A Young Imam in the American Midwest

With ongoing violence in the name of Islam, rising rhetoric against Muslims and refugees, and isolation in the American Muslim community, Imam Hassan Selim faces a grueling schedule of inreach and outreach in his Midwestern community. When presidential candidate Donald Trump comes to town for a rally, pressure builds on the young imam.

Case Excerpt

The full case is comprised of an (A) Case, a (B) Case, and additional content.

Each Friday, Hassan Selim arrives for Jum’uah prayers in jeans and a tie before covering his head with a kufi and putting on a knee-length jacket. Not yet thirty years old, the young imam possesses the gravity of a man who has experienced far more than his age might suggest but with the flashes of levity of one who has learned to keep things in perspective. Though soft spoken, as he moves to the microphone before the crowded room, he displays a calm confidence. In the minutes before prayers begin, the prayer room at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, Iowa suddenly fills to capacity: standing shoulder to shoulder, some worshippers spill out into the hallway near the racks of shoes. Of some two hundred people who have gathered, many have come directly from work and will quickly return: one is in scrubs, another in traditional African dress, and a few seem to have come directly from the golf course. Here, in the heartland of America, Selim serves a diverse, growing, and historic Muslim community.

Selim’s days begin early -- sometimes before 4:30, depending on the time of the year -- when he rises for reflection and study before going to the Islamic Center to lead sunrise prayers (Fajr). He goes home for breakfast with his wife and their two young daughters, returns for midday office hours, and, later, for sunset prayers (Maghrib). The rest of his day is taken up by volunteer work, interfaith activities, and speaking engagements. “I look at it as part of my job. I’m not just here to preach to people. I am here to lead by example, and when people in the congregation know about what I do, they take a good example.”[1] Whether volunteering at the library or speaking at a church, Selim enjoys this work; however, increasingly, he felt “exhausted,” as each day he is called upon to defend and explain his faith. Yet Selim strongly resists any tendency to view himself, or the other members of the Muslim community, as victims. He explains:

I don’t feel like I'm a victim. At least I don’t act like one. And it takes a lot. Even though there is lots of pressure on us to defend ourselves all the time, to explain ourselves all the time. And to say, ‘Oh, ISIS isn't the mainstream Islam, and they don't represent us.’ And ‘This is the true Islam.’ You kind of get caught in the web of defending yourself, and you end up, at the end of the day, you don't have time to practice your faith itself. To show people Islam, what it really is.

At the same time, Selim stays sharply focused on the education of his own community, whether connecting with the youth, assisting new converts or guarding against more restrictive interpretations. He emphasizes: “The deeper you understand Islam, the deeper you go into the knowledge of Islam, the more flexible you have an understanding. You can live Islam literally anywhere, you can adapt to different ways, and different cultures.“

Selim observes that many members of the American Muslim community – in Iowa and elsewhere – choose to retreat, to isolate. He regularly explains to his congregation that this is not in keeping with the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, nor the example provided by the first generations of Muslims in Cedar Rapids. For more than 100 years, the Muslim community has enjoyed a vital presence in America’s heartland. “It gives a lot of responsibility on us to play a very important role in the American life. We are one of the oldest, if not the oldest Muslim communities in America. … We should be doing more, definitely. Participating in the American narrative.”

Yet in late 2015, the tenor of the American narrative seemed to be shifting, with rising rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, and refugees. In November 2015, the Governor of Iowa signed an order for state agencies to cease Syrian refugee resettlement. For Selim, the leader of a community founded by Syrian-Lebanese and a new American citizen himself, the issue was not merely political, but personal. And in early December, a presidential candidate proposed a “total and complete shutdown"[2] of Muslims coming to the U.S. With attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Baghdad and Beirut, all committed in the name of Islam, the need to defend and explain was only increasing. As Selim mourned the losses and continued his outreach and education, he knew more challenges were ahead.  It was election season in Iowa, and the candidate who proposed a ban on Muslims would soon be coming to Cedar Rapids for a rally. Selim’s colleagues and friends at the local Inter-Religious Council were eager to help but wondered how: Another letter to the editor or protest? Would it only bring more attention to the divisive messages?  

Discussion Questions

1. This case, like “The House on Sixth Street,” takes place in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city with one of the oldest Muslim communities in America. Read about Cedar Rapids (see additional content) and reflect on how the setting of this case might inform Imam Selim’s response.

2. Imam Selim describes feeling “exhausted”: in addition to his role as a spiritual leader, he has a busy schedule of volunteering and public speaking as he seeks to defend and explain his faith. How is, and isn’t, this different from the expectations of leaders from majority faith communities?

3. At a time during which he and others in the Muslim community are struggling against stereotypes, Imam Selim rejects the “victim” label and resists the urge to “isolate.” How does he explain this?

4. What leadership challenges, and themes, arise in the opening of this case? Compare these to the dilemmas faced by religious leaders in other case studies. (See other Pluralism Project cases or consider reading the classic HBR case study on Martin Luther King Jr: https://store.hbr.org/product/martin-luther-king-jr-a-young-minister-confronts-the-challenges-of-montgomery/406016 “A Young Minister Confronts the Challenges of Montgomery.”)



Expand for Citation

[1] All quotes from Hassan Selim: Hassan Selim, interviews by author, by phone and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, July 16, 2015, July 31, 2015, and July 27, 2016.

[2] “Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration,” Donald J. Trump Web site, https://www.donaldjtrump.com/, accessed July 2016.


Additional Content

Portrait of Cedar Rapids