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Embracing Islam, Praying for Acceptance

By H.G. Reza
Los Angeles Times
October 29, 2005

Many Latino Muslims, some raised Catholic, struggle with views of their new faith on the part of the public -- and their families.

As a college student in Mexico, Marta Khadija Ramirez was so influenced by Marxist and existentialist writers that she stopped believing in God. That changed during a semester at a British school, where she was a visiting student and three Muslim classmates introduced her to Islam.

She decided to convert. But imagine the difficulty of a Latina steeped in Roman Catholic tradition trying to explain Islam to her family in 1983. And imagine that one of her sisters is a Catholic nun. "Islam was unknown in Mexico then. It wasn't easy for my family to accept my decision," said Khadija, the youngest of 11 sisters raised on a ranch south of Mexico City and now a nurse who lives in Los Angeles. "My sister the nun was blaming herself for not teaching me enough about Catholicism."

Muslims throughout the world are observing Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting and repentance. For many Latino Muslims in Southern California, it is also a time to celebrate Islam's diversity and their conversion to a religion still struggling against intolerance in the overwhelmingly Christian United States. This year, the holy month started the first week of October.

The American Muslim Council estimates that there are about 40,000 Latino Muslims in the U.S. Local Muslims say there are about 1,000 Latino Muslims in Southern California, but that an accurate count is difficult because Islam is a decentralized religion.

The Los Angeles Latino Muslim Assn., founded in 1999, hopes to find converts through an outreach program to introduce Islam to the millions of Latinos living in the city. The group meets at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, and on Sundays during Ramadan members break their dawn-to-sunset fast together at the Vermont Avenue facility. The group also meets at the Masjid Omar, a mosque in Los Angeles.

"We're trying to improve the understanding of Islam and at the same time provide spiritual support for new Latino Muslims making the transition from Christianity," said Khadija, president of the 50-member association.

Ramadan is the perfect time for dawah, or outreach, because it is when Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad first began to receive revelations of the holy Koran from the archangel Gabriel, she said.

The association runs Luz del Islam Publishing in Culver City, where Islamic literature is printed in Spanish. Group members pass out that material, including a Spanish translation of the Koran, at Latino book fairs and sponsor mosque tours and seminars for Latinos. They also provide speakers to Latino student groups at area colleges.

Still, Muslims have to overcome some public perceptions that, Khadija said, are unfairly colored by "misunderstanding and fear" since the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001.

Arwa Ayloush, whose name was Vilma Avila before she converted in 1991 while attending the University of Texas, said her parents' initial apprehension about her new religion stemmed from "fear of the unknown."

"You just left Laredo and now you're a Muslim. What happened to you, girl?" is how Ayloush, raised a Jehovah's Witness, described her family's reaction to her conversion.

Over time, the families of Khadija and Ayloush, a kindergarten teacher living in Corona, accepted their Muslim identities. Each later married Muslim men. Ayloush's husband is Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

But for Richard Silva, 40, and others who converted after the 9/11 attacks, some friends and family members are still baffled by their embrace of Islam. "They ask why I want to change my culture. I tell them I'm changing religion, not culture. I still eat tortillas," said Silva, an aircraft worker who lives in East Los Angeles and converted in 2002.

In spite of their small numbers, Latino Muslims interviewed said integration into their Muslim religious community was easier for them than for Latinos assimilating into society as a whole. "I never had a problem being accepted," Khadija said. "People from many different cultures who speak different languages worship together at our masjid."

Each took a unique path to Islam, but none follows the strict religious laws observed by some other adherents in the Islamic world. Some of the women wear the hijab (head scarf), but their wardrobes include modest western clothing, including jeans. Although they do not eat pork, few follow a halal diet, in which food is prepared according to Islamic dietary laws.

But all said they were looking for spiritual guidance that they were not getting from Christianity. Each one also questioned the Christian depiction of Jesus as divine. Former Catholics questioned the church's teaching that the Holy Trinity is God existing as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

"I had trouble believing that someone could come to this world as a man and become God," said Granada Hills mortgage broker Pablo Calderon, 29, who was raised Catholic and converted eight years ago. "I liked the Islamic teaching that says your paradise is set as long as you are righteous and believe in one God."

Kathy Espinoza, who grew up Catholic in Riverside and is now a social worker in San Jose, said the Muslims' reverence for the Virgin Mary and Jesus made the transition easier. Muslims believe that Jesus is a major prophet, and he is mentioned numerous times in the Koran.

"People think Islam is such a far-out religion, but it's not. We believe in many of the same prophets as Christians. We also believe in the Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception, Adam and Eve and creation," Espinoza said.

Espinoza was active in her Riverside Catholic parish, where she sang in the choir with her father, who played the guitar. Her brother, who was in the seminary when she converted in 2001, warned that if she "didn't accept Jesus as my Lord and savior you're not going to heaven," she said. The brother, who later left the seminary and married, came to accept her conversion.

The Catholic roots in Espinoza's family are so deep that she was afraid to tell her grandmother about her conversion. She died two months ago without knowing.

"My grandmother was a strong Mexican woman who would probably disown me if she knew I became Muslim," said Espinoza, who is unmarried.

Ayloush, 35, said Jesus' role as a prophet of Islam and the Muslim belief that he would play a major role in conquering evil appealed to Latinos, whose culture is rich with religious stories and tales about good and evil and light and darkness.

Despite the differences that many U.S. Christians believe separate them from Muslims, both sides have much in common, Ayloush and the others said.

"The theological differences are there, but they shouldn't be a fence that separates us. They should be a bridge instead," Ayloush said. "I'm a Little League mom. I'm there cheering for my kids who play sports, like the other moms. The only thing that's really different about me is the hijab."

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