Latinos abandon Catholic church for Islam

By Andrea Perera
Columbia News Service
March 22, 2001

NEW YORK — Yahya Figueroa unlaced his brown leather shoes and placed them alongside the boots and sneakers covering the narrow hallway of the basement apartment housing Alianza Islamica. He walked to the living room and offered his sister, Safia Figueroa, the usual greeting, “Salaam Allaikum.”

From her seat on the navy blue carpet, Safia looked up, smiling. “Allaikum Salaam,” she said, turning back to the television. She was watching a video of some Alianza leaders lecturing on drug abuse at a Harlem street fair.

In 1975, her brother and five other Muslims, all of them Puerto Rican, founded Alianza Islamica, New York City’s only Islamic center run by and for Latinos. In those early years, the group met at each other’s homes. Since then, they’ve grown enough in membership, cash accounts and clout to rent their own space. In 1992, they moved into an East Harlem space and, since 1999, they’ve operated out of a South Bronx brownstone.

From there, the group plans programs addressing issues members believe are important to Latinos, such as domestic violence, AIDS education and drug addiction. They also help hundreds of Latinos who come to the center to convert from Catholicism — the dominant religion among Spanish speakers — to Islam. It has become one of the world’s fastest growing religions over the last decade, counting more than 1.5 billion adherents. More than 6 million of them live in the United States, and, Muslim leaders estimate, at least 15,000 identify themselves as Latinos worshiping in such big cities as Newark, Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

Yahya Figueroa, Alianza director, fled the Catholic Church of his birth in 1970, after protesting against the Vietnam War, and rallying for civil rights and Puerto Rican independence. The church was rife with hypocrisy, he said, its history one of conquering foreign lands and supporting unjust wars.

“This was a peace-loving religion,” he said. “Yet, the pope was blessing bombs going to Vietnam. The Church wasn’t as innocent as it claimed to be.” Figueroa, like the rest of Alianza’s ex-Catholic membership, was attracted to Islam’s strict discipline, based on the five pillars of its philosophy. Muslims must profess commitment to the faith, journey to Mecca at least once in their life, pray five times a day, give to their neighbors and fast during the holy days of Ramadan. Other converts were attracted to a faith that championed economic and political issues, especially those affecting the international Muslim community.

Latinos’ historical connections to Islam run deep. North African Moors first invaded Spain, then Christian, in the eighth century. From there, Islam spread to Latin America, the Caribbean and South America.

Muslim presence influenced Spanish architecture, language and literature, said Neguin Yavari, professor of medieval Islam at Columbia University. Yet many people know little about this history. “It’s not one of the elements of the religion that’s well-publicized,” said Yavari, a Muslim who emigrated from Iran.

Since Islam was often associated with the Arab and South Asian worlds, many Latino converts didn’t feel accepted by other Muslims. “People would go to the mosque and get turned away for speaking Spanish,” Figueroa said. Even the Koran, Islam’s holy book, was available translated only into formal, Castilian Spanish, not the more conversational dialect of most Latinos living in this hemisphere.

No matter what the perception, Islam does not belong to any one race or ethnic group, said Al-Haaj Ghazi Khankan, director of interfaith affairs and communications at the Islamic Center of Long Island. “God did not send a special religion to this group and that group,” he said.

Whether or not they always felt welcome, Latinos converted anyway. Maryam Roman was 42 when she traded her Puerto Rican family’s Catholicism for Islam. She had watched the traditions of the Catholic Church wane.

“In my day, you used to cover in church. You didn’t eat before Holy Communion,” said Roman, now 55, her face framed by a veil, which many Muslim women wear to show modesty and faith. “But then people started buying new outfits to wear on Christmas Eve and Easter.” Christmas was all about gift giving, not the birth of Jesus Christ.

Roman finally gave up on Catholicism while managing a building on East 13th Street, in a neighborhood plagued by prostitution, crime and drugs. After she complained about local drug dealers, they threatened her life. She looked to the church for solace, but found none. “I went to my church as I knew it, and felt no comfort,” Roman said.

Her first exposure to Islam came when she hired some Muslim men to work as security guards in her building. Roman watched them pray. She pored over the Koran they gave her. She finally found the discipline she was looking for and took her shahada, the simple declaration of Muslim faith.

Safia Figueroa, 38, said she felt a similar disconnection from Catholicism. Nine years ago she switched faiths, following her older brother, Yahya, mother and sister. Her father has also since converted.

Safia Figueroa liked the ritualism of Islamic prayer, fasting during Ramadan and helping those who needed it. She especially admired Muslim women who covered their hair with a scarf, called hijab in Arabic. Over the years, she’d heard too many catcalls — things too offensive to repeat, she said — while walking the city streets.

But nurturing her new faith was hard. The hijab was suffocating in the sweltering summertime. And, though she saw the veil as a testament to her faith, others didn’t see it that way. “My friends, they freaked out,” she said. “They couldn’t believe that I chose this.”

Most of them drifted away. Still, Figueroa said, she gained far more than she lost. “I found something that filled me,” she said. “This is what my heart feels and I’m happy with it.”

Even in cities sparsely populated by Muslims, Latinos take the religious leap. Sumayyah Ikhil, whose mother is Dominican American and father is Puerto Rican, lives in Decatur, Ga. Ikhil was born into a Catholic household, but she also dabbled in the Pentecostal and Baptist traditions. She was nagged by questions about the Christian trinity — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She wanted to know who God was and where he came from. Five years ago, a family friend explained that in Islam, there is one all-powerful God called “Allah.” Ikhil stopped searching.

“I had always thought he was a separate God,” she said. “Finally, the questions I had came in answer form.”

She found answers to her own questions but, like Safia Figueroa, lost friends. And her father, a Baptist minister, wasn’t at all pleased, she said. They still argue over her religion.

To her, though, Islam just makes sense.

She liked that, according to the Koran, Jesus was a prophet. She liked the belief in a judgment day for all mankind. She liked the belief that all obedient acts have rewards, and that all disobedient acts have consequences. And she liked that Islamic doctrine values faith above everything, even race. “There’s no black, white or Puerto Rican Muslim,” she said.

“We are all Muslim under one faith, one god.”

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