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American Latinos find appeal in Islam

By Rasha Elass
The Arab Weekly
November 6, 2015

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 re-discovering 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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