Lately, we’ve noticed a strange trend happening in local Muslim communities everywhere in the world. It seems like young people have the tendency to transform their imams to some kind of pop culture celebrities. Or are today’s structures creating this too easily?
First of all, let us explain what we mean. In many Western countries, religious leaders fit into some kind of bureaucratic organization structure, with the local mosque being the organization. They are mostly appointed by someone else, in a higher position, and not really by the people that go to these mosques for prayer or religious advice. Because of this hierarchy, Islam in the West is becoming more and more like the Catholic Church, with different levels of power and positions that can be assigned. Of course, an imam’s popularity is one of the reasons why he’s chosen. How good is he at selling his point of views? How many people follow him already? Is he a smooth talker? How many more people can he get to the mosque?
With today’s digital communication means, it is very easy for a local imam to become a celebrity, with online videos, preaches and great social media campaigns. And of course, simple fandom or popularizing someone’s religious opinions is not the end of the world. What can become a problem, is that this can create a process where religious leaders are no longer questioned, but simply followed.
The whole “practice what you preach” statement has changed into “don’t look at my behavior, look at what I’m saying”. But where are the limits for this? When for example, you see a religious leader harassing or sexually intimidating young girls online, can you still take this person seriously when their preaching on Friday about morals and good behavior from men towards women? When you see clear evidence of committing fraud, or stealing money from the people who go to the mosque, can you still watch their videos about honesty and transparency?
If as a young Muslim, you see certain strange practices by religious leaders, you are no longer in a position to question their behavior. You’re afraid that you will become hated and bullied by their hundreds of thousands followers on Facebook. You don’t want to be known as the person who trashed someone’s reputation, of course. And there are simply no ways to address this in today’s structures. If you take it to the mosque, they will protect their “staff” and you have achieved nothing. This is the exact same thing that happens in the Catholic Church: We have fallen into a structure where being a religious leader creates a form of immunity and no one can take your position away.
As young Muslims in the West, isn’t it time to create a new attitude to deal with these matters? Religious leaders are supposed to set an example and Muslims should not be afraid to criticize or question certain behavior, practices or things that they’re saying. Imams are not supposed to be Hollywood actors: We can’t witness scandals, ignore them and go watch their next movie. They are not supposed to sell their religion in order to sell themselves and make a career of educating others. We need to be able to trust the people who are educating our generation on a religious and spiritual level.
And for the record, we’re not saying every Muslim needs to start commenting with hateful messages on the Facebook profiles of imams or something like this. But we must be able to question this (almost political) system that has developed in our society, where people who stand high can do all the saying, judging, and decision-making, and where Muslims are supposed to follow in silence. Critical thinking is important, always and everywhere, and definitely when it comes to the people that carry the spiritual future of our next generation in their hands.