While the Dallas/Fort Worth community has had numerous opportunities to visit and learn about local Muslim mosques through open houses, interfaith visits, activities, and academic panel discussions, SMU's latest event marked a milestone in academics and in fostering liberal and pluralistic visions to understand contemporary society in relation to the historical and contemporary roles of religion. On Wednesday, April 11th, SMU's Department of Religious Studies and Perkins School of Theology presented a Scott-Hawkins lecture by renowned Muslim Scholar, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, who spoke about "The Evolving Role of The Mosque in American Society."
Dr. Mattson is the first Muslim female and first Muslim convert to serve as President of Islamic Society of North America, a position that she successfully completed for two terms after previously serving two terms as Vice President. She is currently Professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and Director of the Duncan Black McDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. Dr. Mattson is the founder of the first Islamic Chaplaincy program in America - the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary. She has authored numerous articles and her book, The Story of the Quran: its history and place in Muslim life, became a widely used textbook on Islamic sacred scripture.
Dr. Mark Chancey, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Dedman College, introduced Dr. Mattson to a large audience in SMU's Dallas Hall. Identifying American mosques as part of American history and heritage, Dr. Mattson stated that the first American mosque was established in Detroit in 1912, 100 years ago. Today, there are more than 2000 mosques in America with 75 percent established during the last 30 years. Moreover, one fourth of American Muslims are African Americans, thus indigenous citizens, which further signifies that Islam is neither foreign nor Eastern in America as Dr. Mattson pointed out.
Mosques, she explained, are more than places of worship and prayers; they are places of identity and refuge that replace the extended family that the Muslim world is known for. While mosques that exist in lower income communities allow their congregations no more than worship services, the mosques maintained by higher income and highly educated Muslims are expected to offer various services to their congregations, like educational programs, youth activities, social works, outreach, and interfaith. Thus, the first characteristic that one observes about American mosques is diversity in congregations, resources, and priorities.
While there is a lot of diversity in terms of what kind of activities occur inside American mosques, Dr. Mattson remarked that when it comes to what kind of rhetoric is being preached, almost all mosques are the same: a survey of 80 different mosques in California shows that Friday sermons primarily focus on good values, morals, good citizenship, and neighborly love. Gender issues are marginal in sermons, and so is the criticism of the American culture. In 2000, 54 percent of mosque leaders found American society to be hostile toward Islam according to a 2011 survey, The American Mosque. The same survey shows a drastic change in these opinions where now 75 percent of mosque leaders tell their congregations that America is more accepting of the Muslim faith. This attitude is ironical at times when in reality more Americans have negative views of Islam and Muslims than ever. And last but not least, over 98 percent of mosque leaders encourage their congregations to excel in citizenship and engage in idealistic neighborly relations, including outreach activities like soup kitchens. Hence, Muslims have more in common with other religious communities than Americans believe.
Yet, American mosques face a number of challenges, both internally and externally. Dr. Mattson pointed out that internally, they are "highly underdeveloped in terms of human resources." Thus, there is a serious need in training Muslim religious professionals like imams, chaplains, and community leaders. Hartford Seminary is one of a few institutions currently thriving to satisfy that need. Besides the Muslim Chaplaincy Program, the seminary offers several programs for imams' training and continuing education, like workshops and classes in preparing Muslim legal documents, mediation, and mental health.
Furthermore, as American mosques are not funded by foreign funding, they depend on local resources only. The majority of them don't even have a full time employee. They lack any denominational structure, thus, they are totally independent as entities, which means that there isn't any organization or authority that tells each mosque how to run its business, what to say in Friday sermons, etc…
External threats also challenge the vitality of American mosques, like the infiltrating government surveillance that spreads anxiety, mistrust, and fear in the Muslim community. Dr. Mattson also brought out the issue of anti-Muslim attitudes in the general American public and how this affect the daily life of American Muslims and affect the community at large. For example, because Muslims are scared to identify their faith, it is very hard to get an exact number of the American Muslim population.
"What happens if Muslims lose their safe places in mosques?" Dr. Mattson asked. Besides the failure to provide American citizens with basic constitutional rights like freedom of religion and pursuit of happiness, endangering the social haven that Muslims enjoy inside mosques is resulting in increasing rates of depression among the Muslim youth. Even though Dr. Mattson did not address the negative effects of anti-Muslim feelings on Muslim women in her presentation, she did point out to Gallup statistics showing that the highest level of educated women in American religious denominations after the Jewish community is the Muslim community. As many Muslim women as Muslim men hold university degrees and one third have professional careers.
Thus, it is important to let Muslims chose what to do with their lives, whether in terms of clothing, religious dietary restrictions, or worship habits. Dr. Mattson concluded this well informing presentation about American Muslim mosques and their evolving roles and diverse congregations with an acknowledgement to various faith communities, like Christians and Jews, who stood up for their Muslim neighbors and friends in challenging times. Along with the wonderful support of civil rights organizations, "we couldn't have done it without them," Dr. Mattson confirmed to the Dallas audience at SMU, a faith community known for its understanding of interfaith coexistence.