collaborate on these important matters and supports positive dialogue and partnering for a better future.
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