History Draws Hispanics to Islam

History Draws Hispanics to Islam


Filed at 1:21 a.m. ET

Ibrahim Gonzalez, raised as a Catholic, says he didn't
convert to Islam -- rather, he says, he reverted.

Like a small but growing number of Hispanics, the New
York-born Puerto Rican has found a spiritual home in a
faith with a long history in Spain, stretching to the
rule of Muslim Moors from the 700s to the 1400s.

Today, Hispanics with roots in Puerto Rico, Mexico,
Spain and Central and South America are turning to
Islam. A mix of immigrants and longtime residents,
they are expanding the image of American Muslims as
Arabs, blacks and South Asians.

In 1997, the American Muslim Council counted 40,000
Hispanic Muslims; current estimates range up to
60,000. Estimates of the total number of U.S. Muslims
vary wildly, from about 1.8 million to 7 million.

Hispanics' reasons for converting to Islam are
numerous. Many are former Catholics disenchanted with
Catholic tenets. Others were attracted to what they
call the faith's simplicity and directness. Some
convert because they marry Muslims.

``Islam was my choice because of the multiethnic
components of Islam, its lack of bureaucratic
hierarchy and the fact that it was very direct and
gave a young man such as myself a wide purpose in
life,'' said Gonzalez, who founded the Islamic center
Alianza Islamica with a half-dozen friends who became
Muslims as teen-agers.

``We're returning to a religion that we once belonged
to and was very much a part of our historical
heritage,'' he said.

On July 5-7, the Islamic Society of North America is
gathering Hispanic Muslims in suburban Chicago to
study efforts to attract more Hispanics to Islam.

Generally, though, Hispanic Muslims are a loosely knit
group, bound by Web sites and volunteer and nonprofit
groups that promote Islam among Latinos and provide
social services and Spanish-language literature.

One such group -- the Miami-based PIEDAD, which means
``piety'' in Spanish -- began in 1988 to help
Spanish-speaking women who married Muslim men. Now,
said Puerto Rican founder Khadijah Rivera, ``people
are just coming and saying, 'I heard about Islam. I'm
just curious.'''

Curiosity brought Benjamin Perez Mahomah of Oakland,
Calif. to his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1957.
He was the only Latino at the meetings of dozens, then
hundreds, of blacks, he said. Now, he travels around
the country lecturing Spanish-speaking audiences.

``I saw there was a lot of knowledge in their
teachings to black people. Their food was delicious.
They were friendly. I liked it there and I stayed,''
he said.

Claudia Hein began studying Islam while living with a
Muslim roommate after moving to the United States from
Bolivia. A Catholic, she had always struggled with the
concept of the trinity.

``I was always in search,'' said Hein, now 33 and
living in Somerville, N.J. Islam was ``what I'd been
looking for all my life.

``It embraces all parts of life, everything that you
do during the day,'' Hein said. ``Islam teaches you
everything, how to behave with your neighbors, how to
be with your parents, how to educate your children. It
embraces everything, every part of life.''

Few Hispanic Muslims said they experienced the
discrimination faced by Arab counterparts after Sept.
11, but some said their faith was portrayed unfairly
by the media.

``All the lies they said, how they portray Islam ...
that has given me a different understanding about what
I take from TV,'' said Melissa Morales, an elementary
school teacher in Tempe, Ariz., who converted from
Christianity four years ago.

This month offered another challenge as a Hispanic
Muslim, Jose Padilla, was accused of conspiring to
detonate a radioactive ``dirty'' bomb in the United
States. The New York-born Padilla was raised Catholic
but converted to Islam and changed his name to
Abdullah al Muhajir, authorities say.

News of his arrest shocked many in the Hispanic Muslim
community, including Juan Galvan, a Mexican-American
who is president of the Texas chapter of the Latino
American Dawah Organization. ``Islam does not condone
terrorism,'' Galvan said.

Galvan, a former altar boy and Sunday school teacher,
has wrestled with accusations that in leaving
Catholicism, he rejected his Latino identity.

When he converted, his sister asked him, '``How could
you do that to the Virgin? How could you just leave
her behind like that?'' He still hasn't told his

But Galvan has discovered some comforting similarities
between Islam and his Latino culture. The pita bread
at a mosque dinner reminded him of the tortillas his
mother patted out by hand.

``I was thinking, 'This really isn't that much
different,''' Galvan said.


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