By A. Mario Castillo
June 11, 2003
On June 5, Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before the House Judiciary Committee. He defended the Justice Department’s detention of illegal immigrants after the September 11 terrorist attacks. And, he asked for expansion of The USA Patriot Act powers to pursue terrorists operating in this country. His testimony garnered the endorsement of many Republicans on the judiciary panel. However, Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Republican (Wisconsin) chairman of the panel, wisely stated during the proceedings, “To my mind . . . the purpose of the Patriot Act is to secure our liberties and not to undermine them.”
Both are correct, to a degree. Mr. Ashcroft must do whatever is reasonable to protect our country. And, Congressman Sensenbrenner is rightfully concerned about the potential raping of our civil liberties by overzealous counter-terrorism efforts. However, equilibrium is needed between a rush to justice and a fear of reasonable action.
The crafting of this balance is not limited to Messrs. Ashcroft and Sensenbrenner, Republican and Democratic party leaders need to be involved. All must understand that discontent begins at home and that “all the King’s men” will not prevent the citizenry from pursuing alternative means of political expression if they come to believe that their civil liberties are excessively constrained. Party politics must move beyond the usual “store front” pandering offered to voters if Americans are to take ownership in homeland security issues.
Mr. Ashcroft is rightly concerned that Muslim fundamentalist terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, may be operating in America. Yet, not all Muslims are of the Al-Qaeda variety. American Muslims of goodwill need to be part of our efforts to combat terrorism. Their counsel is important because Islam is the nation’s fastest-growing religion. It claims approximately 6 million followers in the U.S. and about 25,000 new converts annually. The largest number of converts are African-Americans, one third of all American Muslims.
However, a growing number of U.S. Latinos are being drawn to Islam. This small but growing group now includes about 15,000 Latinos. The attraction of Islam to U.S. Latinos is complex. The majority of U.S. Latinos identify themselves as Roman Catholics, however, there are large numbers of “defections” to other religions. Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, estimates that approximately 100,000 Hispanic Catholics leave the church annually. Many are drawn to Protestant denominations but many are increasingly drawn to Islam.
Contrary to the popular belief that Islam is completely foreign to Hispanic culture, many converts see their conversion to Islam as a return to their roots. They cite the contribution of Muslim Moorish culture to Spain during its seven centuries of presence on the Iberian penninsula, beginning in 711 A.D. Already, there are two translations of the Koran into Spanish and a third, more modern translation, is being developed. A quick search of “Latino Muslims” in a common Internet search engine brought up more than 29,000 entries alone.
Latino converts, as with African-Americans, are attracted by what they see as a religion that includes persons of many ethnic groups and cultures. Ibrahim Gonzáles, one of the leaders of Alianza Islámica, one of several organizations for Latin-American Muslims in New York said, “When we realized that within Islam there was every spectrum of people, regardless of class, regardless of race, we were attracted to that universal principle of human interaction and communion with the divine.”
Converts believe that Islam serves those who encounter barriers and a lack of opportunity based on their ethnicity, making it particularly appealing to those who encounter the most limitations, such as the younger citizens of poorer areas looking for a way to channel their frustration. This would include the many Americans, living in barrios and ghettos, who are fraught with socio-political frustrations. While the vast majority of American Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, there is a danger of exploitation of frustrated and desperate individuals by the very forces Mr. Ashcroft seeks to contain as in the case of José Padilla.
Hisham Aidi, a political science graduate student at Columbia University, has studied Latino Muslims and observes that for many Latinos, Islam offers an alternative to their present feelings of being downtrodden. “Islam historically has always started with slaves and moved up to kings,” Mr. Aidi said. “In New York, you find a similar phenomenon. Islam is entering America through the inner city, the ghetto, the prisons.” He added, “The people who are most drawn to Islam tend to be minorities, African-Americans and Latinos, who feel they’ve been abandoned by the powers that be, by the government, by the Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Prior to establishing The Aegis Group, Ltd., in 1989, A. Mario Castillo served as chief of staff of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee for nearly a decade under former Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza. In 1985, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus named him as one of the top twenty Hispanic leaders in the United States.
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