One of many ugly patterns since Sept. 11, 2001, is that those who say they are worried about Islamic terrorism often fight to keep mosques out of their communities. It has happened in Tennessee, in Texas, and, most infamously, at the so-called ground zero mosque in Lower Manhattan, which became a national rallying point for conservatives. A recent poll found that 27 percent of Republican primary voters support the idea of shutting down all mosques in the United States. “Nobody wants to say this and nobody wants to shut down religious institutions or anything, but you know, you understand it,” Donald Trump told Fox News last month, “We’re going to have no choice.”
Here’s a shocker: Trump is wrong on this one. Homegrown jihadists have almost all been radicalized either overseas or online, not within their own local mosques. In fact, what the United States needs to combat Muslim extremism is more high-stature Muslim leaders, not fewer.
What we have now is what one expert in American Islam described to me as “a leadership vacuum,” created by the low status and low salaries of imams in America. Extremist foreign leadership is attractive in part because local leadership is so sparse. If you want to integrate Muslims into American culture, these experts say, expand the pipeline of American imams by training them better and paying them more.
Like pastors, priests, and rabbis, the imam’s job description encompasses much more than just leading weekly worship services. Duties vary but can include education, administration, weddings, funerals, public relations, marriage counseling, arbitration between members, and much more. It’s more than a full-time job, in other words. (That’s one reason clergy burnout has become an issue in recent years.) And yet just 44 percent of imams are paid full-time employees, compared with 71 percent of congregation-leaders in other faith groups, according to a comprehensive survey of American mosques published in 2012.