Latino Muslims a Growing Presence in America

By Lisa Viscidi

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
June 2003. Vol. XXII, No. 5.
pg 56, 58, 59

On January 21, 2003, the United States census bureau officially named the nation’s 37 million Latinos the largest minority population in the country-outnumbering African Americans by 0.3 percent. This demographic shift, coupled with Islam’s status as one of the fastest growing religions in the nation, has contributed to the significant growth of a newly-emerging demographic: Latino Muslims.

Lacking an organized network and longstanding cultural background within the United States, Latino Muslims are not as visible as other U.S. minority groups, but evidence of their existence has sprouted around the country. The Latino Muslim presence is particularly prominent in New York, Southern California and Chicago – places where both Hispanics and Muslims reside in great numbers. These cities boast Latino mosques and organizations exclusively directed toward the Latino Muslim community. The Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference on Latino Muslims and recently established Latino Coordinating Committee attest to the growing importance of this group in American Muslim society.

The number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine, with estimates ranging from 25,000 to 60,000. This includes 2nd- or 3rd-generation Hispanic Americans as well as a diverse population of new immigrants.

While some Latinos were raised Muslim, many have converted from Catholicism. Latinos convert to Islam for a great variety of reasons, including disenchantment with the practices of Catholicism and the Church establishment. Repelled by the religion’s preoccupation with Saints, perceived contradictions in the Catholic tenets, and the Church hierarchy, many Latinos are lured by Islam’s contrasting simplicity and directness to God. According to Juan Galvan, Vice President of the Latino American Dawah Organization, “most Hispanic converts were Catholic. Many Hispanics had difficulty with the church, believing in original sin, and in the Holy Trinity. Islam solves the problems many Hispanics have with the Catholic Church. For example, in Islam there is no priest-pope hierarchy. Everyone who prays before God is equal. Many Latino converts feel Islam gives them a closer relationship to God.”

In addition to having difficulty with the rituals and concepts of Catholicism, many Latinos find its historical associations objectionable. Rather than viewing Catholicism as their culture’s native religion, some Latinos protest that Catholicism was originally forced on their indigenous ancestors. They reject the commonly-held notion that the Catholic religion is an inherent part of Latino culture. The Catholic Church’s past involvement in Latin America and the suffering caused by colonization have tarnished the Church’s image for many Latinos. Dr. Fathi Osman, resident scholar at the Omar Foundation, an Islamic cultural and educational center, notes that, “in their own countries Hispanics did not see the Church supporting the rights of the poor. Rather it sided with the rich and the influential. It can be difficult to make a distinction between the Church or clergy and the religion itself.”

Islam, on the other hand, offers Latinos more appealing historical ties. Citing the Islamic heritage in Hispanic history, dating back to the classical Islamic period in Spain, many Latino Muslims claim conversion to Islam as a return to their true heritage.

Indeed, the Muslim Moors ruled Spain for seven centuries, starting in 711 with the Muslim general Tariq ibn Zayid’s conquest of the Spanish Peninsula. During that time, Islamic influence penetrated many facets of life, including music, architecture and literature. This influence was abetted by the Muslim’s religious tolerance, which enabled Christians, Jews and Muslims to coexist relatively peacefully. Conversion to Islam was encouraged but not forced. With the fall of the last Muslim stronghold in 1492 and the ensuing Inquisition, Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity or be exiled.

As the Inquisition raged in Spain, the Conquistadores began shipping Muslim slaves from Africa to the New World, and Islam thus traveled to Latin America. The religion spread throughout the continent, fueled in the mid-nineteenth century by a massive migration of Muslim Arabs.

In converting to Islam Latino Muslims believe they are reclaiming their lost Muslim and African heritage, a heritage they view more positively than the legacy of Catholicism. Many Spanish intellectuals once disputed the extent of Moorish influence on Hispanic culture, but Latino Muslims who claim African and Islamic roots raise questions about the origins of Western society as solely European. Latino Muslims point to the African/Islamic influence evident in Spanish literature, music and thought. Thousands of Spanish words, for example, are derived from Arabic. Ibrahim Gonzalez, a Muslim convert whose parents emigrated from Puerto Rico, claims that “in Latino culture, especially language, there are lots of ‘Arabisms.” He believes that as Islam spread throughout Latin America, it helped to shape Latino culture.

Islam holds modern-day appeal for Latinos as well. Just as many Latino Muslims believe that Christianity was once an elitist religion that failed to protect their indigenous ancestors, Latinos today find that the Church does not adequately defend the Latino-American struggle for equality. Alienation from Christian American society and poor social and economic conditions may deter Latinos from Christianity – the religion of the establishment that has abandoned their needs. According to Osman, as minorities, Latinos are not understood or supported by the United States Church, which continues to side with the elite. In his view, the Catholic Church advocates equality and justice in theory, but does not implement them in practice. Osman contends, “most Latinos are poor and feel oppressed. They don’t get justice in their original countries or in the U.S. They want a religion that cares about those who are oppressed.”

In Islam Latinos find a community more sympathetic to their plight. Muslims, who are also a minority in the U.S., identify more closely with the Latino struggle for justice and equality. Estranged from mainstream Christian America, Latinos can identify with and take pride in the Muslim community and in Islam’s past. Gonzalez, one the co-founders of the Latino Muslim organization Alianza Islamica, says he “grew up in a revolutionary environment. East Harlem was a center for political activism and the struggle for human rights of people of all color. We had fervor to continue the struggle but no place to go. We were disenfranchised. We sought other outlets and came upon Islam. We became serious young men seeking to elevate ourselves within our society. We got this from Islam.”

Perhaps it is Islam’s doctrine of racial equality and unity that appeals to minority groups. Substantial numbers of African Americans have also converted to Islam in recent decades. The religion unifies various minorities within the U.S., whose social and economic circumstances are often similar. Gonzalez describes Islam as “a universal faith where people of all walks of life pray together. Religion unifies culture and enhances it.” For Gonzalez, Latino and African American Muslims face a common struggle: “the plight of blacks [in the U.S.] is similar to the plight of Latinos. We closely identify with each other in New York City.”

For impoverished Latinos and African Americans living in inner cities, Islam provides material as well as spiritual support. As the government has withdrawn funds from urban social welfare programs over the last several decades, the urban poor have been left to fend for themselves. When the State fails to provide basic services and security, Muslim organizations step in, serving the needs of the urban poor. Alianza Islamica, for example, has offered GED courses and HIV awareness programs, instituted clothing drives and women’s groups, and initiated efforts against hunger.

Despite the growing presence of organizations such as Alianza Islamica, Latino Muslims are still a tiny fraction of the Latino population. Few Latinos are even aware of their existence. Those who convert to Islam face a certain challenge in being accepted by their surrounding communities. Galvan says that he sometimes feels alienated from the mainstream Latino population, which views Catholicism as intimately tied to Hispanic culture. However, “Defining culture by religion,” he insists, “is not very effective because our ancestors were Christian, Muslims, Jewish or pagan. Many Hispanics think that leaving Catholicism means rejecting their identity. We should reevaluate how we traditionally define culture. Although some people define culture as something static, I think defining culture as a dynamic process is more accurate.”