Pool of American imams too small to meet the demand

SHARON, Mass. — The Islamic Center of New England has always been led by imams born outside America. The two-campus mosque would like to change that, but it’s proving harder than leaders had thought.

The ICNE’s mosque here on the South Shore of Boston has been without an imam since 2006, when the last imam was arrested for immigration fraud. A rotating cast of lay and trained imams have led congregational Friday prayers and other mosque functions since then.

As this suburban mosque has discovered, American-born imams are nearly impossible to find. Ads from mosques seeking imams who are fluent in English are readily found in Muslim-American magazines and newspapers. The North American Imams Federation, an advocacy group founded in 2002, gets more than 100 requests for help every year from mosques seeking religious leaders.

Hossam AlJabri, a former executive director of the Muslim American Society, estimated that about 80 percent of America’s 2,200 mosques were led by immigrant imams, although the majority have been in America for at least 10 years, many much longer.

According to a 2011 report from the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of America’s estimated 2.75 million Muslims are immigrants — with as many as 90,000 new Muslim immigrants arriving each year. Experts say it will be years before the pool of American imams becomes large enough to meet demand from mosques.

While a few Islamic chaplaincy programs and educational institutes have been established in the last few years in the United States, there are no similar programs to help newly arrived imams acclimate to America.

American mosques continue to rely on foreign-born imams for their religious knowledge and fluency in Arabic. But they also want Americanized imams who can speak English and serve as competent communicators with an ear for interfaith events, civic engagement and engaging the media.