News on Latino Muslims: Muslim community sees increase in Latinos converting to Islam
- "As-salam alaykum, Wa alaykumu s-salam”: Latino Americans are Leaving Catholicism to Embrace Islam
By Nicole Akoukou ThompsonFirst Posted: Feb 13, 2014 05:09 PM EST
By and large, Latino Americans are Catholic; a majority of the 52 million Hispanics living in the United States belong to the Catholic Church and many of their traditions are rooted in its teachings. However, Cathedrals are emptying, and former occupants have taken to worshiping in mosques... or at least that's the case in the Latin American community. Latinos are flocking to the Islamic faith at an unconfirmed rate, and there's an estimated 100,000-200,000 (though competing sources says 15,000 to 50,000) Latino Muslims in the United States. Six percent of U.S. Muslims population is Latino, and one-in-five new converts to Islam are Hispanic.
New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida are states that see a growing presence of Latino Muslims, though the United States Census Bureau has not provided official statistics on religion. Latino American Dawah Organization, Alianza Islámica, Latino Muslims of Chicago, Alameda Islamica: Latino Muslims of the Bay Area, and IslamInSpanish are just an example of the numerous other Latino Muslim organizations throughout the country that welcome Latino Muslims.
Converts state that reasons for conversion are rooted in the fact that Islamic values synchronize with Latino culture and traditions. The importance of religion, family, education, and social solidarity are prime examples that newly christened Latino Muslims cite.
While Islam is famed for its segregation of women, more Latina women convert to Islam than Latino men. The male-dominated Catholic Church proves to be no more progressive for women, as they forbid birth control, women priests and divorce.
Latina and Latino involvement with the Islamic faith isn't new, however. Hispanic Muslims have identified historical and cultural ties to Islam and the Arab world. More than 4,000 words come from the classic Arabic language; this is a result of Arab Muslims ruling Spain for 800 years during the Middle Ages.
"What most Latinos who have embraced Islam find most amazing is their cultural affinity to the Muslim culture," said Wilfredo Ruiz, a Puerto Rican-born Muslim. "It's like rediscovering your past. That area of our past has been hidden from us."
With regard to social status, Latino Muslims may be ostracized by three separate sectors after a change in religion: the Latino Catholic-majority, who believe that becoming a Muslim is "cultural betrayal"; the Muslim-majority, who believe that Latino Muslims are somehow false; and Americans, who are distrustful of Muslims.
Some Mexican Catholics now find God in Islam
By William Schaefer, GlobalPost
POSTED: 02/13/2014 11:25:22 AM MST
MEXICO CITY — For almost five centuries Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Mexico.
In 1970, Catholics comprised 96.7 percent of Mexico's population. By 2010, that number had fallen to 82.7 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Most of this change is attributed to growth in other Christian denominations. Evangelicals, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses now account for 8 percent of Mexicans who identify with a religion.
And a small yet growing group of converts are seeking spiritual salvation in Islam. In fact, Pew estimates Mexico will be home to 126,000 Muslims by 2030, up from 111,000 in 2010.
Why are some Mexicans leaving the Catholic Church and converting?
The reasons are as diverse as the population. Some question Catholic doctrine and the concept of the Trinity — three Gods in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as opposed to one God in Islam. Others express disgust in ongoing allegations of sex scandals and pederasty that have plagued the church in the past decade. Still others say they want to have a better understanding of Islam.
Martha Alamilla, 23, was born and raised in a Catholic family. Alamilla has always believed in a higher power but, she said, when she began to question some of the principles of the church, she found the answers proffered unsatisfactory.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that God existed,” she said one Friday following prayers at the mosque, “but there were always things that I would ask about my religion that didn't make sense to me. I always got answers like, 'well, because,' and 'it's God and God is that way,' and 'because God said it was that way.'”
For Alamilla, who has a degree in industrial robotic engineering, these answers only drove her from the church in search of better answers.
Alamilla said that her original perception of Islam was one of terrorism and oppression, but in the course of studying the Koran and meeting Muslims, she discovered a belief system that answers the questions she has been asking.
“I realized it's a beautiful religion. Everything about it makes sense,” Alamilla said. “There's an answer to every single question the I've ever had in the Koran or in the Sunna.”
After studying Islam for six months, Alamilla officially converted in a ceremony called the Shahada, during which a person professes before two Muslim witnesses that, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God.”
Alamilla said that one of the most common misunderstandings about Islam is that the women are oppressed, aren't allowed to express themselves and are forced to wear veils or cover themselves. In the course of her studies Alamilla said the she learned that wearing a veil or hijab is optional.
“Every single Muslim I've met is a wonderful person,” she said. “Not because they were necessarily born that way but because religion makes then that way.”
Alamilla has embraced her new faith, but revealing her decision to her Catholic family is another story. Her mother and brother know that she has been studying Islam, but she said she is not ready to tell them of her conversion.
“I want to prove to them first with my actions that I've changed as a person,” she said. “When I tell them that I've converted I want them to see that I'm still the same person but trying to be better.”
Standing off to the side, listening to Martha Alamilla describe her change of faith was Leslie Camarillo.
