America Needs More Imams

A lack of training and funding is creating a Muslim leadership vacuum in the U.S. That’s bad for everyone.

Two imams march in the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Freedom Walk on June 22, 2013, in Detroit. Imams in America typically get paid less than other religious leaders.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

One of many ugly patterns since Sept. 11, 2001, is that those who say they are worried about Islamic terrorism often fight to keep mosques out of their communities. It has happened in Tennessee, in Texas, and, most infamously, at the so-called ground zero mosque in Lower Manhattan, which became a national rallying point for conservatives. A recent poll found that 27 percent of Republican primary voters support the idea of shutting down all mosques in the United States. “Nobody wants to say this and nobody wants to shut down religious institutions or anything, but you know, you understand it,” Donald Trump told Fox News last month, “We’re going to have no choice.”

Here’s a shocker: Trump is wrong on this one. Homegrown jihadists have almost all been radicalized either overseas or online, not within their own local mosques. In fact, what the United States needs to combat Muslim extremism is more high-stature Muslim leaders, not fewer.

What we have now is what one expert in American Islam described to me as “a leadership vacuum,” created by the low status and low salaries of imams in America. Extremist foreign leadership is attractive in part because local leadership is so sparse. If you want to integrate Muslims into American culture, these experts say, expand the pipeline of American imams by training them better and paying them more.

Like pastors, priests, and rabbis, the imam’s job description encompasses much more than just leading weekly worship services. Duties vary but can include education, administration, weddings, funerals, public relations, marriage counseling, arbitration between members, and much more. It’s more than a full-time job, in other words. (That’s one reason clergy burnout has become an issue in recent years.) And yet just 44 percent of imams are paid full-time employees, compared with 71 percent of congregation-leaders in other faith groups, according to a comprehensive survey of American mosques published in 2012.

When imams are paid, their salaries are unusually low. A position with a salary of $50,000 would be considered extremely desirable, according to Abdul Nasir Jangda, the former imam of a mosque near his native Dallas. The typical salary is closer to $30,000 a year. Jangda recounted the story of a New York City imam who has never made more than $1,800 a month in his 30 years on the job. Benefits are often few to nonexistent. The 2012 report found that half of all American mosques have no paid staff at all.

Pastors, priests, and other religious leaders aren’t always paid handsomely either, but they tend to do significantly better. Protestant pastors’ salaries range widely according to denomination and church size, but a large survey last year found the average full-time senior pastor earned almost $90,000 a year in salary and benefits. Pulpit rabbis routinely earn more than $100,000. Catholic priests rarely earn more than $40,000 but often have many living expenses provided; they also almost never have families to support.

Imams’ low salaries are not just relevant to them and their families but to conversations about radicalization and lack of integration. “A huge contributing factor to that is a lack of really sincere heartfelt leadership, instruction, and guidance,” Jangda said. “Every time you talk to a qualified scholar or imam about terrorism or extremism, you always get the reaction that there’s no accommodation in the religion for that … but when people don’t get the appropriate teaching in their own communities, people online end up filling that vacuum.”

Historically, the majority of American mosques and Islamic centers were founded by and run by immigrants. Jangda explains that if those immigrants come from the Middle East they are typically accustomed to mosques being government-funded. In Asia, where imams tend to be supported by the community, imams often live at the poverty level and are viewed as charity cases. Neither of these traditions leads naturally to a donation-based American congregation paying its imam a professional wage. “This is a very touchy topic in our community,” Jangda said. “One very passionate side of the conversation says, ‘No one asks you to do this with your life; you decided, and [the low salary] comes with the territory. It’s like a dentist saying, I don’t like putting my hands in peoples’ mouths.’ ”

The other side points out that the consequences of imams’ low status and salary are predictable: instability and poverty, with educated American families discouraging their children from becoming imams because they can do so much better in other professions. “Young people are not attracted to become imams because they know it’s not a very good career choice,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, and lead researcher of the 2012 mosque report. Many imams take on second or even third jobs while others move on to other careers. Those who do stick around are often poorly trained.

Another key issue is that the vast majority of full-time imams were born and educated outside America, well-meaning but sometimes with a weak grasp on local culture. (Bagby said this is in large part because immigrants are likelier to accept low salaries.) That leaves many earnest young American believers attempting to self-educate. “The consequences are pretty severe, I would say, especially in the current international context,” said Jocelyne Cesari, who directs Harvard’s Islam in the West Program. “You have a real lack of transmission of the Islamic tradition.”

One answer to homegrown radicalism is homegrown institutions. And another reason so many imams come from overseas is that there are almost no institutions that train future imams in the United States. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews who want to lead congregations have their pick of American seminaries that instruct on both theology and pastoral duties. Muslims do not—or at least not yet. Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal art college in the United States, tested a seminary program a decade ago, responding to “the paucity of religious leaders with the cultural literacy to tend to the spiritual and pastoral needs of American Muslims.” But it currently offers only a bachelor’s degree. Bagby says other projects are in the works, but so far, American-based training opportunities are sparse.

Bagby calls the cumulative effect “a drag on the American Muslim community being more active in society, and better integrated into society.” In other words, it’s not just a question of theology (how American Muslims interpret their own faith) but of outreach and community service (how other Americans interpret their Muslim neighbors). If the news these last few weeks is any indication, both are serious problems, even if they’re rare. Of course, only American Muslims can control how they pay and train their leaders. But the rest of us can warmly support the mosques in our communities. Contrary to what Trump claims, we do have a choice.