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Many drawn to Islam's simplicity, peace, balance

By Rabiah Ahmed
The Herald-Sun
August 24, 2002

Fatima Morales always was taken by the woman in the veil, the way the cloth draped simply around her face, the way her lowered gaze suggested humility.

But as a Catholic, Morales would not associate the image of the Virgin Mary with a Muslim woman wearing her hijab until many years later, when she embraced Islam. "I have always had a natural attraction to it," Morales said. "It made me feel peaceful. Now, I realize this is maybe what I was looking for in life."

Part of a small but steadily growing community, Morales, 38, is one of thousands of Latino Muslims nationwide. Attracted to what they consider Islam's simplicity and directness, many Latinos are leaving their strong Catholic traditions behind for Islam. Morales left her native Nicaragua 16 years ago during that country's civil war and accepted Islam six years later.

"I don't like to think I converted," she said. "I believe we are all entitled to come to the realization of our purpose in life. Islam for me is just that. It's a destination that you arrive at after looking for something to fill the emptiness."

Growing up in Catholic schools, she always felt uncomfortable with the church's emphasis on saints and its core Trinity doctrine. "I could never love Jesus the way the church wanted me to," she said. "I always felt guilty for loving Mary more."

So after her divorce in 1992, when Morales moved to Raleigh from Miami with her daughter to start a new life, she looked for a new faith to fill her spiritual void. Every faith she studied had positive aspects, but Islam made the most sense to her.

"Islam balances the spiritual and material world perfectly," she said. "When I read about the Prophet Muhammad, I fell in love with his character. Here was a man who was a husband and a businessman, a person we can relate to. I saw him as an example for all mankind."

Sense of community
For other Latino Muslims, like 35-year-old Rodrigo Dorfman, the sense of community and unity among Muslims was most appealing. Son of noted Chilean writer and activist Ariel Dorfman, Rodrigo said his life of exile caused him great anguish and made him long for a place to call home.

"When I decided to enter Islam, I felt cleansed of the need for that," said Dorfman, a columnist for The Herald-Sun's Nuestro Pueblo section. "In Islam, you have a Creator and you can go home. It's the Creator."

As a Sufi, a Muslim who emphasizes the spiritual side of Islam, Dorfman also found comfort and peace in Islamic rituals, such as the daily prayers and fasting in Ramadan, the holy month of Islam.

"I entered Islam through form," he said. "When you break away from your daily activities to do zikr, or divine rituals of remembrance, you remind yourself that there is a power that is greater than you. And I find much solace in that."

While the combination of Latino culture and Islam may seem a bit nontraditional at first, Islamic ties to Latino heritage extend as far back as the eighth century.

In 711 A.D., Gen. Tariq ibn Ziyad and a small army traveled from Morroco to Al-Andalus, or present-day Spain, to battle King Roderic and the Visigoth army.

According to historical text, Ziyad and his army traveled by sea and landed on what is now called Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq or "Tariq's mountain"). Although the size of each army is unclear, it is believed that Ziyad's army was greatly outnumbered since he was limited to the number of men who could travel in each boat. Realizing his disadvantage, Ziyad ordered his fleet burned to keep his men from fleeing. In a rousing speech afterwards, he told his men that with only the water behind them, they had nowhere to go but forward. His soldiers defeated Roderick and conquered all of Spain, Sicily and parts of France for 700 years.

Under Moorish rule, Islam influenced most aspects of Spanish life, including music, art, literature and architecture. Many Moorish soldiers married Spanish women, further mixing the two cultures.

Dorfman said a pilgrimage to Morocco in 1999, right before his conversion to Islam, was partly to honor his Moorish heritage. "I felt a great affinity to Islamic culture," he said. "The calligraphy, the music, the architecture struck an emotional chord in me."

Conversion
For family members and friends, however, the conversion of a loved one to Islam initially can be awkward. The difference in lifestyles and the letting go of strong Catholic traditions often is seen as a rejection of family and history.

When Morales accepted Islam, her daughter, Maria, initially was embarrassed by her mother's faith. Morales remembers Maria asking her not to pick her up from school while wearing hijab.

Today, Maria, 20, is a Muslim. Within a year of her mother's conversion, she too accepted Islam. "I admire my mother for exposing me to Islam and not forcing it upon me," said the psychology major at N.C. State. "I feel she gave me the greatest gift."

When Dorfman accepted Islam, his wife and dad worried the former agnostic who was raised atheist would lose his identity. His family thought that by accepting Islam, a religion that revolves everything around God, Dorfman was going from one extreme to another.

But like many others, Dorfman's non-Muslim family and friends eventually saw the positive changes in him and began to accept and respect his decision. "My father thought I was going to lose my sense of humor," he said. "Now he sees it as a coming together of who I am."

Growing population
Although official numbers do not exist, various American Muslim organizations estimate between 30,000 and 50,000 Hispanic Muslims in the United States. The largest communities are in New York City, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles - places with traditionally more Hispanics and Muslims.

According to a report published by the Hispanic Affairs division of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, members of the nation's fastest-growing minority are exploring other religions, but the rate of conversion and the reasons why remain unclear.

"We agree that Latinos are attending other institutions, but we don't know if they are denouncing their faith," said Ronaldo M. Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs. "Many Latinos, who are born outside of the U.S., are looking to integrate into society, so they attend churches where they speak your language." While some seem attracted to Islam, Mormonism and Buddhism, Cruz said most Catholic Latinos leave to join Protestant groups.

In 1990, only 12 percent of the diocesan directors said that the religious activities of Protestant groups were affecting Hispanics to a great extent. In 1998, more than four times as many directors said this was true, according to the report.

Working to promote Islam among Latinos, many Hispanic Muslims have formed organizations, such as the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) in New York City. It provides free information about Islam, translates the Quran into Spanish and educates others about Islam's legacy in Spain and Latin America.

According to Juan Alvarado, 33, a LADO member, one issue facing new converts is how to balance their Muslim identity and Latino culture. "Many people in the community think it's strange not to drink, or eat pork, or participate in dating," he said. "They tend to see you as a sell-out or un-Hispanic."

Alvarado said that after Sept. 11, there was a noticeable increase in interest about Islam on the LADO Web site by both Latinos in America and overseas. "People had a lot of questions about Islam, and they wanted to know how to obtain books and literature in Spanish," he said.

Alvarado believes that despite the negative coverage of Islam after 9/11, it's only a matter of time that Islam becomes a common religion among Latinos because of what he sees as the many similarities between both cultures.

"I remember that one of the things that also interested me about Islam was the general similarities to Latin culture," he said. "Traditional Hispanic culture emphasizes the importance of the virtuous woman as does Islam. When my own grandmother was alive, she would never go out without the Latino version of 'hijab' which mean wearing a kerchief (pauelo) and an ankle-length skirt."

The Durham Herald Company, 2002. All rights reserved.

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