After dozens of interviews, the mosque board is eyeing a U.S-born convert who’s familiar with American culture and who studied Islam and Arabic in Saudi Arabia. The imam’s academic pedigree impressed the immigrant members of the mosque, while his fluency in American pop culture helped him connect with mosque youth.
“The issue here is we’re looking for the future, and the future of Islam in this country are the children,” said Rashid Noor, head of the ICNE board. “So we need someone who can connect with the youth.”
Far from certain, however, is whether the Sharon mosque will able to pay the salary demanded by the imam — nearly double the salary earned by the Egyptian-born imam at Sharon’s sister mosque in Quincy, 23 miles away. If the center can’t afford this imam, Noor said it will continue looking.
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.
“The number of people who have all these qualities is very few,” said Noor, echoing an opinion expressed by other Muslim-American leaders.
Because there are so few of these imams and demand for them is so strong, they can ask for salaries as high as $90,000 per year, plus benefits. Imams from abroad generally accept much lower salaries, expecting their income to go further than it will. “You could give them 20,000 dollars, and they’re happy,” said AlJabri.