More US Hispanics drawn to Islam
Marriage, post-9/11 curiosity, and a shared interest in issues such asimmigration are key reasons.
By Amy GreenThe Christian Science MonitorSeptember 28, 2006
ORLANDO, FLA. – With her hijab and dark complexion, Catherine Garcia doesn'tlook like an Orlando native or a Disney tourist. When people ask where she'sfrom, often they are surprised that it's not the Middle East but Colombia.That's because Ms. Garcia, a bookstore clerk who immigrated to the US sevenyears ago, is Hispanic and Muslim. On this balmy afternoon at the start ofRamadan, the Islamic holy month, she is at her mosque dressed in longsleeves and a long skirt in keeping with the Islamic belief in modesty."When I was in my country I never fit in the society. Here in Islam I feellike I fit with everything they believe," she says.Garcia is one of a growing number of Hispanics across the US who have foundcommon ground in a faith and culture bearing surprising similarities totheir own heritage. From professionals to students to homemakers, they aredrawn to the Muslim faith through marriage, curiosity and a shared interestin issues such as immigration.The population of Hispanic Muslims has increased 30 percent to some 200,000since 1999, estimates Ali Khan, national director of the American MuslimCouncil in Chicago. Many attribute the trend to a growing interest in Islamsince the 2001 terrorist attacks and also to a collision between twoburgeoning minority groups. They note that Muslims ruled Spain centuriesago, leaving an imprint on Spanish food, music, and language."Many Hispanics ... who are becoming Muslim, would say they are embracingtheir heritage, a heritage that was denied to them in a sense," says IhsanBagby, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University ofKentucky.The trend has spawned Latino Islamic organizations such as the LatinoAmerican Dawah Organization, established in 1997 by Hispanic converts in NewYork City. Today the organization is nationwide.The growth in the Hispanic Muslim population is especially prevalent in NewYork, Florida, California, and Texas, where Hispanic communities arelargest. In Orlando, the area's largest mosque, which serves some 700worshipers each week, is located in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. A fewyears ago it was rare to hear Spanish spoken at the mosque, says ImamMuhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.Today there is a growing demand for books in Spanish, including the Koran,and requests for appearances on Spanish-language radio stations, Mr. Musrisays. The mosque offers a Spanish-language education program in Islam forwomen on Saturdays. "I could easily see in the next few years a mosque thatwill have Spanish services and a Hispanic imam who will be leading theservice," he says.The two groups tend to be family-oriented, religious, and historicallyconservative politically, Dr. Bagby says. Many who convert are second- andthird-generation Hispanic Americans.The two groups also share an interest in social issues such as immigration,poverty, and healthcare. Earlier this year Muslims joined Hispanics inmarches nationwide protesting immigration-reform proposals they felt wereunfair.In South Central Los Angeles, a group of Muslim UCLA students a decade agoestablished a medical clinic in this underserved area. Today thenonreligious University Muslim Medical Association Community Clinic treatssome 16,000 patients, mostly Hispanic, who see it as a safe place to seekcare without fear for their illegal status, says Mansur Khan, vice chairmanof the board and one of the founders.Although the clinic doesn't seek Muslim converts, Dr. Khan sees Hispanicstaking an interest in his faith because it focuses on family, he says. Onevolunteer nurse founded a Latino Islamic organization in the area. AnotherHispanic woman told Khan she felt drawn to the faith because of the headcovering Muslim women wear. It reminded her of the Virgin Mary.The trend is a sign that Islam is becoming more Americanized and moreindigenous to the country, Bagby says. As Republican positions on issuessuch as immigration push Muslim Hispanics and blacks in a less conservativedirection, Islam could move in the same direction. Muslim Hispanic and blackinvolvement in American politics could demonstrate to Muslims worldwide thevirtues of democracy, eventually softening fundamentalists. He believes theOsama bin Ladens of the world are a small minority, and that mostfundamentalists are moving toward engagement with the West."The more Hispanics and other Americans [who] become Muslim, the strongerand wider the bridge between the Muslim community and the general largerAmerican community," Bagby says. "Their words and approach have some weightbecause they are a source of pride for Muslims throughout the world."Garcia left Colombia to study international business in the US. Alwaysreligious, she considered becoming a nun when she was younger. But herCatholic faith raised questions for her. She wondered about eating pork whenthe Bible forbids it, and about praying to Mary and the saints and notdirectly to God.In the US she befriended Muslims and eventually converted to Islam. Herfamily in Colombia was supportive. Today she says her prayers in English,Spanish, and Arabic, and she eats Halal food in keeping with Islamicbeliefs."It's the best thing that happened to me," says Garcia in soft, brokenEnglish. "I never expected to have so many blessings and be in peace like Iam now."