A generation of young British imams is under huge pressure to develop better ways of showing leadership in social and political issues while also facing death threats from Isis extremists, according to the most senior imam at Leeds mosque.
Imam Qari Asim, the imam of Makkah masjid in Leeds, told the Guardian: “To them, Isis, I am not any different to any other person in this cafe, or in a restaurant in Paris. For them, I am not a Muslim either.”
In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, Qari, 37, spent the week speaking to imams to make sense of what happened; attending vigils and talking to senior government ministers , while also consoling members of his congregation who fear an anti-Muslim backlash.
Earlier this week, Qari wrote an article in his local paper condemning Isis, writing: “As a Muslim, a Briton and a human being, I will not stay silent on attacks on our societies in the name of my faith.”
But despite the condemnations of the attacks by British imams in the form of signed letters, sermons and social media posts – often not picked up by wider British press – he said his peers were met with accusations that Muslim leaders are not doing enough to tackle extremism.
Another British imam, Abdullah Hasan, said the view that imams were not doing enough to condemn extremism was not fair. He said: “I was given death threats by Isil sympathisers on TV. We are speaking out against extremists and we are hated by them.”
Qari said: “I think the first thing to understand is that the imam’s role has changed over the years. Imams basically were there to lead the congregation [in prayer] traditionally – we didn’t have pastoral role as part of the imam training.”
“Now we are expected firstly to have a pastoral role, and secondly to lead the community at a political and social level,” he said. “As a result we’re being unduly criticised, even though they are not trained and it’s not considered part of their role.”
Yet due to a previous vacuum of leadership in this area, Qari said he and his peers see it as their responsibility to give guidance on issues specifically affecting a British Muslim audience.
Abla Klaa, 21, a student at Leeds university, said it was frustrating to see community leaders apologise each time, but added: “It makes sense to make people aware that we are being proactive, to tackle the far-right narrative.”