American Latinos find appeal in Islam

Friday 06/11/2015
Imam Daniel Abdullah Hernandez

Washington - Imam Daniel Abdullah Hernan­dez was preparing for his Fri­day sermon when he contacted the FBI and local police to co­ordinate security measures. It could turn into a delicate weekend, he explained, as his congregation was planning a belated Eid carnival in honour of pilgrims who recently returned from Mecca.

But the carnival would coincide with dozens of planned protests around the country by a virulent anti-Muslim group, a community of bikers who have protested with guns in full view in front of mosques as they shouted hateful slogans at worshippers.

“So we’re taking security meas­ures with local police. I introduced one of the SWAT team to our loca­tion and he spoke about the action plan and the community felt good about it,” Hernandez told The Arab Weekly by phone from his car, as he was driving to his mosque in Pearland, Texas, where he delivers his sermon in Spanish.

The community Eid carnival comes a couple of weeks after Eid al-Adha to give pilgrims time to re­turn from Mecca.

“The authorities don’t think the protest is going to happen in our city. But we are a mosque and we are isolated from the city, so we want to make sure that we take proper secu­rity measures as prevention,” Her­nandez added.

While there is a notable rise in Islamophobia in the United States, Islam is one of the two fastest grow­ing religions in the country (the oth­er is Mormonism), due to immigra­tion and a conversion rate that has been on the rise since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

According to organisations such as WhyIslam.org, a proselytising group, Latinos are one of the fast­est growing segments of the Muslim community. About 6% of US Mus­lims are Latino and as many as one-fifth of converts to Islam nationwide are Latino.

The Chicago-based American Mus­lim Council esti­mates there are about 200,000 Hispanic Muslims in the United States, up from 40,000 a decade ago. Most of them are con­verts.

Wilfredo Amr Ruiz is one of them. He served as a lawyer and a Mus­lim chaplain for the US Navy and founded Puerto Rico and Connecti­cut chapters of the American Mus­lim Association of North America (AMANA). He is a legal adviser for the Council of American Islamic Re­lations (CAIR).

Ruiz recalls that when he con­verted about 12 years ago, he could “hardly find any material on Islam in Spanish”.

“That has changed a lot today. It’s very common to see Spanish Qurans readily available for the public,” he said.

Over the past five years, Ruiz says he has witnessed a sharp rise in de­mand for Spanish Qurans.

“I remember I used to get some­thing like a few que­ries a week, but now? Thousands of Spanish Qurans per year are dis­tributed, so demand is growing,” he said. “They call me on a weekly basis and ask for information on Islam in Spanish.”

It is unusual to find mosques ca­tering exclusively to Spanish speak­ers but many mosques, such as the one where Hernandez preaches, de­liver sermons in Spanish some of the time. Ruiz says that in Florida, His­panic Muslims worship in any one of the numerous mosques in the state, as opposed to congregating exclu­sively in one particular mosque.

“You also notice more and more Hispanic imams and some Latino communities raise money to send one of their own to train as an imam abroad then come back and serve the community,” Ruiz said.

He added that CAIR Florida is beginning a project called CAIR en Espanol to cater to the community, which includes Latinos in influen­tial positions. On October 25th, the community was to celebrate His­panic Muslim Day.

Organisations all over the country cater to Hispanic Muslims. Islamin­Spanish.org, for example, has more than 500 audio books about Islam in Spanish and develops proselytising videos targeting Latinos.

Like many Hispanic converts to Islam, Ruiz was raised Catholic. He says that in recent years, perhaps starting with his parents’ generation and coinciding with a wave of immi­gration to the United States, many in his community abandoned the taboo of questioning one’s religion. Converting from Catholicism to Protestantism no longer raised eye­brows and perhaps this opened the door to embracing another religion.

“The contact of Latinos with Prot­estantism has empowered them to go and question and seek other spir­itual answers and the mentality has changed,” said Ruiz. “When I went to Catholic school I never imagined someone coming to school to talk about another religion but now I’m invited to talk about Islam in syna­gogues and Catholic schools.”

Another shift is perhaps Latino “discovery” of Islamic overlap from centuries passed. More than 4,000 words in Spanish derive from Arabic and, just as African Americans dur­ing the civil rights movement found cultural roots in Islam, many Latinos are discovering a common history, one not too alien from their own, es­pecially with regards to value placed on family ties and community.

“What most Latinos who have embraced Islam find most amazing is their cultural affinity to the Mus­lim culture,” says Ruiz. “It’s like re­discovering your past. That area of our past has been hidden from us.”

Asked why the theology seems to translate so well for Catholic con­verts to Islam, Ruiz, who studied Islam at al-Azhar in Egypt for five years, echoed a common theme among his fellow converts.

“One thing I find with a lot of Muslims from Catholicism is that they like the simplicity of the the­ology in Islam. The Divinity is God and that’s it. So there’s no mystery of how God is eternal but was born one day and died for three days then resurrected,” he said.

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