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"ˇHola!" or "Salaam alaiykum"

By Marion Piekarec,
"Le Devoir" NY Correspondent
February 2, 2002

To Be South-American, American by Adoption,
and to Convert to Islam is Not As Contradictory
As It Might Appear at First Sight

In the United States, there are 15,000 to 40,000 Hispanic Muslims out of a total of six to eight million Muslims, according to data from American Islamic organizations. In general, one may expect to find Hispanic converts mainly in southern California, in Chicago, in Miami, and in New York. This cultural marriage may appear contradictory at first sight, but its roots may be explained historically and sociologically.

New York -
Should I say "ˇHola!" or "Salaam alaiykum"? I ponder upon this as I approach Juan Alvarado, 32 years old, Dominican American, with a moon-like face and Moresque goatee. I finally chose to say "Hello! Nice to meet you... " I have an appointment for an interview with him in front of the large mosque of New York, located in the northeast side of Manhattan. We missed our chance to meet inside the mosque because the mosque was closed. I suggested holding the interview in a coffee shop, a suggestion that he declined. We then decided to carry out the interview standing on the sidewalk in the icy wind. Juan Alvarado, alias Shafeeq Abdullah Mohammed, is Muslim. In spite of his openness and his extreme kindness, it seemed a lot to ask for him to grant an interview to a female journalist. He does not seem to know if it was proper for him to do so. As a compromise, we carry out the interview in the street.

Juan received his first introduction to Islam while in high school by listening to members of The Nation of Islam, an organization of African American Muslims. It is only once at the university, as he reads books on Islam, that he learns what is "the true Islam, i.e. orthodox Islam." He is lured and charmed by the explicit personal discipline involved: "All is so lax in the United States," he comments. "As a 19 year old young man living in New York, I needed some form of self discipline." He converted two years later - actually; he chose a "reversion." Muslims speak indeed about "reversion" rather than "conversion" because they believe that one is born Muslim or, more precisely, in a state of fitrah. This word expresses the tendency that any person has to believe in only one God and of that person's natural disposition to be good, to be at peace with oneself and with the world. Embracing Islam then would be equivalent to returning to our natural disposition.

The Same Struggle
The struggle of Latino Americans closely resembles that of the African-Americans. "As is the case for the Latino-American community, which is a disadvantaged community, the Afro-American community feels often abandoned by the Church and the government," according to Hisham Aidi, a student in political science at Columbia University. According to him, conversion to Islam is then a means of distinguishing oneself, of feeling better about oneself and of acquiring a new sense of belonging. The means by which the Latino-Americans are brought to Islam are often the same as for the African-Americans: contacts with associations that assist young people, with preachers in prisons, in schools, in ghettos, and on the street.

According to Ronaldo Cruz, director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, there are approximately 100,000 Hispanics who leave the Catholic Church every year. "These people are in search of something. They do not seek to adapt but rather to affirm themselves," he says.

According to the testimonies of converts, the reason may lie in the uneasy reception that they get as they arrive in the United States on the part of the Catholic Church, which is an American style, with a tendency to be impersonal and too hierarchical. There is also the question about the saints. I ask Juan: "What is the problem presented by the saints?" "In the Bible," he explains, "it is stated that we should not venerate idols. Neither Jesus, nor Mary, nor Muhammad, i.e. nobody other than God."

"There are too many diversions in Catholicism. It is a waste of time," explains Guadalupe Martinez, 26, who converted to Islam in 1997. "In Islam, one does not need to pass through the telephone operator to obtain a number. Islam is the direct line to God."

