Conference focuses on Muslim Latinos
By Katherine Pace
The Islamic Society of North America focused on recent trends in religious conversions among Latinos across the United States in a conference last week.
The ISNA held its third annual Conference on Islam among Latino Americans in Rosemont, Ill., as part of a series of conferences held yearly to discuss the role of Islam in America.
Secretary General of ISNA Sayyid M. Syeed said the organization chose to include discussion about Muslim Latinos in the conference to incorporate that community into mainstream American Islam so that they can achieve "Islamic excellence."
Syeed said the goal of ISNA, a national umbrella organization of different U.S. mosques and Islamic centers, is not to evangelize Islam, but to increase awareness of the growing Muslim Latino community so that mainstream Islamic communities will welcome Muslim Latinos.
Faiz Rehman, communications director of the American Muslim Council in Washington, D.C., said there are two main reasons for the conversions, which are most noticeable in areas with large Latino populations such as Texas, California and Arizona.
The first, Rehman said, is that many Latinos can trace their roots back to Spain where their ancestors lived as Muslims before the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. Consequently, they call their conversion "reversion." The second reason is the many similarities between the Muslim and Latino communities. Both communities are family-oriented, conservative and very pro-religion, Rehman said.
Kamran Aghaie, an assistant professor of Islamic studies, said the trend of Latino conversions to Islam is a complex issue that cannot be explained with simple statements.
"This is a new phenomenon that hasn't received sufficient attention yet, and it needs to be studied," Aghaie said.
Aghaie added that the phenomenon is not unique to Latinos.
"There's a lot of people from different religions who become Muslims in the U.S., and we haven't really gotten around to studying it yet," Aghaie said. Rehman agreed that such trends occur among other ethnic groups in the United States.
"We have about 7 million Muslims in America, and out of [those] 7 million, almost one-third are indigenous Muslims," Rehman said. "Most indigenous Muslims are converts; they include African Americans, Caucasians and Latin Americans."
Rehman said only a small fraction of indigenous Muslims are Latinos. "It's not a big community," Rehman said. "I don't see any threat to any [other] religious groups. These people are not espousing any new values. There is a big common ground between Islam and Christianity." Rehman said conversion to Islam is more apparent in the African- American community than in any other ethnic community because of its socioeconomic conditions and Islam's message of equality.
Syeed said conversions among African Americans may also be motivated by a desire to return to their roots because many African Americans are descendants of African Muslims.
"They know their roots are in Islam," Syeed said.