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Latino Muslims: Islam gains Hispanic converts - Sun Sentinel, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Islam gains Hispanic converts Ramadan rite expands with new trend in Florida By Lisa Bolivar Special Correspondent Posted September 30 2005
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 3, 2005
      Islam gains Hispanic converts
      Ramadan rite expands with new trend in Florida
      By Lisa Bolivar
      Special Correspondent
      Posted September 30 2005


      This year's Ramadan celebration will be extra special
      for members of a Margate mosque who will observe the
      holiday in a brand new building instead of inside the
      cramped storefront they used to call home.

      Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen's spacious new building is
      just behind the old storefront off Sample Road, where
      Margate touches Coral Springs, but this mosque will
      allow more families to gather for the traditional
      fast-breaking meal, called an iftar, said Bibi Khan of

      "Because the space we were in was so small and
      congested, now more people can join us in more space,"
      she said.

      Ramadan, which begins around Oct. 4, depending on when
      the new moon is sighted, is a monthlong holiday in
      which Muslims abstain from food, drink, and any
      worldly pleasures from sunup to sundown. The holiday
      is part of five requirements, or pillars, of the
      Islamic faith. The other four pillars are the
      shahaddah, or the witnessing, where a believer
      declares three times that there is one God and
      Muhammad is the messenger of God; the performing of
      five daily prayers; paying the "poor due" or zakat,
      which amounts to about 2.5 percent of a person's
      monetary worth; and performing a pilgrimage, or hajj,
      to Mecca in Saudi Arabia once in a lifetime, if it can
      be afforded.

      Melissa Matos is among some area Muslims who will be
      celebrating the season for the first time.

      When she speaks of celebrating her first Ramadan, the
      20-year-old clasps her hands excitedly anda smile
      spreads from ear-to-ear.

      Matos, who took the shahaddah in order to become a
      Muslim in April, has started down a path toward a new
      way of life, a new circle of friends and a tradition
      that, she said, she knows will teach her to be a
      better person.

      "What I am looking forward to for the month is letting
      go of a lot of things I do," said Matos, who lives in
      Miramar. "I am going to be more sensitive to things I
      didn't notice before, like hunger; I am looking
      forward to what it is going to do for my sensitivity."

      Matos represents a growing number of Latin women who
      are taking the shahaddah and donning the traditional
      hair covering, called a hijab.

      Altaf Ali, executive director at the Council on
      American-Islamic Relations in Pembroke Pines, said
      Islam is gaining an increasing number of Hispanic

      "More so in California, but in Florida it's a new
      trend. …Yes, there are several Hispanic Muslims that
      have been in Florida for some time now, but in regards
      to the conversion rate within the last few years, I've
      seen an increasing rate in Hispanics converting to
      Islam," said Ali, a native of Guyana. "I think the
      Hispanic culture itself is very rich in terms of
      family values, and that is something that is very
      prominent in the religion of Islam.

      "Family values play an integral role in the formation
      of a Muslim community. Because of those family values,
      there is a lot of other norms that are consistent
      within the Hispanic community and Islam; for instance,
      respect for elders, married life and rearing children,
      these are some of the traditions Hispanics have in
      common with Islam."

      Matos began learning about the faith, and what she
      found spoke to her heart.

      "Its simplicity and its universality, it's for every
      culture, for every time, every country, it's for
      everyone," she said.

      Zeleina Bakhsh, Bibi Khan's sister, grew up in Guyana
      and moved to South Florida with her family. Bakhsh
      also likes to celebrate the diversity of her faith,
      especially at this time of year.

      "Islam is about unity, and we have that here among the
      brothers and sisters," she said, speaking of the
      fellowship at the Margate mosque. "It makes you feel
      very emotional in that month. We read a lot of Quran,
      we do dikhir (reciting the names of God) and Allah is
      giving you a chance to beg for forgiveness if you have
      made a sin."

      Matos said she is looking forward to learning the
      lessons of the season.

      "It's a time when Muslims get to basically learn
      sensitivity to others," she said. "During that time
      (of early Islam) when the people lived you had large
      class divisions, the very, very rich and very, very
      poor and it was a way to get people to understand what
      it is to be poor."

      Ali said Ramadan also offers an opportunity for
      starting another year on a better footing.

      "What I think is very significant this year is that
      taking into consideration all that has happened within
      the Muslims who live in America and the … challenges
      that we faced, the month of Ramadan once again boosts
      our morale and it increased our self-esteem," he said.
      "And once again we apply forgiveness toward those who
      have wronged us in many ways; the negative publicity
      and the injustices passed upon us.

      "This is a time when we say it's another year, it's a
      time of forgiveness, a time of reflection and giving,
      and we reflect on the good things we've accomplished
      in our country, and what this country has given us,
      and we appreciate that. It takes us away from the
      constant battle of proving what we are," he said.

      Latino women finding a place in Islam
      ‘I am doing this for God,’ one convert says
      By Carmen Sesin
      NBC News
      Updated: 4:15 p.m. ET Sept. 30, 2005


      UNION CITY, N.J. — On a hot summer day, Stefani Perada
      left work for the day in West New York, N.J., and
      stepped outside in her long jilbab, the flowing
      clothes worn by many Muslim women.

      Meanwhile, other Latinas in the mostly Hispanic
      neighborhood were taking advantage of the warm day,
      walking around in shorts and midriff-exposing halter

      Perada, 19, who converted to Islam just over a year
      ago, is still trying to become acclimated to certain
      customs, such as the jilbab and the hijab, which
      covers her head and hair.
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      "Mostly it's because of how your friends and family
      are going to look at you," she said. "They look at you
      like, ‘Why is she wearing that, it’s so hot.’”

