May 25th, 2010
05:15 PM ET

Towards a younger, hipper Islam

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:

Some Muslims are voicing their opinions and calling for change. They would like imams, who tend to be older, male and "imported," to be able to connect with a generation of Muslims raised in America. They also want mosques, which have the potential to develop leadership and community-building skills among young Muslims, to make youth outreach a priority. Failing to address these issues, they fear, could sever the connection between a generation of American Muslims and their religion.

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'm not like Nemo, alone in this ocean of loneliness. ... As needs have changed, as dynamics have changed, I think it's just a logical trend to a people who are well versed in how this society functions that they are going to be stepping into roles as community activists and leaders and specifically, at times, even imams."

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."

- Executive Editorial Producer, CNN

Filed under: Culture & Science • Faith • Houses of worship • Islam • Muslim

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. mass ali

    Progressive, hip muslims.. ? Okay, let's hear you renounce your hate of other religions and your suppression of women. And let's see you acknowledge Jews.
    This is all just middle class parlor banter, such tripe. Show me a hip muslim willing to make true sacrifices for his tempered, non-extreme beliefs. Then we can talk.

    July 6, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  2. Forrest Korab

    Very helpful! Thanks...

    July 4, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
  3. ShaykNazim

    There have been over 124,000 messengers sent to mankind and they all spoke of the same creator. Muhammed was the last and final Prophet sent from Allah (swt). BUT Allah continues to send the MESSEAGE through YOU! All you have to do is listen and search for the present of the God within.

    June 4, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
    • mass ali

      Get over it, Shayk. Everyone hears the rant and knows there is nothing in your heart but vitriole for anything that doesn't march lockstep to the other Muslim terracotta out there.

      July 6, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  4. Booth

    Nice, positive piece on Islam..

    And for all those who are trying to worry about the "moslem women's rights" – Are you telling me that you really care about those women and this is not just ur way of attacking what u don't like?

    And for all the moslem people, understanding the key differences between "cultural" vs islamic roots is the key.
    Islam is Peace..Love.. but often times, the people who follow islam do so, for their own immediate benefit... sans the belief..

    Middle eastern countries need to realize that oppressing women is not ISLAM


    PEACE 🙂

    May 31, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  5. allen

    Good for you. Too bad thte the Koran states, "Take not Christians nor People of the Book (Jews) as friends, for you may become like them and God does not reward wrongdoers." So, judge that garbage!

    Stop the PC crap and let it be known. The only way a Muslim can be a friend is he or she is emancipated from Koranic beliefs.

    May 31, 2010 at 3:29 am |
  6. DarronFreed

    Yeah, they're going to modernize... All the way from the 14th to the 15th century... Wow...

    May 31, 2010 at 3:05 am |
  7. Angie

    I am Christian and I'm asking all Christians to stop judging them because we're supposed to be witnesses. The first and second command is to love God and love your neighbour like yourself; whether they are Muslim or not. In the NT, it also tells you not to judge others. Perhaps we can pray for them instead?

    May 30, 2010 at 9:17 pm |
  8. Finnigan O'Hara

    The world changes. People in America are free to change. People change or die. People who fear change die before they are dead. People unafraid of change live before they die. To be free is to have choice. Not to have choice is to be a slave. To be a slave is to want to die. To accept change is to live. America is freedom to change. To change is to live.

    May 30, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
  9. Jessica

    ISLAM IS OF THE DEVIL!! Islam is a VIOLENT OPPRESSIVE RELIGION. There is only one way- and that is Jesus Christ. He is the SON of GOD and he died on the cross for our sins – to save us and forgive us. He is raised from the dead – he is the ONLY way to salvation. Allah is not God and Mohammad is a false prophet. Repent for your sins and come to Jesus!

    May 30, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  10. krishna

    look at the picture above. you call them hip ? they look like a bunch of loons from the 7th century wearing jeans.

    May 30, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
  11. JinntheKafir

    These moderate Muslims don't portray the truth about Islam. Yes, they are not terrorists, but they are not true Muslims either. Most moderate Muslims residing in the west, including those that are Muslim by name only, can't even understand Arabic, which is the language of Quran. They go to mosque where they recite verses with the Imam, but they haven't a clue what they are saying. The true Muslims that are those that believe in the Prophet Mohammad, and wish to follow and exemplify the way he lived his life. This is what the Quran instructs. Do these moderates exemplify Mohammad? Do they live their lives as Modhammad did? No they don't. Yet this is what Quran instructs that true Muslims must do. No these moderates not true Muslims. The more one follows the teachings of Muhammad the more Muslim they become, and the more Muslim one beomes the more violent they become, The true Muslims are Khomeini, the Mullahs, the Taliban and bin Laden. In fact, we can say that Osama bin Laden is the closer to his faith than most.

    May 30, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • WomenForTruth101

      Another scholar on Islam speaks.
      It's very common for you people to assume we western Muslims are stupid. Just because we're here means we are dumb. Give yourself a pat on the back.
      MOST Muslims know what is in the Quran, if they're Arab or not. We know what our faith tells, we don't need you to clarify for us.
      Wow trying to tie terrorists with Islam. I guess I can do the same for every other faith out there. Every faith has extremists.
      By the way, the Taliban aren't even Arab. Do you want to shoot yoursef in the foot again?

      May 30, 2010 at 9:11 pm |
    • Jinnthe Kafir

      WomenForTruth101 said "It's very common for you people to assume we western Muslims are stupid".

      What I said was most moderate Muslims in the west are not true Muslims.

      WomenForTruth101 said "Just because we're here mean's we are dumb".

      You said that, not I.

