Latino Muslims a Growing Presence in America

Article excerpt

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

Lacking an organized network, and with their cultural presence in this country a relatively recent one, Latino Muslims are not as visible as other U.S. minority groups. Nevertheless, their existence is becoming evident 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 the recently established Latino Coordinating Committee attest to the growing importance of this group in American Muslim society.

Although the exact number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine, estimates range from 25,000 to 60,000. This includes second- or third-generation Hispanic Americans as well as recent immigrants.

While some Latinos were reared Muslim, many have converted from Catholicism. Latinos convert to Islam for a variety of reasons, including disenchantment with the practices of Catholicism and the church establishment. These Latinos are lured by Islam's simplicity and the Muslim's independence of a mediating clergy in his or her relationship with 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."

Other Latinos find the church's historical associations objectionable. Rather than viewing Catholicism as the native religion of their culture, they protest that Catholicism was originally forced on their indigenous ancestors by Europeans. The church's past involvement in Latin America and the suffering caused by colonization have tarnished its image for many Latinos. Notes Dr. Fathi Osman, resident scholar at the Omar Foundation, an Islamic cultural and educational center, "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 many Latinos more appealing historical ties. Citing a heritage that dates back to Spain's classical Islamic period, many Latino Muslims claim that conversion to Islam represents a return to their true cultural traditions.

Indeed, beginning in 711 A.D. with the Muslim general Tariq ibn Ziad's conquest of the Spanish Peninsula, the Muslim Moors ruled Spain for nearly eight centuries. During that period, Islamic influence penetrated many facets of life, including music, architecture and literature. This influence was abetted by Islam'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, however, Muslims as well as Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or be exiled.

As the Inquisition raged in Spain, the Conquistadores began trafficking 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-19th century by a massive migration of Muslim Arabs. …