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Latino Muslims

By Jazmin Ortega
La Prensa
February 2001

RIVERSIDE- From the eyes of strangers, he who is Muslim is Arab. But in the Inland Empire, as it is in other parts of the country, an increasing number of Latinos are breaking the stereotypes, leaving the religion of Christianity to adopt Islam.

Islam, the second largest religion in the world after Christianity, was founded by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the 7th century of the Common Era. The revelations that were given to him to found Islam were given over the course of 22 years in the cities of Mecca and Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia.

Abdulhadi Bazurto, leader of Latin American Muslim Unity, states that Latinos are sometimes disillusioned with Christianity and they search for simplicity which Islam offers.

"Ask a child, and he will tell you that God is one. Period. Ask a theologian how many gods there are and he will have you going in circles," said Bazurto, who is originally from El Salvador and a resident of Fresno.

Some people that consider the feeling of religious community and that it is a faith that provides a more direct and intimate connection with God, are making the change from Mass to mosque.

If you calculate that the Muslim population is 4 million in this country, that is 6 times more than it was in 1970. And that is only a fraction of the millions worldwide. And in the United States, it is difficult to calculate exactly how many Muslims are of Latino origin.

"The problem is that it is difficult to identify the Latinos that convert to Islam because physically speaking they might appear to be Arabs. The American Muslim Council of Washington DC, however, has calculated that there are approximately 25,000 Latino Muslims in the United States.

The largest communities are found in southern California, New York and Chicago, areas in which traditionally there are the largest number of Latinos. In these places, some mosques have been established. But the majority, Latino women who are married to Muslim men, make up part of the mosque housing Arabs, African Americans, and Caucasians.

"The Latin American is living with a huge identity crisis, he does not know if he is European and he feels embarrassed to be Indian," says Bazurto. "There is this problem, 'Who are we?' We seem to be neither one nor the other and we are looking for a natural alternative," he stated.

For Fatima Atoura, or Mireya Aceves of Ontario, conversion was not the consequence of a question of identity, but one of belief. When she knew the man who would later become her husband, she already did not completely believe in Catholicism. But the intense interchange of questions on divine origin little by little led her to Islam.

"A Muslim man can marry anyone that he wants," said Imad Atoura, Fatima's husband. Atoura, originally from Syria, affirmed that his wife was not obligated to adopt his religion. It was not until after she was expecting their second child that she decided to convert.

Others, like Ali Medina of Pomona, encountered Islam at a low point in their lives. "Before I had no direction in my life, I was ruining my life, and I had left school in the eleventh grade," said Medina. "I was hanging in the streets taking drugs and drinking alcohol. I had dreams, but they seemed very far off." In the middle of his confusion, a friend presented him with a copy of the Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam, and he decided to change his life.

Jose Gomez, Medina's friend, is a 22-year-old Salvadoran who converted to Islam in January of 1999. "I began studying other religions and I met a Mexican Muslim where I work," said Gomez, who is known at the mosque by the name Yusuf, the Arabic version of José. "I had the same stereotypes that Muslims were Arabs and I began to laugh that there could be a Mexican Muslim and I thought it was a joke." In the beginning it was difficult for his family to understand his new beliefs. "My mother thought I had joined a cult," said Gomez, "because she didn't know what I was."

But Latino Muslims point out the existence of similarities in values and customs. "Many of our customs were truly Muslim: this respect we have for the mother and the concept of the woman as a mother are not European, they are Muslim," said Bazurto. "Many times Latino women like Muslim men because they don't drink, they cannot be womanizers, and are homebodies and religious." For those who have never visited a mosque the experience borders on the exotic. The women and men pray in separate areas and remove their shoes before entering. The women cover their heads and dress modestly. The congregation responds to the call to prayer, which is in Arabic, kneeling on a carpeted floor. Fatima Atoura at first wanted to leave the place because she felt like the only Latina in the mosque, but she said little by little she has more company as the number has grown in the last few years.

La Prensa, a Publication of the Press-Enterprise Co. Translated.