      WomenForTruth101 said "MOST Muslims know what is in the Quran, if they're Arab or not."

      Actually, it is a well known fact that more the 80% of the world's Muslim population is illiterate.

      WomenForTruth101 said "We know what our faith tells, we don't need you to clarify for us".

      When are Muslims going to clarify their faith to the world? Islam is in the biggest public relations nightmare in its history, and all they can do is visit blogs to insult non-Muslims and other religions?

      WomenForTruth101 said "Wow trying to tie terrorists with Islam"

      Islam has done this by itself.

      WomenForTruth101 said "I guess I can do the same for every other faith out there. Every faith has extremists"

      I reject all religions. They are the cause of so much war and bloodshed. But, when it comes to destruction, violence and terrorism, other faiths are not the standard. When people travel the world, including Muslims, they do not worry about a militant Jew blowing up their plane. They do not think about some fundamentalist Christian terrorist boarding their bus to eviserate himself with a exploding vest. They don't fear that an Atheist is going to plant a bomb at the disco night club they are visiting so he can kill as many humans as possible, simply because they don't share his non-beliefs.

      WomenForTruth101 said "By the way, the Taliban aren't even Arab".

      The Taliban are an Islamic movement that believe in their Prophet Mohammad, and are therefore living their lives as their Prophet commanded. They come from many regions. They are true Muslims. They would never come to the west, except for the purpose of killing infidels, also commanded by the false Prophet Mohammad.

      May 31, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  12. Fayrouz

    I don't like the "younger, hipper Islam" part. I mean, Islam is not being reformed or anything. Young Muslim teens do things within boundaries–they listen to music, play instruments and sports, watch appropriate movies, hang out with friends, etc...some might see it as a "younger, hipper Islam" because they see Islam as violent, old age, and outdated. Islam says nothing about jeans or driving cars. Islam allows people to do what they want within the laws of morality. It will never experience a reformation like Christianity because Islam is different. Islam doesn't have a Pope who says what is wrong or right. It doesn't have major scandals as a religion. Members of the religion need to read the holy book to know their religion, they don't rely on someone else to tell them. An idea of a "younger, hipper Islam" only belongs to those that don't truly know the religion or don't know people of the religion. I don't mean to bash out Christianity or any other religion, but I just think the "younger, hipper Islam" part is truly ridiculous.

    May 30, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  13. spacebunny

    Even these Muslim hippies are way too conservative for the normal American. Don't kid yourselves people.

    Only Muslims should marry other Muslims is what I've learned. I really can't look on these people in public anymore without wanting to run out of the store screaming. Once I finish grad school I'll be free again.

    May 30, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  14. Stan

    More like putting lipstick on a pig, no matter how hard you try to dilute it, Islam will always be what it is; it is incompatible with Western values. The only reason people are still willing to tolerate Islam in the West is because the Muslims haven't grown to attain that much political power. Fact is, Islam is no different from any radical right-wing ideology, they just aren't that big in numbers to become a problem.

    Just like Rand Paul (the racist nut), the Islamists would also wish to repeal many rights currently enjoyed by certain groups such as the gay groups, women's rights, etc, there is even a problem of racism in these Muslim countries, they just happen to be the minority here so they seem like the victims.

    May 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
    • Joel Z. Williams

      This is the clearest, most insightful comment on this entire blog. You hit the nail right on the head! Islam, or any other right wing faith system for that matter, are always a threat to the truest sense of Athenian-style democracy because once they obtain power, they seek to limit personal freedoms (not expand them).

      I also like how the male Muslim bloggers view the sequestering of their women as protecting their honor. e.g,. the hijab burqua, abaya, arranged (forced ) marriages, not being allowed to drive a car or leave the house without a man (Saudi)
      Islam will change when the women have had enough and demand to be treated better. Islam will become "hipper" once Muslim women start selecting mates who value them as equals. Then the more radical men will be forced to soften their views or remain unmarried. I wonder how many "free" Muslim women living in the West willing choose Muslim hardliners over more enlightened partners?

      May 30, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
  15. Opinionguru

    Have any of you spent time in the sand pit with children shooting at you? Do any of you self-annointed "Enlightened ones' remember SEPTEMBER 11 2001? or perhaps Beirut, London, Berlin .....etc. There is no "Hipper" Islam, no rational Islam.....and no; claiming a neutral or non-belief is standing on the sidelines during a world war (this is winner take all). There is no "I'm OK, You're OK' BS. Do any of you recall the famous quote from Neville Chamberlain prior to WWII, "...Peace in our time"? Sounds like the same drivel I would read on this page. "Lean not on your own understanding...."

    May 30, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  16. Danielson

    What the vast majority here fail to see...is that if any one of you professing a belief and knowledge of "the right religion" and "the one true God" simply just kept it to yourself–honored the most sacred idea of having a personal relationship with your God...there'd be a lot less killing, maiming, persecuting, abusing and trying to take over the world-ing out there.

    I respect that you believe what you do....and your right to believe it...and that's where I stop giving a damn if it makes you mad that I blasphemed Christ after stubbing my toe or drew Mohammed because it seemed like a logical way to exercise my non-belief in anything or accidentally served ham at the Lawyers luncheon...

    I'm having NO affect materially on your relationship with God....shouldn't knowing that you're "right" be revenge enough? Shouldn't knowing that I "haven't seen the light" be enough damnation? How many more folks would be on this planet if religion didn't matter to anyone but our individual selves?

    May 30, 2010 at 7:26 am |
    • Mike

      You do realize that "the most sacred idea of having a personal relationship with your God" is specifically a protestant Christian idea which does not apply to Muslims or even all Christians.

      May 31, 2010 at 3:25 am |
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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.