May 25th, 2010
05:15 PM ET
When talking to those of my generation and younger from the Muslim American community, an oft-mentioned challenge is a disconnect from the Islam one knows and believes in and the messaging received in places of worship.
This seems to be changing tremendously here in the U.S. due to one simple thing: time.
The practice of Islam in America is practically as old as the country itself, however the institutionalization of it - in the form of community centers, places of worship and even organizations based on Islamic principles - is really only several decades young.
In what can best be described as generational evolution, young American Muslims born and raised in the U.S. (unlike many of their immigrant parents) are searching for ways to bridge cultures they love equally: that of country and faith.
Those bridges are being found in the human capital of the generation itself, through men and women whose first language is English, who watch “Avatar” and “Lost” and study Quran, and who believe that vice and virtue can be explained in rap music, poetry or even through examples in the storyboards of Hollywood films. Many believe that these new “bridges” are the Muslim community’s best hope for combating extremism.
A recent Salon.com article explains the challenge:
A “symbol of hope,” according to Salon.com, is Imam Khalid Latif, who at 27 is the first director and chaplain of the Islamic Center at New York University, where he graduated from in 2004. While he may not be a “rare breed,” he certainly is a trendsetter, as he told Salon:
I caught up with Imam Khalid (pictured above with NYU students) to further explain his philosophies and what the ideal worship environment would be:
CNN: Is there such a thing as the “next generation masjid or masjid 2.0?” If so, what would it encompass?
Imam Khalid Latif: For me, it's the idea that a Muslim community (or a masjid meant to house a Muslim community) has to be something that is inclusive of everyone, including everyone who fall outside of generational gaps. In masjids, the imams or leadership present make sense for a certain need that exists within specific communities. So the African American community living in a post-civil rights context will empower leadership and develop community centers based on their reality. The South Asian or Arab community, coming in as immigrants, will develop centers based on their own need or their own process of socialization.
Naturally, the society we are living in is very diverse, and you will see a gradual change towards community centers and masjids that play a role slightly different from those overseas. So if you go to the Gulf or a place where there is a majority Muslim population, the mosque isn’t playing a role of community center, and the imam doesn’t have to be the charismatic figure upon which a community is built.
There, a mosque is looked at as a place to pray and that’s it. Here, mosques are taking on very much the same role as other places of worship and are becoming more than just a place to pray. So you will see a gradual progression towards centers who are not adhering to one school of thought and are not ethnocentric. They are being run more efficiently as well. If [the masjid] is a place that is supposed to have a divine understanding to it, it has to be a place where anyone can feel OK walking into.
The masjid should turn into a place where it is a center of activity bringing a lot of good and benefit to the broader society in which it has been established. From it, there should be soup kitchens, legal services, health clinics, counseling, shelters provided to victims of abuse. In the next 5-10 years, you will see more centers being built that way. I was just out in the Bay Area, and they have a mosque there called MCA, and the community there is well established and they are stetting up a lot of programs and services that are beyond your typical “let’s pray five times a day.”
CNN: Do you foresee virtual mosques becoming more prevalent?
Latif: What I have seen in terms of the utilization of the internet - kind of a virtual mosque - is the utilization of social media. We have a podcast that is listened to in 100 countries and attracts about 30,000 listeners a month. The advantage of the technology we have access to is that it is a simple process and we are able to connect to a lot of people literally across the world. The issue we run into is that you can very easily maintain connection to someone and not know what you are getting yourself into. Through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we get a lot of contacts from people who are looking for someplace to belong. They could be in a totally different country but are looking for a place to reach out to, so they are turning to this virutal world to gain some kind of solace.
However, it is important to have that personal interaction when you are trying to develop or be a part of a community. It puts you in a place where you don’t have any options to be other than yourself. When I am existing online I can assume a totally different identity and can give myself a security blanket. When I am trying to learn my Islam online, if I am not engaging with an active voice on the other end, a lot of what I end up reading is not relevant to my specific issue. One of the things we try to emphasize here is in-person interaction. Our community members know where I live, they are coming to eat at my house all the time, I try to meet with everyone at least once or twice a year to see where they are at.
CNN: Your most recent Khutbah dealt with chivalry. How do you define chivalry, and is it the answer to extremism?
