Imams are out of touch with the needs of Western Muslims, and divorced from the struggles their congregants face in secular society, according to a new report from a leading Canadian scholar.
Many religious leaders don't offer constructive advice about how to reconcile traditional beliefs with the challenges of integration in Western societies, concludes the study, which is based on focus groups with 60 lay Muslims in Ottawa, Washington and Britain.
"My ultimate fantasy would be to find an imam who gives a sermon in a Friday mosque, who happens to be someone who goes out to work from 9 to 5, takes the bus, is dealing with his kid who is picking up a marijuana joint at the age of 13," one interviewee said, "and not speaking to me about the battles that we won 1,200 years ago."
Karim Karim, director of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, is the author of the report to be published today by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy.
"We need to acknowledge the soul searching in the Muslim world," he said, "and the diversity of voices, and not let the process be hijacked by the groups or individuals who claim to speak for 'the Muslim community.' "
Some Muslims in the survey complained about "the cultural illiteracy" of imported imams. Others expressed the desire for a more elevated discourse in the mosque and a critical approach to dogma.
"What I am looking for is an intellectual Islam that examines where we are today and how we move forward," a participant noted.
Others took issue with conservatism in the mosque, including dress codes for women, and imams who insist women fast when they are pregnant or menstruating.
In fact, a lot of Muslim scholars are "reopening the gates of reasoning," said Prof. Karim, and engaging more with contemporary society. "Religious law's governance of the minutiae of daily life under religious law is contentious not only for Western Muslims but also for Muslims living in majority-Muslim countries," he notes.
To counter the power of conservative imams, some Muslim institutions in Britain and the United States are training imams to develop a more critical approach to traditional religious issues. The report also recommends that Canadian policy-makers target "Islamophobia" through anti-discrimination programs and by supporting cross-cultural initiatives, such as the twinning of mosques and synagogues.