Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2003, pages 56, 58

Islam in America

Latino Muslims a Growing Presence in America

By Lisa Viscidi

On Jan. 21, 2003, the United States Census Bureau officially named the nation's 37 million Latinos the country's largest minority population—outnumbering African Americans by 0.3 percent. This demographic shift, coupled with Islam's status as the fastest growing religion in America, has contributed to the significant growth of a newly emerging demographic: Latino Muslims.

Lacking an organized network, and with their cultural presence in this country a relatively recent one, Latino Muslims are not as visible as other U.S. minority groups. Nevertheless, their existence is becoming evident around the country. The Latino Muslim presence is particularly prominent in New York, Southern California and Chicago—places where both Hispanics and Muslims reside in great numbers. These cities boast Latino mosques and organizations exclusively directed toward the Latino Muslim community. The Islamic Society of North America's annual conference on Latino Muslims, and the recently established Latino Coordinating Committee attest to the growing importance of this group in American Muslim society.

Although the exact number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine, estimates range from 25,000 to 60,000. This includes second- or third-generation Hispanic Americans as well as recent immigrants.

While some Latinos were reared Muslim, many have converted from Catholicism. Latinos convert to Islam for a variety of reasons, including disenchantment with the practices of Catholicism and the church establishment. These Latinos are lured by Islam's simplicity and the Muslim's independence of a mediating clergy in his or her relationship with God. According to Juan Galvan, vice president of the Latino American Dawah Organization, "Most Hispanic converts were Catholic. Many Hispanics had difficulty with the church, believing in original sin, and in the Holy Trinity. Islam solves the problems many Hispanics have with the Catholic Church. For example, in Islam there is no priest-pope hierarchy. Everyone who prays before God is equal. Many Latino converts feel Islam gives them a closer relationship to God."

Other Latinos find the church's historical associations objectionable. Rather than viewing Catholicism as the native religion of their culture, they protest that Catholicism was originally forced on their indigenous ancestors by Europeans. The church's past involvement in Latin America and the suffering caused by colonization have tarnished its image for many Latinos. Notes Dr. Fathi Osman, resident scholar at the Omar Foundation, an Islamic cultural and educational center, "In their own countries Hispanics did not see the church supporting the rights of the poor. Rather it sided with the rich and the influential. It can be difficult to make a distinction between the church or clergy and the religion itself."

Islam, on the other hand, offers many Latinos more appealing historical ties. Citing a heritage that dates back to Spain's classical Islamic period, many Latino Muslims claim that conversion to Islam represents a return to their true cultural traditions.

Indeed, beginning in 711 a.d. with the Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziad's conquest of the Spanish Peninsula, the Muslim Moors ruled Spain for nearly eight centuries. During that period, Islamic influence penetrated many facets of life, including music, architecture and literature. This influence was abetted by Islam's religious tolerance, which enabled Christians, Jews and Muslims to coexist relatively peacefully. Conversion to Islam was encouraged but not forced. With the fall of the last Muslim stronghold in 1492 and the ensuing Inquisition, however, Muslims as well as Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or be exiled.

As the Inquisition raged in Spain, the Conquistadores began trafficking Muslim slaves from Africa to the New World, and Islam thus traveled to Latin America. The religion spread throughout the continent, fueled in the mid-19th century by a massive migration of Muslim Arabs.

Many Latinos who convert to Islam believe they are reclaiming their lost Muslim and African heritage—which they view more positively than the legacy of Catholicism. Many Spanish intellectuals once disputed the extent of Moorish influence on Hispanic culture, but Latino Muslims who claim African and Islamic roots question the view of Western society's origins as exclusively European. They point to the African/Islamic influence evident in Spanish literature, music and thought. Thousands of Spanish words, for example, are derived from Arabic. Ibrahim Gonzalez, a Muslim convert whose parents moved to New York City from Puerto Rico, claims that "in Latino culture, especially language, there are lots of ÔArabisms.'" As Islam spread throughout Latin America, Gonzalez believes, it helped to shape Latino culture.

Islam's appeal for Latinos is not only historical, however. Just as many Latino Muslims believe that Christianity was once an elitist religion that failed to protect their indigenous ancestors, many Latinos today feel that the church does not adequately defend the Latino-American struggle for equality. Alienation from Christian American society, along with poor social and economic conditions, may divert Latinos from Christianity—the religion of the establishment that, they believe, ignores their needs. According to the Omar Foundation's Osman, as a minority, Latinos are not understood or supported by the U.S. church, which, he says, continues to side with the elite. In Osman's view, the Catholic Church advocates equality and justice in theory, but does not implement them in practice. "Most Latinos are poor and feel oppressed," he contends. "They don't get justice in their original countries or in the U.S. They want a religion that cares about those who are oppressed."

In Islam many Latinos find a community more sympathetic to their plight. Muslims, who are also a minority in the U.S., identify more closely with the Latino struggle for justice and equality. Estranged from mainstream Christian America, Latinos can identify with and take pride in the Muslim community and in Islam's past.

Gonzalez, a co-founder of the Latino Muslim organization Alianza Islamica, says he "grew up in a revolutionary environment. East Harlem was a center for political activism and the struggle for human rights of people of all colors. We had fervor to continue the struggle but no place to go. We were disenfranchised. We sought other outlets and came upon Islam. We became serious young men seeking to elevate ourselves within our society. We got this from Islam."

Perhaps Islam's doctrine of racial equality and unity accounts for part of its appeal to minority groups. Substantial numbers of African Americans also have converted to Islam in recent decades. The religion unifies various American minorities whose social and economic circumstances often are similar.

Gonzalez describes Islam as "a universal faith where people of all walks of life pray together. Religion unifies culture and enhances it." Latino and African-American Muslims, he argues, face a common struggle: "The plight of blacks [in the U.S.] is similar to the plight of Latinos. We closely identify with each other in New York City."

For impoverished Latinos and African Americans living in inner cities, Islam provides material as well as spiritual support. As the government has reduced funding for urban social welfare programs over the last several decades, the urban poor have been left to fend for themselves. Muslim organizations have stepped in to provide basic services and security. Alianza Islamica, for example, has offered GED courses and HIV awareness programs, instituted clothing drives and women's groups, and initiated efforts against hunger.

Despite the growing presence of organizations such as Alianza Islamica, however, Latino Muslims are still a tiny fraction of the Latino population. Few Latinos, in fact, are even aware of their existence.

Those who convert to Islam face a certain challenge in being accepted by their surrounding communities. Galvan says that he sometimes feels alienated from the mainstream Latino population, which views Catholicism as intimately tied to Hispanic culture. However, he insists, "Defining culture by religion is not very effective, because our ancestors were Christian, Muslim, Jewish or pagan. Many Hispanics think that leaving Catholicism means rejecting their identity. We should re-evaluate how we traditionally define culture. Although some people define culture as something static," he observes, "I think defining culture as a dynamic process is more accurate."

Lisa Viscidi is a legal researcher and a former Washington Report staff member.