Latif: Chivalry as a concept is rooted in our tradition and applicable to both men and women. The underlying element is that an individual finds within them a kind of desire to stand up when they see some kind of injustice being taken around them. The word is derived from the Arabic word “fatah” which is used in the Quranic paradigm to refer to Prophet Abraham, when the Quran describes him as a young noble person who is willing to stand up against injustice as he sees it. The idea is that you have this sense of selflessness where you are looking to serve those around you in every way you possibly can.
With regards to extremism, I think it happens when younger Muslims don’t necessarily feel empowered by their Islam. They don’t feel as if they themselves are deriving a benefit from their religion because it's been shaped and defined for them in a way where many feel alienated because of a cultural hegemonic application of it, as opposed to one that takes into consideration the context of how they have been brought up or where they are coming from.
A lot of the hesitation you see on the parts of individuals today is rooted in a feeling that is very substantiated on both sides. You have a broader non-Muslim population that is very much fearful of Islam, and consequently the followers of Islam - because of the narrative that they are being shown - are fearful and are just trying to fit in and compartmentalize their identity.
Chivalry teaches us that at some level there have to be some individuals who are willing to think beyond themselves and think about what is in the best interest of the community on a whole, how a self interest would be replaced by a self sacrifice ... the idea that what you are giving up is a beneficial gain for the people in your most immediate proximity.
CNN: Do you ever come across the problem of not being able to be "super imam"?
Latif: Some things I get asked to do, I am just not qualified to do. You have Muslims who, when they see someone they envision to be someone authoritative, they decide to pull that person in all directions and it becomes problematic because you then take that individual from what they are actually good at by telling them or inviting them to do things that there is probably someone who is a lot better and more qualified to do. I have a graphic designer who does our graphic design. It would be stupid of me to say I am going to do that. It becomes necessary to be conscious of our own strengths and weaknesses.
For me personally, most of my life revolves around my work. If anyone has benefited from this it’s me. I get to meet a lot of amazing people and get to see them shatter the expectation of what people perceive them to be. The issues I am confronted with from a counseling perspective are not really always related to legal issues pertaining to our religion. The number of young women that I’ve spoken to who have been raped and molested as children in high school, boys who are suicidal, have depression issues, bipolar issues - these are some real serious things people go through.
CNN: How do you explain the criticism that your interpretation – your “hipness”- goes against the cultural values of Islam?
Latif: I have great relationships. Age has never been a factor. Legitimacy comes from consistency and being able to root your argument from an Islamic perspective - from something that is authentic. I don’t think anything we are seeking to employ here we are just kind of pulling out of nowhere. We are building a center that has no precedent to follow and in doing that, you are going to screw up and there is stuff I tried to do and didn’t work well.
CNN: Do you incorporate current events or pop culture into your sermons?
Latif: With the understanding that you know your sermon you give on Friday is going to be listened to by tens of thousands of people around the world, you have to remain true to the people sitting in front of you on that Friday. I can’t talk beyond the needs of my immediate community, but what becomes interesting is that the things that we bring about in our community face-to-face become issues relevant to Muslims around the world. When I gave the lecture on chivalry, I gave it around the time the Tiger Woods controversy came out. It came about because we have been having discussions revolving around masculinity in general - where we speak about gender more so in terms of females or things in relation to women - but we are not teaching our men how to be men.
CNN: What sorts of trends and “bridges” have your own students presented to demonstrate the ways they process and interpret the teaching of Islam?
Latif: On average we do about 30 programs a week. There is a variety of classes, dinners and community service projects. It’s really remarkable how all our students have come together. What is really indicative of their growth is not necessarily everything that they do in the sense that they can be highlighted and awarded, but kind of how they are willing to do for others, if that makes sense.
For me growing up, I didn’t fit into the Muslim community. It was just a very hard thing to do and I was met a lot more so with a judgmental attitude. What I have seen amongst our community here is that they are not looking for a reason to push people away but for a reason to bring people closer. It’s not a "Kumbaya" kind of thing though. We do have issues.
You don’t have a lot of communities where community members feel comfortable bringing up heart-wrenching experiences in their lives. It takes a lot for someone to bring up or talk about abuse or mental health issues.
If I go into a mosque and tell somebody that I had sex with some girl last night and I need to talk to somebody about it, the immediate response I might get is, “That’s impermissible, you shouldn’t have done that.” But once you have that level of trust with someone, you know you can tell them and say, "Look at this thing I have done - I know that I can tell you and you aren’t going to think the worst of me because of it, you are going to help me get through it."
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.