Even as Islam Booms, Its Many Faces Can Deter Converts

By Mrinalini Reddy
News21, Faces of Faith in America
August 23, 2007

SAN JOSE, Cal.–As a devout young Roman Catholic, Anisa Abeytia sat in the front pew of every Mass, so dedicated in her belief that she dreamed of someday becoming a priest.

As a woman, she soon found out she would not be able to achieve her wish.

It was to become one of many reasons why Abeytia, now 34, grew disenchanted with Catholicism–so much so that she converted to Islam, a faith she previously rejected for what she felt was its oppressive treatment of women in some parts of the world.

The only child of Mexican American parents, Abeytia’s conversion meant an end to the Catholic traditions she shared with her parents and extended family. There would be no more Christmases, no more Holy Weeks, no more Easters. For her mother, it became a choice of accepting her daughter’s faith—head scarf, and restrictive diet—or severing ties entirely.

Abeytia’s conversion reflects a trend among Hispanic Americans, mostly women and largely Roman Catholic, turning to Islam out of dissatisfaction with their prior religious traditions or because their marriage to a Muslim man requires formal adoption of Islam.

Challenges abound for Hispanic converts when it comes to gaining acceptance from family members as well as gaining acceptance in the multi-ethnic American Muslim community.

“Converts like to say we are queen for a day,” says Abeytia at her home in Santa Clara, Calif. “I actually tried to un-convert a little after I converted because I was so fed up with the people. If Muslims don’t know you, they won’t greet you, be it at the mosque or social gathering. Most of the problems in Islam come from culture. For me, culture is a cage.”

“Dissatisfied with what they know”

Yet, the cultural influences have been significant for Abeytia.

Neither an immigrant nor the child of immigrant parents, Abeytia considered herself American until schoolmates pointed out her only visible mark of differentiation – skin color.

“Because [I am] Mexican American and third generation, I feel American, but I do identify with my heritage,” said Martha Canales, Abeytia’s mother, who lives in Los Angeles, where she raised her family.

It was this identity that had brought them into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.

For Hispanics in America who are largely affiliated with the Catholic Church, culture and religion are closely intertwined. But as Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. adopt alternative worship styles, conversion to Islam has grown steadily during the last decade, according to The American Muslim Council.

The group, based in Chicago, now estimates there are 200,000 Hispanic Muslims in America. And experts say as immigration trends grow, there will be more converts.

“When Hispanics are new to the country, they stick to the traditional forms of culture and tradition they know best,” said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. “My sense is that most converts are second generation or have been here for sometime. They are in their 20s and early 30s and find Islam when they become dissatisfied with what they know.”

Many Catholic Hispanics who convert to Islam share a dissatisfaction with the church hierarchy, the idea of humanity as tainted by original sin and acceptance of the Holy Trinity, according to Juan Galvan, president of Latino American Dawah Organization, a national organization promoting Islam in the Latino community.

Oftentimes, he said, the disappointment precedes a curiosity sparked by a Muslim friend or co-worker. For others, the attacks on September 11 brought exposure to a faith that was relatively insignificant—or at least unkown—in the American religious sphere.

Unlike other Spanish-speaking countries, Bagby explained, North America is perhaps unique in this conversion trend. It is a place where religious plurality exists to a larger degree than many Catholic-dominated Latin American countries, where Islam, for example, still remains an immigrant faith. Islam’s spiritually-based lifestyle infused with prayer, fasting and a family-oriented way of life is also not very dissimilar from what a religious Hispanic idealized as a young person in the Catholic Church, he said, making it appealing to converts.

“There were so many new things to learn”

Abeytia ultimately became acquainted with the Quran and Islam when assigned the topic by her professor of a philosophy class as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California. Until then, her understanding of Islam had been largely shaped by images in the news.

“I was a child of the 1970s and 1980s when all the hijackings and terrorizing were at its height with the PLO, Hamas,” Abeytia said. “And so growing up, it was what I associated with Muslims.”

Her Catholic beliefs had suffered by this time and it wasn’t just the lack of female priests. She took issue with the central Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity—the notion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one—that was a principle introduced by the Church during a turbulent period in Christian history. It wasn’t anywhere in the Bible and, for her that was important, she said.

“It wasn’t a huge surprise to me when Anisa told me she converted,” recalls her mother. “She was at the age in university where she would be asking herself questions of what do I believe in and why do I believe what I believe.”

For Canales, an active participant during the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1970s, the church hierarchy, its opulence and the role of women had diminished some of her commitment to the Catholic Church as well. So she was able to somewhat reconcile to her daughter’s decision, given Islam’s emphasis of zakah or alms giving, one of the five pillars or duties for a practicing Muslim.

But she wasn’t prepared for the practical ways this translated into her daughter’s daily life.

“There were so many new things to learn,” said Abeytia, both for herself and her family. “[My mother] didn’t stop talking to me, but there was tension in the family. Every time we would meet, I would implement a new thing.”

First it was abstinence from pork and alcohol, adopting Islamic dietary laws or a halal diet, which prescribe ritual slaughtering of beef and poultry, among other things. Then there was worship practices that included prayer five times a day and a rigorous fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

But it was the adoption of a head scarf that shocked her mother the most.

“That was a problem for me – I didn’t see why that would have anything to do with what you believe,” said Canales, who agrees with the Islamic modesty in dress. “But I didn’t like the double standards. For men, modesty means not wearing shorts, but for women, it meant covering yourself. I didn’t like that.”

It is not surprising that veiling becomes a point of contention as it is the “key symbol of Muslim women’s separateness,” said Kecia Ali, a Boston University professor of religion. “As far as reading the scripture, the hijab is not the key sticking point. But it becomes self-perpetuating because people start focusing on it.”