Brief Historical Flashback...
African-Americans give claim to glorious Muslim Africa. In the same manner, so do Latino Americans regarding their connections with Spain. It is a return towards what they regard as their true culture, i.e the Spain of VIIIth to the XVth century, after its conquest by the Moors. "The majority of those which came to Latin America and to the Caribbean came from Andalusia, in Spain. They were the so-called "Moriscos," those Moors that were forced to convert to Christianity. They were deprived of both their religion and their culture. They were brought forcibly to the New World and were reduced to slavery just like the Africans. But the Moriscos never really lost their culture," affirms Imam Ocasio of Alianza Islamica, an association of Latino-American Muslims created in 1975 and based today in the Bronx.

"Intellectuals are now reasserting this view," according to Hisham Aidi. "Now, in the new works being published, the authors insist on the fact that the Spanish culture, literature and art have benefited from the Arab, Islamic or Moresque influences." And this is without mentioning the Spanish words of which at least a thousand have Arabic origins. Thus, according to Imam Ocasio, the expression "ˇolé!" would be derived from Allah, and "ˇojalá!" from insha' Allah, two expressions that mean "If God wills it." Juan adds that "zapato" would be derived from the Arabic shabbat. Also that Spanish names beginning with 'Al' would come from the Arabic. Imam Ocasio is proud to say that contrary to African-Americans who must change their names when they convert (with the exception of Muhammad Ali), Latino-Americans do not have to do so "because many Spanish proper names like 'Medina' are already Muslim," he says.

"There is an enormous similarity of the values and the practices that are common to the Hispanic and the Arabic Muslim cultures," according to Arwa Avila, a Mexican American who converted to Islam in 1991. "And we haven't said anything yet about the resemblances between the governments in the Middle East and those in Latin America!" she jokes. Yet, it was the differences between these cultures that attracted her. "The Hispanic culture is passionate, whereas the Islamic culture is much more restrained," she says. According to Juan Galvan, 27 years old, and director of the Texas chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization, an Islamic organization that promotes Islam, "Latino American women are tired of being regarded as 'sex objects' and of being judged only on their appearance. Islam elevates women and releases them from the 'Maybelline slavery' created by the American culture."

True or False?
Latino-American Muslims are not unanimous when commenting on the reception they receive from the American Muslim community. Juan Alvarado considers that Arab Muslims are surprised but pleasantly so. Some say that they are not regarded as "true Muslims" because they do not speak Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur'an. Be this as it may, Juan, like many new converts, takes Arabic courses Sunday mornings at the large mosque of New York. Others say that they are stereotyped by their reputation of being hot blooded, a characteristic not very compatible with Islam.

"What about salsa and merengue, Juan?" He answers with some pain: "I like music, enormously. I do believe that one has the right to listen, but as regards to the question of dancing, opinions do diverge. I am not sure that I have the right to dance with my wife , even at home." How about pork? He painly answers: "When I smell a dish made with pork... I feel hungry!" he acknowledges, not without some guilt. In addition, he swears not to have eaten any for what seems like an eternity. A marriage bringing together Latino Americans and Islam can be difficult... and yet in some cases they are acceptable to their community. "Some say: you are not Puerto Rican if you do not eat pork," deplores Ibrahim Gonzalez, one of the founders of Alianza Islamica. "Catholicism is so intermixed within the Hispanic culture and community that it is almost inseparable. Thus, converting to Islam is tantamount to stopping being Hispanic," explains Samantha Sanchez, a Muslim woman who is working on a doctorate in cultural anthropology at New School University.

There are also certain families that break apart. There are parents who refuse to speak to their children. Juan Alvarado was lucky but he too had his share of tensions. His father initially did not accept the fact that Juan was abandoning "the religion of their ancestors." His wife, a Catholic, would have liked to have been informed before their marriage if he intended to convert to Islam. He has endeavored to bring her to see Islam favorably, but he has no intention to force her to convert. How about their children? "We made an agreement," he smiles. "When we have boys, I choose their names, and when we have girls, she chooses their names. Then came Yassou, born seven years ago, and small Jamil, born one year ago. Yassou already knows how to pray," says Juan proudly.

This article has been translated from French.
Original LeDevoir.com link