Camarillo faced a similar loss of faith in the Catholic Church and has been a practicing Muslim for three years. Camarillo said that from the time she was a child she questioned the doctrine of the church.
“I found a hypocrisy about the church when I was a child,” Camarillo said. “Every time I saw figures of fire and flames I was scared and afraid of God.”
Part of the hypocrisy could be found in the concept of the Trinity, she said.
“About this Trinity. How come God is so magnificent that he would want to be human and make himself die but still be immortal in heaven?” she asked rhetorically.
Camarillo doesn't shy from sharing her personal search for a faith to believe in. Like Alamilla, she grew up in a Catholic household.
“I always thought about God,” Camarillo said in a subtle, quiet tone. “I always thought that there is a master or a God who created everything.”
“I tried many religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and many others,” she said. “I had a personal life that was like very liberal. I tried many drugs and stuff. It isn't a bad thing for me because now I know what is good and what is wrong. ... I promised myself that once I found a religion that truly answered all my questions without doubt, I will embrace it.”
Camarillo said she sees in Islam lessons she can share with others who are searching for something to believe in.
“I can advise other guys or girls who are searching around,” Camarillo said. “The main thing is that your connection with God is unique.”
According to a paper published in 2011 by Camila Pastor de Maria y Campos, a research professor at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas in Mexico City, there are additional reasons some Mexicans are converting to Islam. In her report, “To be a new Muslim in Mexico: the political economy of the faith,”Campos writes that Islam offers a mark of cosmopolitan distinction for some converts, and the wearing of a hijab is considered fashionable by women.
Campos also found that some convert because they find Islam's egalitarian message appealing, others express a desire to build a religious society in Latin America similar to the Nation of Islam in the United States, and some convert because of marriage.
Said Louahabi has lived in Mexico City for over 20 years and has witnessed first hand the Islam's growing appeal in Mexico. Louahabi is a multilingual Morrocan national who runs his own language school and at other times works as a translator. He serves as the president of the education center of the Muslim community mosque.
Louahabi recalls a time, in the 1990s, when Mexico's Islamic community was too small to merit a mosque of even this size. It was a time when most of the Muslims were diplomats and businessman stationed in the capital city.
The Islamic community was made up of “very few local people, mostly foreigners,” Louahabi said. “We were about 80 people, because, honestly, they didn't know about Islam.”
Louahabi estimates that the there were about 80 Muslims when he came to Mexico City in 1994.
“It took me two months, three months to find a Muslim when I first came to Mexico,” he said.
Today, being a Muslim in Mexico is a wholly different environment, he said.
“Now, the majority are Mexican,” he said. “God brings them. It's very hard to say why we have become very successful at this time. Almost every Friday we are having people who are embracing Islam. Sometimes five in one Friday.”
Louahabi said that women in Mexico seem to exhibit more interest in Islam than men.
When asked why this is, he responded, “ they [women] have a lot of questions and a lot of doubts that priests from other religions could not answer.”
This reporting was made possible through a fellowship funded by the Luce Foundation and administered by the International Center for Journalists.
Islamic faith finds a fertile home in the Latin American community
PRI's The World
Reporter Jason Margolis
December 23, 2013 · 1:45 PM EST
Growing up was rough for Jaime Fletcher in Houston. He moved from Colombia to Texas when he was 8. In high school, kids splintered off into ethnic gangs. One day, he says an African-American gang leader attacked him.
“And so I just fought back, and because I beat him, beat up the gang leader, by default, they thought it was another gang. And I was the leader,” Fletcher recalls.
Fletcher says being in a gang became a matter of survival. He saw friends get shot and thrown in jail. He says when he got a little older, he got caught up chasing women, driving fast cars and drinking too much.
“One night that I was with a friend of mine who I’d grown up with, after leaving a club and drinking, we were sitting outside of his house. He looked at the liquor that he had in his hands and he said, ‘I can’t believe I’m still doing this.’
“And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I can’t believe I’m still doing this after having gone to Mecca.’ And I asked him, ‘What is Mecca?’ And he said, ‘It’s where the house of God is.’
“And that was strange for me. He said, ‘Islam is the true religion of God.’ And I said, ‘Well everybody says their religion is the truth.’”
Like most Latinos, Fletcher was raised in a Catholic family, but he says his parents also encouraged him to find his own truth. After briefly studying Christianity, Judaism, Taoism and Buddhism, Fletcher came to believe Islam was, in fact, the true religion of God.
He converted and now goes by the name Mujahid Fletcher. He says Islam incorporated the family values he liked from Catholicism, while getting rid of one big disadvantage: confession to a priest.
“Islam brings about a clear sense of asking for forgiveness or repentance directly to God, without having an intermediary,” Fletcher says.
That holds great appeal for many Muslim converts, says Katherine Ewing, a professor of religion at Columbia University.
“There are frustrations with the structure of the Catholic Church, the hierarchy. A number [of Catholics] say that they’re kind of bored with the mass, that it doesn’t seem related to their everyday needs,” she adds.
Ewing says Islam and Protestantism are addressing those voids for many Latino Catholics.