Coupled with the stigma that Islam carries for many Americans today, the difficulties of family acceptance only multiply.

“The main challenge is family”

To counter this sense of isolation and to offer support for converts, Marta Khadija Galedary co-founded the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association in 1999. Galedary, who gave up her Catholic faith while a university student in England and converted to Islam in 1984, felt a strong need to create a resource that could not only inform and teach in Spanish, but also provide a community.

Each Sunday morning, LALMA members gather to attend Arabic lessons, receive instruction on the Quran and discuss topical issues that confront converts.

“The main challenge is family,” said Galedary.

“There is so much stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists and that’s what hurts newcomers. My mother was a devout Catholic woman and she thought I had joined an evil cult.”

Last month, Galedary arranged for a public speaking coach to offer tips on how they could explain their new faith and reasons for conversion, especially in the face of suspicion or hostility. Attendees were then asked to come forward to practice their presentations.

Attendees were all women, and it has been observed that Islam has been of greater appeal to more Hispanic women than men.

A 29-year-old attendee from Manhattan Beach, Calif., who would only give her name as Lissett had recently given up her Catholic faith and performed the shahada, or confirmation of Islam. Having grown up in Peru, she had very little exposure to other faiths and first learned about Islam from her Turkish friend when she came to the U.S. as a student seven years ago. She has yet to inform her family.

“The role of women’s rights in Islam impresses many women,” said Galvan, contrary to perceptions that result from popular images of women covered completely in hijab.

Those rights could be female property rights and inheritance rights, for example, that are prescribed in Islamic law, said Ali, author of Sexual Ethics and Islam (Oneworld, 2006). In the context of men and women being rewarded or punished for their actions, the Quran is very clearly an egalitarian text, she said. But in other parts of the scripture, this isn’t always clear. For instance, women have divorce rights by Islamic law, Ali explained, but to a lesser degree than men. This degree of difference continues to be a big part of academic discussion.

Teaching Hispanic women their rights in an Islamic context is one part of Galedary’s mission at LALMA as marriages can become severely tested when cultures come into play.

“Most Muslim men don’t always know about Islam,” said Galedary, noting tricky situations that can arise when a Hispanic woman marries a Muslim man, unaware of the cultural hurdles.

For Abetiya, this manifested in more than one way.

Abeytia took issue with hostile attitudes from Muslim women she met when she began her conversion to Islam in Los Angeles, which for her was an extension of how the culture forced women into certain roles in their homes. In many immigrant families, for example, she found the women reconciled to being home-makers and confined to cultural circles. She found it difficult to relate and feel accepted, when they couldn’t be welcoming.

But her study and interpretation of the Quran had affected her to a level that helped her overcome the culture clash and gain her family’s acceptance. Today, 10 years later, she feels finally comfortable with both her family and community.

“I really had and still have a hard time with Muslims,” said Abeytia. “They have this gemstone of Islam that can really help people, yet they pile it with manure and you really have to dig through it. And the deeper you get, you see there are so many social ills that are really not coming from the religion.”

With Islam, Abeytia felt the freedom to explore and understand the Quran on her terms and apply those values to how she raises her family of four children.

“I think she found a beauty in the readings that gave her a certain kind of peace,” says Canales. “For her, not needing a priest or someone interpret the faith to her was attractive and she has used this as a guidepost to lead her life.”

Her mother has come to recognize her daughter’s commitment to Islam and is now at a point where she finds herself frustrated explaining her daughter’s decision to others.

“I think what troubles me or agitates me now is not Anisa, but other people,” she said.

“They come ask me if I have seen the movie ‘Not Without my Daughter,’” she said, referring to the 1991 movie about an American woman trapped in Iran by her brutish husband, trying to find a way to escape with her daughter. Or if something happens in the news or in Palestine. “I feel like I am kind of a spokesperson because they ask me all these questions. This whole thing has been an educational process for me.”

“More inclusive and not exclusive”

Her daughter no longer feels the urge to leave Islam on account of the harsh realities of integration. Being an outsider allows her to be objective and avoid the “culture trap” while raising her four children.

“They are surprised by the racism they meet, so how long they will stay is another story,” said Aminah McCloud, a professor of religion at De Paul University. “It’s heightened to a point where you have people transitioning into Islam and transitioning out. It’s not unusual.”

What will be needed is for the Muslim community to be welcoming and accommodating, said University of Kentucky professor Ihsan Bagby. But Hispanics converts will also develop their own social networks, he believes. With the Hispanic population in the U.S. getting older and becoming more college-educated, the likelihood of organizing is greater, he said.

Some of that organization is going on at the Islamic Center of Southern California, an independent organization that provides religious, educational and recreational facilities.

There, Religious Director Jihad Turk is aware of the risk of losing American converts due to the discomfort they can experience in the midst of immigrants who bring their faith and native customs when they come to America. The center, therefore, aims to create an environment that integrates Muslims.

“I like to think that Islam is like a clear river reflecting the beautiful colors that sometimes might contain the rocks,” said Turk, who believes one solution lies in creating a single Muslim American identity. “We are fully American in that regard, but not ashamed of our heritage or religion. Diversity is great but you don’t need to adopt it to maintain your faith. It’s not something that’s imposed or promoted here.”

Abeytia prefers a more universal Islam, one that has little relation to national borders.

“You don’t hear about Christian Americans,” she says, fully aware the complexity of having native-born, immigrant and converts agree on traditions and customs. “As long as it is more inclusive and not exclusive, I think [we] will be fine.”

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