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Islam gains Hispanic adherents in Hudson

By Falasten M. Abdeljabbar
The Jersey Journal staff writer
February 01, 2002

Touching her forehead to the green-striped carpet in whispered prayer, 26-year-old Nida Martinez submitted to what she calls "the will of Allah."

"Islam gave me character, and it's the way I live my life," said the Colombian-born Martinez, who changed her name from Andrea to Nida, which means "a calling" in Arabic, when she embraced Islam five years ago.

Martinez, a Bayonne mother of three and a former Catholic, prays five times a day and covers her hair with a scarf known as a hijab.

She said she never felt comfortable with the teachings of the Catholic Church and questioned the doctrine of Jesus' divinity while attending Sunday school as a child.

She first learned about Islam from her Pakistani employers and, two months after her conversion, her Puerto Rican-born husband, Pedro, followed suit.

"Islam answered my questions and it made more sense to me," she said, adding that prior to becoming a Muslim, she explored other religions and Christian denominations. While her mother has accepted her Islamic lifestyle, her father has yet to come to terms with her Muslim identity, she said.

"To this day, I have had nothing that fulfills me like Islam does," Martinez said.

Islam, a monotheistic faith founded by the Prophet Mohammed in 7th century Saudi Arabia, has approximately 7 million adherents in the United States and 1.2 billion worldwide. In November, during Ramadan greetings to American Muslims at the White House, President Bush acknowledged Islam as "one of the fastest-growing religions in America."

Latino Muslims like Martinez are a growing community, with the Washington, D.C.-based American Muslim Council estimating there are 25,000 Muslims of Hispanic heritage in metropolitan areas around the nation.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group also based in Washington, D.C., estimates that 6 percent of all American converts to Islam are of Hispanic descent.

Nationwide, organizations such as the 26-year-old New York-based Alianza Islamica and the Latino American Dawah Organization have been linking members of the Latino Muslim community for years. Web sites like HispanicMuslims.com and Latinmuslims.com are the latest resources for new converts on the World Wide Web.

Before Sept. 11, there were two Latino converts at one North Hudson mosque alone, according to Imam Mohammed Al-Hayek of the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center in Union City.

During Ramadan - the Muslim holy month of fasting and spiritual reflection that ended Dec. 16 - half a dozen people of Hispanic origin uttered the "Shahadah," or declaration "I declare there is no God but Allah, and I declare that Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah," at the mosque, Al-Hayek said.

Every new Muslim must make this public declaration, usually after Friday prayers at the mosque, he said.

Since the September terrorist attacks, the mosque has experienced a 40 percent to 50 percent increase in calls and visits from primarily Hispanics who are "seeking a better understanding of Islam," the imam said.

"People want to know what Muslims think about terrorism, war and what happened on Sept. 11," he said, adding that the attacks go against the very teachings of Islam.

"The victims were civilians, not soldiers, and they were not enemies of Islam," the imam said. "There is no justification for that. Islam is a religion of peace."

Al-Hayek said many of the interested visitors are attracted to the religion by a Muslim friend, and most of the time end up choosing Islam after "making their own investigations about the religion."

The mosque is struggling to keep up with the demand for Spanish- and English-language Qurans, he said.

The imam believes that media coverage of Muslims since the Sept. 11 attacks has improved, and he considers that to be the catalyst for the increased interest in the religion.

"Before Sept. 11, I would say the media was very biased against Islam, but now it is more balanced," he said.

The North Hudson IEC has been holding lectures and events in Spanish and English to explain facets of the faith to non-Muslims. An Ecuadorian imam visited the mosque during the summer to lecture on the importance of Jesus in Islam, he said.

For 25-year-old Alex Robayo, his first thought after hearing that the Twin Towers were under attack was, "I hope it's not Muslims who did it."

"There is no justification for what happened," said the North Bergen resident and former Catholic who converted to Islam while studying at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, having been introduced to the religion by a Pakistani classmate.

"I chose Islam because it's not just going to church on Sunday," he said. "It's a way of life, not a one-day-a-week thing."

Robayo said his family was supportive of his decision to convert, but expressed concern about his personal safety after Sept. 11.

"They didn't want me to go to Friday prayers at the mosque," he said.

Unlike Al-Hayek, Robayo blames the media for reporting "misconceptions" about Islam.

"There are a lot of misconceptions that the media is spreading, and these stereotypes have been there for a long time," he said. One example, he said, is the word jihad, which means "to struggle" and is now used to signify "holy war."

"Unfortunately, a lot of the time, Muslims mean bad news," Robayo said.

Despite what he believes is negative media attention surrounding Islam, Robayo said the current situation has given him a chance to explain his faith to others, and he expressed optimism about Islam's role in American society.

"I think Islam will eventually be accepted in this country, but we just got a big setback from Sept. 11," he said.

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