Demand for US-born imams up as mosques struggle to retain new generation of American Muslims

Mustafa UmarANAHEIM, Calif. — 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 Quran in the Middle East, Europe and India — but he’s 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 U.S. are foreign-born — but the demand for people like him is growing as American Muslim leaders look for ways to keep the religion relevant for young people in a secular country that cherishes freedom of expression.

“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.”

Abdel Rahman Murphy, a 25-year-old assistant imam in Knoxville, Tenn., 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.