WASHINGTON-Mosques across the country are beginning to use a model similar to the one used by some suburban and downtown megachurches, operating multiple sites to serve a large and dispersed congregation.
Many of these “mosque chains” brand themselves as progressive, and sometimes feature gymnasiums and mixed-gender prayer areas for men and women. Some groups even host weekly services at churches or synagogues with the expressed goal of fostering interfaith goodwill.
“If they weren’t Muslim, they’d look like one of the biggest Catholic churches you’d ever seen, from an organizational standpoint,” said Marshall Medaf, president of the Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation in Ashburn, Va., which last month agreed to rent prayer space to the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society.
The Society’s main mosque is in neighboring Sterling, Va., near Dulles International Airport, but the mosque runs activities in seven branch locations. Full- and part-time staff and a host of activities are supported by $30 annual dues or $1,000 lifetime memberships.
“They have adult education classes, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,” Medaf said. “I think they’re even working on their first Eagle Scout.”
The high level of organization reflects a shift among U.S. Muslims from the “immigrant uncles” who once held sway in American mosques to younger native-born Muslims, said Muqtedar Khan, associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.
“A certain kind of sophisticated thinking is now beginning to emerge because people who were born in the U.S. are taking over,” said Khan. “There are lawyers in the Muslim community-they weren’t there before. The management is learning how to work things out.”
Historically, mosques have faced logistical challenges in accommodating worshippers, especially for midday Friday congregational prayers, Khan said.
“Of the potential 35 prayers you have in a week, for 34 there will be only about 30 people. But for that one (Friday prayer) there will be like a thousand people showing up,” Khan said. “Where do they park? They park on the road, they park here, they park there. The prayer starts exactly on time every day, so it becomes a huge bottleneck of space and time.”
But where high demand once meant a new, independent mosque would spring up elsewhere, mosques today start planning a second location, much like a church might consider extending its reach to “multi-site” campuses.
And they have the extra bells and whistles that encourage allegiance.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the South Bay Islamic Association and the Muslim Community Association operate nearly half of the area mosques, worshippers can get anything from Islamic-based psychological counseling to discounted prices on burial plots in Muslim-only sections of cemeteries.
The mantra is “mission and vision,” said Rizwan Jaka, a board member and former president of the Dulles Society. “If somebody wants to operate a program within our mission and vision, they can do it,” Jaka said.
Member-initiated activities like tree plantings and sewing lessons are run by the Society’s nearly 200 lay leaders, Jaka said, creating “a free market of ideas and activities that’s not centrally controlled.”
But the larger philosophy behind multi-site mosques may have less to do with a free market approach and more with franchising, said Scott L. Thumma, a megachurch expert at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
“They’re not saying, `We’re going to send people and create a new mosque or plant an independent church.’ They’re saying, `We’re going to make this a tentacle of what we already are,”‘ he said. “Certainly it puts the expansion of their congregation ahead of the expansion of the kingdom.”
Mosque chains dispute that their growth is about power, saying their “American business models” ensure a higher quality of service.
“Because of how streamlined we are, you can get off the highway from anywhere and find a mosque that is well-maintained, well-structured and that will always be open,” said Abeer Abdulla, media specialist for the nine mosques owned by the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando.
And the additional programming doesn’t hurt.
“We offer events that aren’t just one person’s vision. What we give is something that is formally approved by a committee.”
Oversight also protects worshipers from “foreign political agendas” that may seep into an independent mosque that is funded (and staffed) overseas, said Bassem Chaaban, an 18-year member of the Central Florida congregation.
“If I go into any of the ISCF mosques, I know that just like the marketing material, the newsletters and the community announcements are the same, the imam is also following the same policy as all the imams in the other mosques, to have good relations with people of other faiths so we can understand that we are a part of this country,” Chaaban said.
It’s a change from the country’s older, more established Muslim communities, such as Detroit’s, where one mosque is likely to have the same no-frills programming as any other mosque.
“Our rituals and congregational chanting are all pretty much the same,” said Victor Begg, co-founder of the Council of Islamic Organizations in Michigan, and a Detroit resident since 1969. “If I’m in the downtown area, I can just shoot over to any mosque for Friday prayers.”
Such communities may feel pressure to change, however, as mosque chains continue to grow.
“Are we going to go national with this? That’s yet to be decided,” said Abdulla, of the Central Florida project. “But I hope we’re a model that any person of faith would want to be a part of, if just to inspire them to create something similar.”