America’s Muslim population is gaining a Hispanic accent

By Sherri Day
St. Petersburg Times
February 9, 2008

At 75,000 to 200,000, the converts are a significant group.

TAMPA – Before the women can begin, they must pray.

Propped up by pillows, they sit in a circle on the floor, cup their hands upward and close their eyes.

“Give us clarity, Allah,” a woman intones. “Give us truth and honesty. And, help us to succeed in our humble mission.”

The women are members of Piedad, a group at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area Mosque that represents a growing group in the American Islamic Community: Hispanic Muslims.

Khadijah Rivera, 57, traded her Bible for the Koran.

“Islam is not a religion of the Arabs,” said Rivera, a Puerto Rican and the group’s leader. “It may have started as a religion of the Arabs. But we’re just regular people, and we’re not all Arab.”

Since 2001, Hispanics in the United States have embraced Islam in increasing numbers. Estimates vary wildly, largely because mosques do not keep membership rosters, and many new converts opt to keep their faiths secret for fear of persecution from family and friends, demographers said.

Still, scholars believe there are 75,000 to 200,000 Hispanic Muslims nationwide, an estimated 88 percent increase since 1997, when the American Muslim Council released a comprehensive study of the group.

Anecdotal evidence shows much of the growth taking place in Florida and urban centers such as New York and Chicago as well as border states like California and Texas.

In all, Hispanics who observe religions outside of Christianity make up less than 1 percent of the American Hispanic population, according to a 2006 Pew Forum study. But given the rapid increase of Hispanics in the United States, the new Muslims are a small but significant group.

“The fastest-growing religion in the world is Islam,” said Hjamil A. Martinez-Vazquez, a religion professor at Texas Christian University who is writing a book about Latino Muslims. “The fastest-growing group in this country is Latinos. There is no way you cannot see the relationship with it.”

The first large-scale conversions of Hispanics to Islam occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when many Spanish-language Muslim groups began to emerge and the Black Muslim movement was at its height.

Scholars link the latest wave of conversions to curiosity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s a natural process of Hispanics who are dissatisfied with the church in their own spirituality, their own level of morality and are looking for answers outside of their own traditional kind of religious traditions,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky. “Beyond that, Islam is a fairly conservative culture that probably dovetails very well with Hispanic culture.”

Most of the Hispanic Muslims in the United States are women, a diverse group ranging from college students to older women who marry Muslims and eventually adopt their husbands’ faith.

Rivera estimates there about 60 Hispanic Muslim families in the bay area. She embraced Islam as a 32-year-old woman, looking for answers outside of Catholicism. Her new religion, she said, offered her a better understanding and relationship with God.

“To me, Islam is more logical,” said Rivera, an administrative assistant. “And logic tells me to pray to God, not to pray to candles and statues. … Before, I had to speak to Mary to get to Jesus to get to the Holy Spirit to get to God. Now, I just pray to Allah.”

Rivera’s clan is filled with practitioners of diverse religions. One brother is a Baptist preacher. Another is a leader in the Protestant church.

Soon after her conversion, Rivera lived in New York and married a Muslim from Egypt. She noticed that many of her husband’s co-workers were married to non-Muslim Latinas who needed guidance in understanding Islamic culture.

To help, Rivera founded Piedad, Spanish for “purity,” in 1988. “We taught them how to keep an Islamic household, how to identify pork in food products, how to prepare meals during Ramadan,” said Rivera, now divorced.

The group now has five chapters around the country and more than 300 members nationwide. But its mission has changed, focusing more on helping converts adapt to being Muslim in a society that can be hostile to them.

In Tampa, the 30-member group welcomes women of all races and ethnic groups. Its vice president is Jill Finney, a 34-year-old white woman who converted to Islam in 2006. Her family, members of the Assemblies of God denomination, still do not accept her conversion.

“Arab sisters, Palestinian sisters have no clue of what I’m going through,” said Finney, an urban planner for the city of Tampa. “But (Hispanics) know, because they’ve been through it. We really have become like family or sisters to each other.”

The women turn to each other for advice on navigating conflicts with non-Muslim family members, child rearing, marriage issues, fashion and questions about religion.

At meetings, held monthly in each other’s homes, the women have minilectures about Islam, pray, eat and dance.

“This group is special,” said Norma Shah, an Ecuadorean who is married to Pakistani Muslim. “We get together, and we exchange ideas.”

At their recent meeting at the mosque, Shah demonstrated how she makes handbags from old blue jeans and ponchos from recycled plastic. It’s a way to make money, she says, to further the group’s programs.

Piedad’s members also do community service. The staple of a recent menu for their once-a-month feeding of the homeless? Arroz con pollo.

A former Catholic and native of Spain, Rosana Torres likes the connection with other Hispanic women. “We all share a common, which is our religion, but if you’re from a particular background you would share even something more,” said Torres, 44. “For us, it’s our Hispanic culture and our language.”

At a religious festival last month at the Islamic Center, Piedad members manned a table between vendors of savory foods and carnival games, The women proffered Spanish-language CDs of Koranic teachings and books.

They also tried to sell T-Shirts emblazoned with the logo “Islam es Para Todas” or “Islam is For Everyone” to raise money for training trilingual imams.

There were few takers, but the women are determined to make their presence known.

Earlier in the day, Rivera had spotted a family from Honduras strolling along the center’s grounds. Out-of-towners, they had stopped when they saw the carnival.

“I picked them out of the crowd,” Rivera said. “I wasn’t pushing any books on them. I was just telling them that ‘We’re here.'”

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