October 28, 2014
Two of America’s fastest growing demographics are showing signs of convergence, as Hispanics are increasingly converting to Islam. This traditionally Catholic people are giving up their religion because they’re looking for an orderly identity and increased respect, although their Islamic conversions come with a few major social hurdles.
Hispanics and Islam are the leading growth demographics in the US, according to the 2010 US Census. Islam grew by over half between 2000 and 2010, reaching 2.6 million adherents. This makes it the largest non-Christian religion in the country, whose expansion shows no signs of abating. Official statistics also forecast that whites will no longer be a majority in America by 2043, largely due to the astronomical growth of the Hispanic population. This means that the country will be seeing more Hispanics and Muslims, with the Latina converts bridging the two.
Female conversion to Islam has grown to 41% of the total since 2000. Among the Hispanic community, which is 12% of all new converts, Latinas were over half. This means that they form a demographic vanguard for Islamic conversion within the US. So far, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Florida are the states boasting of Latino Muslim growth, and not coincidentally, these are also some of the places with the fastest growing rates of Hispanic immigration.
Order, Identity, and Respect
Latinas are embracing Islam for a variety of factors, no least for the order that it brings to their lives.
“It defines their world on a clear grid of what’s permitted or ‘halal,’ and what’s prohibited which is ‘haram’… the Koran becomes this guidebook that tells you exactly what to wear, what to eat, how to wash, how to behave, when to pray.”, according to Stephanie Londono, an expert on Latina religious conversions. Islam’s strict monotheism, in contrast to Christianity’s Holy Trinity, provides a more structured belief system that reinforces order, writes Islamic scholar Ahmad Akhar.
Islam also gives them a sense of belonging, since many of them arrive in the US by themselves and are unsure of their place in society. What’s more, this identification then boomerangs back to their homelands, with some of them, such as Nahela Morales, returning to spread Islamic culture there. She also says that Latinos and Muslim immigrants intermingle inside America’s major urban centers, and that this leads to a personal interaction with Islam that influences some of them to eventually convert. Others find appeal in reconnecting with their Spanish roots, since Spain had an 800-year long history of Islamic influence that has been largely overlooked after the Reconquista.
One of the most important reasons why Latinas are moving to Islam has to do with women’s rights. Although it may seem odd to many Westerners unfamiliar with the religion’s tenets, Islam places a strong emphasis on certain female rights, and its emphasis on modesty is especially attractive to some. Latinas may be unhappy with the US’ feminist movement and prefer more traditional roles such as mothers and wives, Georgetown University’s Professor Yvonne Hadad believes. Though Catholic detractors may say that Islam inhibits women’s rights, Latina converts retort that the Church is being hypocritical since it prohibits birth control, divorce, and female priests, all things that also interfere with female freedoms.
Latino Muslims confront considerable challenges in being socially accepted, according to the Latin Post. It reports that their fellow Hispanics may view their choice as a so-called “cultural betrayal”, while the Muslim-majority may think that there is something false about their conversion. Some Americans, scarred by 9/11 and possibly influenced by racist stereotyping, may have an inherent distrust of Muslims, thus meaning that Latino converts face a three-way struggle in America that can make the adaptation to their new religion very difficult.
Such cultural pushback could sow resentment within this emerging group and lead to relative isolation. Immigrants already have their own hurdles in integrating to their new homelands, so this could make the matter even worse. On top of that, there are criminal and extremist elements that could provide a tempting release from this isolation, showing that cultural discrimination could unwittingly lead to dangerous repercussions for all. It is not to say that discrimination is solely responsible for these unfortunate choices, but that it could be a motivating factor in why recent converts search them out in the first place.