Some Latinos convert to Islam
By MARCELA ROJAS
THE JOURNAL NEWS
Aisha Ahmed's decision to convert to Islam and give up
Catholicism and her Puerto Rican birth name, Maritza
Rondon, did not come impulsively or under duress.
She spent five years studying the Quran and hired a
teacher to learn Arabic before she was ready for
shahadah, a declaration of faith led by an imam that
is essential to the conversion process.
In the end, Ahmed's decision to become a Muslim and to
take a name that belonged to the Prophet Muhammad's
wife, she said, was borne of years of questioning her
Catholic upbringing and discovering that, for her, the
answers were with Islam.
"I have lived a humble and peaceful life since I
converted. Everything is so clear," said Ahmed, 45, of
Tarrytown. "I didn't see in Catholicism the unity and
compassion I found in Islam. I saw more kindness and
willingness to give."
Ahmed's change of faith is not unique among her ethnic
group today. In recent years, thousands of Hispanics
nationwide have been converting to Islam, particularly
since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when interest in
the religion seemed to gain momentum.
Though precise statistics do not exist, the Council on
American-Islamic Relations estimates there are more
than 36,000 Hispanic Muslims in the nation today.
Other estimates raise the total to 75,000. A study the
group conducted also showed that 6 percent of the
20,000 annual converts to Islam are Hispanic.
Though the numbers are a small fraction of the
estimated 6 million Muslims in the country, it is fast
becoming evident that the conversion rate among this
minority group is taking root and that its influence
is being asserted through the formation of Hispanic
Muslim organizations — "dawah," or outreach efforts
targeted at Hispanics — and the distribution of
literature and the Quran in Spanish.
"There hasn't been real scientific gauging," said
Mohamed Nimer, research director for the Council on
American-Islamic Relations. "But Muslim leaders are
saying they are seeing more and more Latino Muslims,
especially in New York, California and Florida."
Melvin Reveron converted to Islam last year, following
a period of depression and internal doubts about
Catholicism, he said.
"I called myself a Catholic, but I wasn't practicing
as an adult," said Reveron, 41, a Puerto Rican who
lives in New York City. "I realized the futility of
confession. I felt alienated from God and unworthy of
God's graces. If I was going to reintroduce God into
my life, I thought this was the best way."
Reveron had read the Quran after Sept. 11 because he
wanted to gain more knowledge about a religion that
was being blamed for the attacks, he said. Culture and
religion often can be mistaken, he said.
"People say that Islam is a religion that teaches
people to kill, that it creates suicide bombers," said
Reveron, 41, a supervisor for the Department of Social
Services in New York City. "I reject that notion. Just
because a criminal does something, the religion isn't
wrong. There's something wrong with that person."
The Quran, he said, resonates with Catholics because
it mentions Adam, Moses, Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Jesus is revered as a prophet — not as the son of God
— within the Islamic religion.
"I looked at is as an intellectual continuation of
what I had been taught," he said.
Like Reveron, many Hispanic converts say they have
grown disenchanted with Catholicism and have
difficulty accepting the church hierarchy, original
sin, confession, the Holy Trinity and the saints.
Others say they are "reverting" to a religion that is
part of their ancestral history — Islam ruled Spain
for several centuries.
Either way, following the five pillars of Islam, the
foundation of Muslim life, is a more truthful
existence, many agree. Islam's tenets include
professing faith in Allah and the prophet Muhammad,
praying daily, charity work, fasting during Ramadan
and a pilgrimage to Mecca.
"I was very confident it was the correct way of living
life," said Fatima Britos, 25, a John Jay College
student of Argentine descent. "It is the straight
Britos recently attended a Columbia University student
event titled "Latinos in Islam: Rediscovering our
Roots" that saw a diverse group of people in
attendance. The affair included a Mexican feast and a
discussion led by Hernan Guadalupe on why Hispanics
are converting to Islam today. The Ecuadorean-American
outlined the Muslims' reign in Spain from 711 to 1492.
Between 10 percent and 30 percent of Spanish words
come from Arabic, he said. Guadalupe spoke of the
cultural similarities and family values inherent to
Hispanics and Muslims. Typically, Hispanic households
are tightknit and devout, and children are reared in a
strict environment — traits that mirror Muslim
households, Guadalupe said.
