Much of the rhetoric we hear about youth in our masajid orients around how to involve them and to what level. In my personal experience, I have heard the same discussion on this issue for over the last 10 years without any resolution. This stagnation has contributed to the worsening problem of masajid being unequipped to handle the counseling needs of Muslim youth.
To fix this we have to: 1) Change our organizational DNA to focus on helping, and 2) Invest in the human resources needed to make it happen.
The first step is to acknowledge the problem, and more importantly, empathize with the problem. Chaplain Ibrahim Long summarizes the conflict they face,
[M]ost American Muslim youth encounter biological, psychological, and social developmental changes which influence how they experience and perceive the world around them. In addition to these—and the parental pressure to maintain cultural and religious customs—Muslim youth also experience peer pressure… to participate in activities and behaviors contrary to their religious beliefs; such as dating, engaging in premarital sex, and abusing alcohol or drugs. Muslim youth are often caught between having to choose either engaging in what they may see as “normal youth behavior” and risk being ostracized by their family and religious community, or acting in accordance with their family and community’s wishes and facing alienation, loneliness, and rejection by their peers due to their differences in lifestyle and beliefs. Because of a perceived, or real, lack of support from their family and community, and alienation during these critical developmental stages in their life, many Muslim youth may actually become more predisposed to abuse drugs and alcohol. [“What happened to Ahmad?”: Responding to Muslim Youth at Risk, by Ibrahim Long]
The key for Islamic organizations here is understanding their role in making sure youth are not alienated. It’s easy to immediately think of stories like a lady coming to the masjid to take shahadah, only to leave because she was berated by a masjid member for not wearing a scarf. It is true with MSA’s as well, where a student who is not up to par ‘religiously’ with other MSA members is made to feel outcast. These examples are symptoms of the real problem. For true organizational change, this acceptance and welcoming has to become ingrained as part of the culture of an organization. Volunteers and administration members must constantly hold themselves accountable by asking: Am I doing everything I can to create a welcoming environment that facilitates helping people? Have I done all that I can to make sure our organization is providing the services in our capacity to serve the community?
This brings us to the second step, which is human resources. Chaplain Ibrahim Long explains the current predicament,
While imams and Islamic centers can, and should, play a crucial role in providing health services, if the imam is not seen as being culturally sensitive to the pressures of American Muslim youth they may be less likely to seek his help when in need. Imams are often times unfamiliar with health services; more capable of acting as a jurist than a counselor. Their religious education often focuses on the religious ruling of alcohol and its evidences and not how to counsel one fighting peer pressure to begin or continue using it. … This lack of connection with the youth may be related to the results of a recent Gallup poll showing young Muslims (aged 18-29) among the least likely to be satisfied with their local communities, and least likely to see their community as improving. This dissatisfaction is even more disturbing when seen in light of the fact that many (41%) reported that they still attend their mosque at least once a week; 14% higher than the national average for worship-service attendance!
Imams can play a crucial role if they have the right training, however American Muslims presently lack any sufficient educational institution providing this training alongside other traditional sciences expected to be known by an imam. One issue that also arises is that the position of imam … may be granted to any individual the congregation, or those in management of it, deem qualified. Often times looking for someone with pastoral training is simply not a top priority. … Due to this relative selection process the level of education for imams can also vary greatly, some graduating from prestigious Islamic universities and others primarily self-educated.
The problem with the Imam issue is that those often in charge of hiring imams have not yet agreed on a vision for the community. Is the imam simply there to teach some classes? Is he there to provide tarbiyyah (spiritual development) for the community? Is he there to actually help solve people’s problems? Or is he simply a figurehead to come give some austere talks now and then? Additionally, we have not yet gotten to the point where we’re able to verify education and experience for imams. Sometimes giving a good khutbah and having decent Quranic recitation is enough to get hired – and then de facto get thrust in the position of counseling people for personal problems. This is precisely the problem outlined above, and it is a direct cause for the alienation of the 18-29 crowd. This is nearly an entire generation of our community who will have minimal attachment to any kind of Islamic organization.
Decisions as big as hiring someone cannot be made only with filling some immediate needs in mind. Organizations must forecast out and anticipate issues and have the human resources in place to deal with them before it becomes too late.
Investing in the human resources is not limited to just finding good imams – that is the first step. The next step is investing money into getting the imam additional training, education, and certifications related to dealing with these issues. It means investing in staff to service the community by hiring Muslim psychologists and mental health experts. It means hiring a youth director, or youth chaplain to mentor and work with the youth.
The only thing preventing this from happening is that the administrations of our organizations have not given it a priority. There was a time where people were not aware these problems even existed in our communities, but that has now passed. It is time to give solving these issues and serving the community a higher priority. It is baffling that an individual community can raise millions and tens of millions of dollars to put up physical structures, but that tens of thousands are suddenly unavailable when it comes to investing in desperately needed human resources.