Latinos embracing Islam, but ‘dirty bomb’ case brings unwanted attention

By Daniel González
Arizona Republic
June 28, 2002

Melissa Morales, a Latina born in Puerto Rico, was eating in a local Mexican restaurant recently when the waiter wanted to know why she covered her head in a long black scarf.

“Eres monjita?” the Spanish-speaking waiter asked. Are you a nun?

Her answer caught the waiter by surprise. No, she told him. Not a nun, a Muslim.

Latinos and Islam may seem like a strange combination to most, primarily because Catholicism is so deeply embedded in Latino culture. But the combination is less unusual, believers point out, in light of the fact that beginning in the year 711, Muslims from North Africa occupied Spain for more than seven centuries.

Still, the estimated 40,000 Latino Muslims in the United States remained far off the country’s cultural radar until earlier this month when a Latino Muslim named Jose Padilla was accused by federal authorities of plotting with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” on U.S. soil.

Authorities said Padilla, the Brooklyn-born son of Puerto Rican parents, was raised a Catholic, but converted to Islam.

Padilla’s arrest did not bring the kind of attention the small but growing number of Latino Muslims want. They are quick to defend their religion as peaceful.

“Islam is peace. Islam is not terrorism,” said Morales, 25, an elementary school teacher at the Tempe Islamic Cultural Center.

There is no Latino Muslim organization in the Phoenix area, and Morales said she has encountered fewer than 50 Latino Muslims.

She also wondered why Padilla’s ethnicity and citizenship became an issue when John Walker Lindh’s has not. Lindh is the 20-year-old American from California who converted to Islam and is accused of conspiring with Taliban forces in Afghanistan to kill fellow Americans.

“Why do we have to categorize (Padilla) because he’s Latino? Why don’t we do that with John Walker?” asked Morales, pointing out that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth.

The world’s 1 billion Muslims believe that Islam is the one true religion and that there is only one God, Allah, whose revelations revealed in the seventh century to the Prophet Mohammed are contained in Islam’s sacred book, the Koran.

Padilla’s arrest shocked many Latino Muslims, including Juan Galvan, vice president of the national Latino American Dawah Organization.

Dawah means “the call to Allah” in Arabic, and the organization works to promote Islam to Latinos.

Galvan believes the publicity over Padilla’s arrest only added to negative perceptions about both Islam and Latinos.

“Islam is always associated with something negative,” said Galvan, 27, of Austin, who also heads the Texas chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization. “Of all the people who had to get themselves in trouble, this guy turns out to be Latino.”

Islam is the nation’s fastest growing religion and in many ways the reasons Latinos are converting to Islam are no different than those of others.

Some, like Veronica Ramirez, 36, of Tempe and Lucy Chapa, 32, of Phoenix, were raised Roman Catholic but became disenchanted with many of Catholicism’s tenets.

“I was practicing Catholicism, but in my mind there were always doubts,” Ramirez said. “One of my questions was the Trinity. How could one person be three?”

Ramirez, a native of Mexico, said a Muslim friend from Lebanon first introduced her to Islam in college. She said she was attracted to the faith’s practicality.

“For every rule there is a reason. It’s not just ‘because,’ ” Ramirez said.

Chapa had never heard of Islam until she met a Muslim man while traveling in Europe seven years ago.

Other Latino Muslims like Sheila Roman, 36, of Tempe and Katherine Muhammad, 30, of Phoenix converted to Islam after marrying Muslims.

“My converting was not for my husband,” said Roman, a native of Puerto Rico. “It was by choice.”

Morales, a former Pentecostal missionary, prefers to say she “reverted” to Islam rather than converted.

In fact, she said, many Latinos who embrace Islam feel that they are reclaiming their Islamic heritage, not rejecting Latino culture.

“Latino people,” she said, “have a legacy of Islam in Spain.”

In the company of each other, they often blend three cultures, greeting each other with the traditional Muslim greeting “salaam alaykum” while conversing in Spanish and English.

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