It’s difficult to estimate how many Latinos in the US have converted to Islam. Ewing puts the figure somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000. Still modest numbers, but Ewing says there’s a clear upward trend.
Latinos aren’t simply being pushed away by the Catholic Church, many Latinos have been pulled toward Islam, especially since September 11th, says Ewing. She says after the hijackings — and the immediate backlash against Muslims — Muslims began to reach out to outside communities to explain who they were. And many non-Muslims grew more curious about Islam.
“Maybe they saw it [Islam] as this terrorist organization and wanted to find out more about why Muslims would become terrorists,” says Ewing. “They started to do Internet research, or to read the Koran to find out if it really advocated violence. And many, as they did that, actually saw Islam as a peaceful religion, as something that had more familiarity than they expected. They also found some of the beauty of the tradition as they explored further.”
That’s what Mujahid Fletcher found, and he wanted other Latinos to find this, too. The problem, though, is that Islamic texts aren’t easily accessible in Spanish. So, Fletcher began doing translations and making audio recordings of the verses.
Fletcher now runs a company called Islam in Spanish. He and his father, who also converted to Islam, have recorded more than 500 CDs and 200 cable access TV shows about Islam.
“The end goal with Islam in Spanish is to educate Latinos about Islam worldwide,” he says.
I visited Fletcher at the Maryam Islamic Center, his mosque in Sugar Land, an affluent suburb of Houston. The large mosque looked like something you'd find in the Middle East or Turkey — an attractive building with high, arched entrances, pillars and two minarets. There are reminders you’re in Texas though: Young boys were playing basketball on a court in front near the parking lot.
There were about 100 people at the evening prayer the night I went. Fletcher counted himself as the only Latino. Fletcher says Latino Muslims are spread out in small pockets in big cities like Houston.
I also met Daniel Abdullah Hernandez, an imam at a mosque about 30 minutes away in the city of Pearland. Hernandez, a Puerto Rican-American who was raised Catholic, was also a gang member. He says he got drunk a lot and spent a lot of times at clubs. He says Islam helped turn him into a responsible husband and father.
“In the beginning, people think it’s a phase. My mother, after two years of seeing my transformation, she became a Muslim,” Hernandez says. His father and brother converted as well.
Together, the family visited Egypt to study Islam, a trip that cleared up any doubts they had about becoming Latino Muslims.
“Me and my family were feeling that we were going to be lonely during the holidays,” he says. “And that first year, we’re sitting with other Hispanics breaking bread and eating, and we were all amazed.”
For most Latinos though, Catholicism is more than just a religion, it can be about cultural identity. Even non-devout Latinos can have Virgin of Guadalupe altars set up in their homes. So while Islam, or other religions, may be replacing the Catholic religion for some Latinos, replacing the cultural connection to the Catholic Church, could be much harder.
Muslim community sees increase in Latinos converting to Islam
Posted Nov 5, 2013, 11:08 am
Cronkite News Service
TEMPE – Chris Cruz was born and raised Roman Catholic but converted to Islam in large part because of its call for a healthier lifestyle, including a prohibition on drinking.
But converting doesn’t make him any less Hispanic, he said.
“Islam does not make you lose your culture,” Cruz said. “There’s a lot more to life than what we used to do. I grew up partying.”
Sobida Espinoza, who like Cruz is a member of the Islamic Community Center here and was raised Catholic, and said she converted to Islam to find truth.
“If you’re Hispanic it’s almost as if you are forced to be Catholic,” she said. “People are converting to Islam because they find the reality that isn’t defined in other religions.”
Cruz and Espinoza aren’t alone.
Ahmad Shqeirat, the center’s imam, or prayer leader, said that over the past few years most of the converts at his mosque have come from the Latino community.
“It seems they are digging for their heritage,” he said.
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Shqeirat said Latino converts find similarities between Islam and the culture in which they grew up. Spanish is filled with Arabic vocabulary, he noted.
Cruz said both Islam and Catholicism promote having large families, but he said his new religion offers more guidance on the family structure. That led his mother-in-law, who is also Hispanic, to convert, he said.
“She noticed a big change in how we conducted ourselves and how our relationship had really grown,” Cruz said. “We don’t drink and we don’t have the big parties.”
Nahela Morales, national Hispanic outreach coordinator for WhyIslam, an online resource about Islam and Muslims, said Hispanics convert because they aren’t happy with their lifestyles.
“They are looking to fulfill a void that nothing else can fulfill,” she said.
Morales said she believes many Hispanics don’t feel accepted in the United States because of illegal immigration and other issues. By converting to Islam, she said, they become a minority within a minority.
“It’s still something very appealing,” she said. “They find that family that they lack.”
Imam Didmar Faja of the Albanian American Islamic Center of Arizona in Peoria is opening mosque in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, because of interest from people there. He attributed that, in part, to problems stemming from drug cartels and other social problems.
“It’s getting kind of weak, the family structure,” he said. “They are looking for other options to keep these rooted traditions with them.”
Espinoza, who is single, said she was abandoned by her family when she converted. But as her family grew distant, she said, Islam became her new family and changed her life for the better.
“I sometimes feel sad, but that also makes me stronger in the religion,” she said.