December 12, 2018
Many years ago, a young British Muslim told me: “The generation before us built the mosques. It’s our job to get the generation after us into them – and it is a job that the generation before us cannot do.” It was something of a stark analysis but it was deeply significant, and a question that Muslims in Britain but also across Europe have been wrestling with in different ways recently. How, indeed, do Muslim clerics and imams speak to their congregations in ways that are relevant, especially when so many preachers come from a different generation and often, a different cultural background?
It’s a question that plays into a variety of different discussions around the education of imams, the construction and location of mosques, the discourse that religious figures need to inculcate and how that discourse is then projected onto congregations.
In Britain, one of the most commonly cited issues relates to language, for example. An older generation of imams, many of whom moved to the UK from the Indian subcontinent in the 1960s and 1970s, often only speak the languages of their native countries fluently and despite valiant efforts, the context of their sermons might sometimes only feel relevant to a motherland that the next generation has never seen.
But the issue goes beyond that, to the physical spaces where young British Muslims congregate, centring on the mosque itself and how welcoming it is to youth. There is an ongoing discussion among Muslims in the western world about those who neither feel they have a place in the mosque nor feel culturally connected to older, more traditional houses of worship. Indeed, in some parts of Britain, there has been a breakaway movement, with younger religious leaders gathering with members of their generation to set up alternative spaces away from traditional institutions, where they can teach and worship in a language and context they understand and can relate to.
The reality is that much of the training in many places around the world for imams and religious figures is not at the level that it needs to be, whether in relation to Islamic traditions or in terms of contextualisation and adaptation to contemporary challenges. That has to be addressed.
But a corresponding modern-day problem is that such topics are invariably only discussed via a focus on security and the expectation upon imams to act as counter-radicalisation tools. That is not their function – and to make it their primary role both misinterprets how radicalisation processes work and weakens the role of imams in their communities. Young people are not interested in being lectured by imams simply about how extremism causes harm. They want to hear imams teaching them how to be good and how to steer a path towards virtue and principles – not to be simply warned away from being bad.
That point about being able to inspire is perhaps the most crucial of all when it comes to British Muslims. All too often, the discussion around relevance becomes one focused on public relations rather than on substance – that the imam should be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, for example. Perhaps those things do have relevance. But young people are savvy and are not easily fooled by slick marketing campaigns. What inspires them isn’t being part of the establishment, which is what we seem to want so many imams to be nowadays. It is calling the establishment to account and speaking truth to power that invigorates young souls.
Where are the modern-day equivalents of the likes of the boxer Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X? Or the 19th century teacher of the Quran, Omar Al Mukhtar of Libya, known as the Lion of the Desert for his bravery in facing down the Italian fascist forces of Rodolfo Graziani? His face is still used on Libyan money and his legend inspired a 1980s film starring Anthony Quinn and Oliver Reed. Or Said Nursi, a 20th century theologian in Turkey who advocated a more contemporary and critical engagement with modern sciences?
All too often, we find religious figures not only shying away from critiquing the corridors of power but also acting as apologists for the establishment. If we are to hope that the next generation of Muslims in Britain and beyond might find strong leadership and a connection with their imams, then it will be down to those clerics to show the principles they stand for, even if they don’t always chime with those in power, and that their messages are relevant to those listening.
That might mean some imams having to go back to the drawing board. But when religious figures seek to fulfil their ministry of care, comfort, support and aid of the young and the vulnerable then continually re-educating themselves to be of service should be par for the course.
Dr HA Hellyer is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council