Taking on the leadership of a city’s mosque in the world today is a terrifying prospect. It is enough of a challenge that as a mosque leader, you have to represent Islam and Muslims in the public sphere at a time when both are misunderstood. But imagine also facing the pressure of a very remote, yet real possibility that at any moment a lone wolf purportedly in the name of Islam may perpetrate an act of terror, like the recent horrific attack in Manhattan.
If the Boston Marathon bombing was any indicator, the media will swarm your mosque; some hateful individuals/groups will try to link your mosque/you to the terrorist; and a lot of good people will want to support your community. But, you will need to be clear on what you need. All of this will be so hard when you yourself are reeling from the fact your city was just attacked.
And that will only be one part of your job. Your other big responsibility will be shepherding your flock. If the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) is a good example, your flock will have people of all different classes, races and ethnicities (at least 64), many of whom may distrust one another because of difficult histories in their countries of origin. Many will be Black Muslims, born into or converted to the faith, with their own history of struggles. You have to help them build bonds with one another and become true brothers and sisters in faith.
In addition, due to legacies of colonialism that destroyed any meaningful form of Islamic education in the countries the majority of your community comes from, as well as a deficit in religious literacy in the US generally, your flock will have a minimal knowledge of its faith. It will be your role to ground them in an authentic vision of Islam and teach them its beautiful and broad tradition, while helping the new immigrants among them integrate authentically in their American community.
How can communities recruit quality leadership to take on this kind of challenge – leading a mosque or running a city school district or restructuring a housing authority?
Two years ago, at the ISBCC here in Boston we faced exactly that same challenge – the need to recruit a prophetic Senior Imam for our mosque. Our own experiences taught us three core elements are needed to recruit courageous, creative and daring leaders, as outlined in the ISPU case study entitled “A Community-Led Imam Search Process”.
First, a leader needs to know he is stepping into a situation where he/she has the community’s support because without that support he will be mired in politics from the start. To realize this situation, the hiring institution must implement a process that seriously takes into account the community’s voice.
In the case of the ISBCC, we set up an Imam Search Committee of members representative of our community, held multiple community forums at the start and end of the process to seriously understand the needs of our community vis-à-vis the Senior Imam role and their assessment of the candidates, as well as conducting community surveys after each visit to ensure we had a clear sense of their voice.
Second, the recruiting institution must seriously consider the needs and vision of the leader in the recruitment process and adapting appropriately. At the ISBCC, our community asked for a super Imam. As we started to speak with our four finalists, it became clear that the job would be too daunting for one person as initially designed. In our negotiations with the candidate that was chosen, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, he clearly articulated the need for an Imam team playing different roles: a Senior Imam to be face, voice and primary teacher of the institution, an Associate Imam to be in charge of pastoral care, and a Qari (Prayer leader) responsible for leading each of the prayers and teaching recitation of the Quran.
We committed to this vision of a broader spiritual team and within a year of him joining our institution, supported Shaykh Yasir in making those hires.
Third, a leader needs to know that he/she truly has the keys to the institution. To fully commit talented leaders need to know they have the autonomy and flexibility to make changes and to move the institution in the right direction. At our center, we designed an on-boarding process that made it known to the community and to our staff that Shaykh Yasir was our leader and core decision-maker.
The board also respected this shift in power. Within a year, Shaykh Yasir began to craft a vision for our mosque and started testing it with our community. Today, he owns the institution fully and is committed to taking on the daunting challenges of a mosque community more than ever.
The challenges facing our country at multiple levels are greater than they have ever been. To maintain the dream of America we need to recruit and invest in talented and courageous leaders particularly at the local level. Our Imam search process perhaps provides a recipe for success for how to bring in the right leadership for our different institutions.
Yusufi Vali is the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), a mosque and community center that serves over 1500 worshippers of 64 different ethnicities and is the largest Islamic institution in New England. During his tenure, the ISBCC recruited one of the premier Imams in America, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, in 2015 to build out the mosque’s spiritual vision; grown to become a mosque of national prestige in the Muslim community; tended to the city’s flock in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing; spoke out against DHS’s Countering Violent Extremism program; and has developed strong relationships with interfaith, civic and political leaders in the city and state.