      But, she said, “I am doing this for God, and one day I
      will be rewarded for what I am doing.”

      And there's an immediate benefit: She's not harassed
      as much by men when she walks down the street.

      “You know how guys [say], ‘Hey Mami, come over here?’
      I used to always hate that. I would cross the street
      just to get away. Now you still get some guys that are
      still curious, but it’s much less,” she explained.

      “They are going to look at me for me, and not for my

      Growing number of converts?
      Perada is not alone as a Hispanic women converting to

      The exact number of Latino Muslims is difficult to
      determine, because the U.S. Census Bureau does not
      collect information about religion. However, according
      to estimates conducted by national Islamic
      organizations such as the Council for American Islamic
      Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North
      America (ISNA) there are approximately 40,000 Latino
      Muslims in the United States.

      Likewise, it is difficult to break-down the number of
      Latino converts to Islam into male versus female. But,
      according to anecdotal evidence and a survey conducted
      by the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO),
      whose mission is to promote Islam within the Latino
      community in the United States, the number of Latinos
      converting to Islam tilts slightly in favor of women —
      with 60 percent women to 40 percent men.

      Juan Galvan, the head of LADO in Texas and the
      co-author of a report "Latino Muslims: The Changing
      Face of Islam in America," explained that those
      numbers are unscientific, but based on the results of
      a voluntary survey that has been conducted on the LADO
      website since 2001.

      “From observation and experience those numbers are
      correct,” Galvan said. “From my personal experience,
      there are definitely more Latina Muslims than Latino
      men.” Galvan explained said that there “just seem to
      be more” Latina Muslims at the various events he
      attends through his work with LADO.

      At the Islamic Education Center of North Hudson, 300
      of the people who attend the mosque are converts, and
      80 percent are Latino converts. In addition, out of
      the Latino converts, 60 percent are women, according
      to Nylka Vargas, who works at the mosque with the
      Educational Outreach Program.

      Overall growth
      Peter Awn, an Islamic studies professor at Columbia
      University, says there is no doubt that the number of
      Latinos converting to Islam is growing.

      Louis Cristillo, an anthropologist who focuses on
      Islamic education at Columbia University, points out
      there are several indicators that reflect the growing
      trend of Latinos converting to Islam.

      For example, there are a number of regional and
      national organizations that cater to Latino Muslims,
      and there are even support groups that can be found
      on-line specifically for Latino converts — in
      particular Hispanicmuslims.com, as well the LADO
      organization at latinodawah.org.

      In fact, last weekend, Latino Muslims in this country
      celebrated the third annual Hispanic Muslim Day with
      different activities throughout the day.

      For women, particular challenges
      Converting to Islam can be shocking for families who
      are largely Catholic and harbor stereotypes of
      Muslims, specifically concerning women.

      Perada says her mother, who is Colombian, accepted her
      decision to convert because she never really pushed
      her into Catholicism. However, her father, who is of
      Italian origin, has had a tough time dealing with it.

      “Sometimes he says things about the way I dress,” said
      Perada. “He’ll say, ‘Why do you have to dress that
      way. I’m Christian. I don’t walk around with a cross
      in my hand.'

      “He always complains to my mom about it, but with me
      he just keeps it to himself. But I know for him it is
      very hard,” Perada added.
      Story continues below ↓ advertisement

      Vargas, 30, from the Islamic Education Center, is of
      Ecuadorian and Peruvian descent. She says her family
      is already accustomed to the idea of her being Muslim,
      since it has already been ten years since she
      converted. But she recalls the days in which her
      family was dealing with the initial shock of her new

      “When I started being more visible, that’s when things
      started getting weird. My sisters couldn’t understand
      why I would cover myself. They thought I was being
      oppressed or brainwashed,” said Vargas.

      She admits it was difficult at first to adjust to
      certain customs, such as wearing the hijab or a
      headscarf and having to pray five times a day.

      “First it felt kind of weird to be covered, but after
      a while it [the headscarf] becomes your hair. I refer
      to my hijab as my hair.”

      ‘A return to traditional values’
      Like other ethnic groups, Latinos convert for a
      variety of reasons.

      Some, says Cristillo, grew up in inner-city areas
      ravaged by poverty, drugs and prostitution, and were
      attracted in part by the fact that some Islamic
      communities were very active in cleaning up the

      Vargas, meanwhile, says she questioned many things
      about the Catholic faith in which she was raised and
      felt an emptiness in Christianity.

      Galvan, from LADO, pointed out that many people come
      to Islam through people that they know, "friends,
      co-workers, classmates, boyfriends or husbands.”

      Professor Awn said that many Latinas find there is a
      greater sense of economic and social stability in
      Islam and that it also represents “a return to
      traditional values.”

      In that regard, Awn does not think Islam is any more
      patriarchal than other traditional religions, but
      recognized that “the younger generation is looking for
      a more progressive form of Islam."

      And Perada does not feel that her adherence to the
      Muslim faith restricts her freedoms as a woman.

      “If I get married, I know I am going to work, but I am
      going to be there for my kids, too,” said Perada,
      dismissing any notions that Islam would prevent her
      from living the life of any other modern woman.
      Carmen Sesin is an assignment editor on the NBC News
      Foreign Desk.

      More about Hispanic Muslims at:
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