"There are 780 years of Islamic influence that can't
be ignored," said Guadalupe, 24, a mechanical engineer
from South Brunswick, N.J. "If you understand that, as
a Latino, you have Spanish blood in you, then you
would understand ... that you have Islam in you."
Not coincidentally, Guadalupe converted to Islam on
Sept, 11, 2001 — or "the day the towers fell," as he
said — after years of studying different religions and
cultures. He started the Latino Muslim Outreach
Program this year, traveling to schools in the
tri-state area to educate — not convert — people on
Islam, he said.
Other organizations have formed in recent years,
including Piedad, an Internet group with nearly 300
members whose mission is to teach non-Muslims and give
leadership training to women, particularly Hispanic
"On a daily basis, I hear Latinos coming into the fold
of Islam," said Piedad founder Khadijah Rivera. "It is
so close to our culture that, once they understand, it
is like second nature to belong to Islam."
But Catholic leaders do not consider the conversion
rate a sign of the faithful growing disillusioned with
the church, said Alejandro Aguilar-Titus, associate
director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Of the 45
million Hispanics in this country, 32 million are
Catholic, he said. Conversely, there are more than 6
million Muslims in Latin America, and it has been
reported that Islamic ideologies are spreading among
"As far as we can see, Catholics becoming Muslim is
more of an individual choice that comes through
marriage, friendships or relationships," said
Aguilar-Titus. He later added, "It saddens the church,
but at the same time, there is respect for that
Aguilar-Titus reflected on Islamic Spain and said the
influence brought several practices and symbols
similar to Catholicism.
"These elements could be very powerful and attractive
to someone," he said. "I think that's more significant
than being disenchanted with Catholicism."
In 1997, the Latino American Dawah Organization — LADO
— was formed by a handful of converts. It serves to
educate and promote the legacy of Islam in Spain and
Latin America. One of its organizers, Juan Galvan, a
Mexican-American who lives in San Antonio, said he has
been in contact with more than 20,000 Hispanic Muslims
in recent years, co-authored a report, "Latino
Muslims: The Changing Face of Islam in America," and
is co-writing a book on conversion stories. LADO's Web
site features dozens of accounts.
The need for support networks is imperative because
often Hispanics may feel isolated from others who are
born Muslim or because of a language barrier, he said.
Galvan converted in the summer of 2001 after having
grown up active in the Catholic Church, serving as an
altar boy and Eucharistic minister.
"It's a very clear and simple belief," said Galvan,
30. "But it's not enough to say I disagree with the
Catholic faith and then become a Muslim. There's more
Indeed, converting to Islam means a lifestyle change
that to some can be difficult. Fasting, praying five
times a day and giving up alcohol and pork — a staple
in the Hispanic diet — can present challenges. Women
must wear a hijab, but the misperception, many women
argue, is that the veil is debasing. Though there are
no definitive statistics, reports indicate there are
more women than men converting to Islam.
"A head scarf does not symbolize oppression. It
represents freedom," said Ecuadorean Sonia Lasso,
while speaking at the third annual Hispanic Muslim Day
at a mosque in Union City, N.J. "Because it is not our
physical but our intellectual selves that are seen."
Perhaps the biggest obstacle converts face is with
their families, who take great pride in their Catholic
rearing and have little understanding of Islam.
Reveron said he has yet to tell his family, fearing
"I haven't found the right way to tell them," he said.
"You hear stories about families ridiculing and (the
Muslim converts) being ostracized."
For Ahmed, her family was more accepting of her
decision, so much so that her brother is now Muslim,
and her mother has accepted Islam, she said. Her life
is much more devout since her conversion. She works as
a representative to the James House at Phelps Memorial
Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow. She volunteers
extensively in Westchester and the Bronx, a move she
credits to her faith. She worships at the Thornwood
masjid, as well as in the Bronx, and is proudest of
helping to establish a mosque in Suffern with her
While the horror of Sept. 11 moved many Hispanics
toward Islam, Ahmed admits that the attacks on the
World Trade Center gave her pause about her adopted
religion. But it was Islam that prevailed, she said.
"I saw a tragic situation and at the same time had to
understand that I am a Muslim," she said. "My faith
was tested, but I stayed on track because I'm not
going to let a group of fanatics change my faith. I
became stronger. Once you believe, you can't go back."
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