By Rachael Levy
When Yusuf Alamo became Muslim five years ago, people looked at him strangely. When he married a Muslim woman in 2011, his father’s side of the family didn’t attend the wedding. Alamo, 34, a Puerto Rican who was raised Mennonite in the New York City borough of the Bronx, says he feels more accepted five years after his conversion to Islam.
“Now, all these guys over here, when they see me, they’re not even Muslim, they say ‘salaam aleikum,'” Alamo said.
While Hispanics in New York began converting to Islam in the 1970s – often in connection with the larger African American Islamic movement – conversion rates have been rising in recent years in the Bronx and the greater New York area, community members say.
At Musa Mosque in Belmont, N.Y., where Alamo converted and later married, there were no Latino Muslims 15 years ago, said Virgil Asanov, a mosque employee.
Now, there are at least six out of about 200 regular attendees, Asanov said.
Converts cited different reasons for why they were drawn to Islam. Some converts never felt at home in Catholicism. Others say the increased focus on Islam after Sept. 11 prompted them to look into the religion for the first time. Still others convert through marriage, experts say.
An influx of Muslim West Africans to the Bronx also increased Latinos’ contact with Islam, said Medina Sadiq, a Puerto Rican who converted to Islam 4 years ago and who is the executive director of the Southern Boulevard Business Improvement District in the Bronx.
“Although the Bronx is predominantly Latino, there is a big influx of West Africans and a big influence on the Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, and they are converting,” Sadiq said.
“In the Bronx, it’s a tremendous change,” she added.
About half of Bronx residents are Latino, according to the U.S. Census. The Bronx’s sub-Saharan African population grew from 51,609 in 2005 to about 63,510 in 2012 according to the American Community Survey. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Muslims in the Bronx tripled, from about 12,000 to more than 38,000 adherents, or about 3 percent of the Bronx population, according to the Religious Congregations & Membership Study.
No conclusive data on Latino Muslims exists, said Harold Morales, a religious studies professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who specializes in Latino Muslim groups.
“It’s completely unknown because the difficult part of this is, how do you define Latino?” Morales said. “If they have a grandmother or grandfather who is Latino, does that make them Latino? And if that’s the case, we don’t have that kind of demographic work.”
“Each group has a different conception of what Latino means and what it means to be Muslim,” he added.
Varying estimates put the number of Latino Muslims in the U.S. somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000, Morales said, though he believes that figure is on the lower end of that scale. There were about 52 million Latinos in the U.S. in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Even if you find numbers, I’d take any numbers with a grain of salt,” Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations said. “We have a hard enough time getting numbers for the entire Muslim community.”
Yet, some research suggests conversion rates among American Latinos doubled from 2000 to 2011, from 6 percent to 12 percent of all converts to Islam, said Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic Studies at Kentucky University who studies the Muslim American community. Bagby led a research project, published in “The American Mosque 2011,” which bases its estimates on mosque attendance.
“It’s not a big number, but it’s a growing number,” Bagby said, noting that conversions have historically taken place in East Coast urban centers, but have spread in recent years across the U.S., and anywhere there is a large Hispanic population.
Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid, president of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York, said conversion rates for Hispanics are higher than 10 years ago and have increases among Dominicans.
“What I’ve noticed over the past decade is Islam is spreading to other Spanish-speaking ethnicities,” ‘Abdur-Rashid said.
Abbas Barzegar, a professor of Islamic Studies at Georgia State University, characterized the population as “steadily growing but it’s not an exploding trend.” Many converts come from inner-city environments along the East Coast, Barzegar said.
“Other conversions seem to be taking place either through marriage or across marriage or as a general flight away from Catholicism,” he added.
In Union City, N.J., Latino conversions are occurring at a quicker pace than a decade ago, said Nahela Morales, the national Hispanic outreach coordinator with the Islamic Circle of North America.
She estimates the Latino Muslim population at 200,000 nationwide and said that most Latinos converting to Islam at her mosque are women. Morales, who herself converted about 10 years ago, was born in Mexico and raised Catholic in Southern California. She said her background helps her connect with Latinos who want to learn about Islam.
“It’s very different to be a convert than a born Muslim, because when you’re trying to give them outreach and they have many questions, I can be there and say I’ve been there, done that,” she said.
Islam attracts Latinos because it emphasizes family, a shared value in Hispanic culture, she said.
About 30 percent of Morales’ Union City mosque, which attracts 600 to 700 people for Friday prayers, is now Latino, she said.
Shafiq Alvarado, 44, a Dominican convert to Islam and administrator for the Latino American Dawah Organization, an online support group for Latino Muslims, said he used to feel lonely when he first converted 22 years ago.
“Now there are more and it’s not like that anymore,” Alvarado said.
Yet, not everyone in Alvarado’s family has accepted him, especially his father.
“I think to this day he thinks I was brainwashed,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado said he has lived in Newfoundland, Pa., since 2003 but was born and raised Catholic in the South Bronx. Growing up in the Dominican minority meant that he always felt a little different. That made it easier for him to transition to Islam after he began questioning discrepancies in Christian practice and scripture, he said.
After his conversion, Alvarado’s mother was less critical than his father but worried someone might hurt him since he dresses in distinctive Islamic garb, he said.
“As Hispanic people, we see ourselves as having it bad as it is,” he said. “To add something to it, most people wouldn’t choose to do that. So that kind of worried her.”
Alvarado thinks the biggest reason Latinos are coming to Islam is because of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Once 9/11 happened, everyone was interested in Islam,” Alvarado said. “Everyone wanted to know, does the Quran condone this? Do Muslims believe this? A lot of people were afraid.”
“Some even maliciously hoped to buy the Quran and find the verse and say ‘you see,'” he added. “They literally had that intention but as they read it, they kind of liked it, and were like, ‘wait a minute.'”
Bagby is unsure why more Latinos are converting but said increased contact with Muslims, especially in urban areas, is creating a “snowball effect.”
The further Latinos are from their home country, the more likely they will change religions,” he said, adding that conversion to Islam is most common in second and third generation Latinos.
Latino Muslims are taking on new traditions and combining them with old ones.
Nahela Morales, the outreach coordinator in Union City, N.J., said she substitutes lamb for pork in Mexican dishes she cooks for iftar.
During an annual parade in Union City that celebrates Hispanic Muslims. She said she dressed her 8-year-old son in a Mexican soccer shirt and a ranchero hat with a kufi underneath.
“So we do integrate culture with religion, as long as it doesn’t interfere,” she said.
Sadiq Abdul Malik, formerly known as Lorenzo Chimelis, is a convert who dons Islamic garb.
Malik, who lives in the West Bronx, said Latinos occasionally talk about him in Spanish, calling him a terrorist. But Malik has come up with a playful retort.
“The only thing I’m a terrorist on is a plate of rice and beans,” Malik, who is Puerto Rican, playfully tells them in Spanish.
Such as response can open the door to further discussion about Latino and Muslim identity, he said.
Alamo, one of the converts in the Bronx, said the Latino community continues to recognize his heritage. And his Latino peers have also become more welcoming about his choice to convert to Islam – greeting him in the street and making him feel at home.
“Every time I go to pray, they come and shake my hand, even the old men, the old Puerto Rican guys, you know what I’m saying,” Alamo said.
“They give me a pound. They know I’m Muslim. They know I’m Puerto Rican,” he said. “But they respect.”
Rachael Levy, a freelance journalist, is an M.A. candidate at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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