Some Latinos convert to Islam
By Marcela Rojas
Aisha Ahmed's decision to convert to Islam and give up Catholicism and her Puerto Rican birth name, Maritza Rondon, did not come impulsively or under duress.
She spent five years studying the Quran and hired a teacher to learn Arabic before she was ready for shahadah, a declaration of faith led by an imam that is essential to the conversion process.
In the end, Ahmed's decision to become a Muslim and to take a name that belonged to the Prophet Muhammad's wife, she said, was borne of years of questioning her Catholic upbringing and discovering that, for her, the answers were with Islam.
"I have lived a humble and peaceful life since I converted. Everything is so clear," said Ahmed, 45, of Tarrytown. "I didn't see in Catholicism the unity and compassion I found in Islam. I saw more kindness and willingness to give."
Ahmed's change of faith is not unique among her ethnic group today. In recent years, thousands of Hispanics nationwide have been converting to Islam, particularly since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when interest in the religion seemed to gain momentum.
Though precise statistics do not exist, the Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates there are more than 36,000 Hispanic Muslims in the nation today. Other estimates raise the total to 75,000. A study the group conducted also showed that 6 percent of the 20,000 annual converts to Islam are Hispanic.
Though the numbers are a small fraction of the estimated 6 million Muslims in the country, it is fast becoming evident that the conversion rate among this minority group is taking root and that its influence is being asserted through the formation of Hispanic Muslim organizations — "dawah," or outreach efforts targeted at Hispanics — and the distribution of literature and the Quran in Spanish.
"There hasn't been real scientific gauging," said Mohamed Nimer, research director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "But Muslim leaders are saying they are seeing more and more Latino Muslims, especially in New York, California and Florida."
Melvin Reveron converted to Islam last year, following a period of depression and internal doubts about Catholicism, he said.
"I called myself a Catholic, but I wasn't practicing as an adult," said Reveron, 41, a Puerto Rican who lives in New York City. "I realized the futility of confession. I felt alienated from God and unworthy of God's graces. If I was going to reintroduce God into my life, I thought this was the best way."
Reveron had read the Quran after Sept. 11 because he wanted to gain more knowledge about a religion that was being blamed for the attacks, he said. Culture and religion often can be mistaken, he said.
"People say that Islam is a religion that teaches people to kill, that it creates suicide bombers," said Reveron, 41, a supervisor for the Department of Social Services in New York City. "I reject that notion. Just because a criminal does something, the religion isn't wrong. There's something wrong with that person."
The Quran, he said, resonates with Catholics because it mentions Adam, Moses, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Jesus is revered as a prophet — not as the son of God— within the Islamic religion.
"I looked at is as an intellectual continuation of what I had been taught," he said.
Like Reveron, many Hispanic converts say they have grown disenchanted with Catholicism and have difficulty accepting the church hierarchy, original sin, confession, the Holy Trinity and the saints. Others say they are "reverting" to a religion that is part of their ancestral history — Islam ruled Spain for several centuries.
Either way, following the five pillars of Islam, the foundation of Muslim life, is a more truthful existence, many agree. Islam's tenets include professing faith in Allah and the prophet Muhammad, praying daily, charity work, fasting during Ramadan and a pilgrimage to Mecca.
"I was very confident it was the correct way of living life," said Fatima Britos, 25, a John Jay College student of Argentine descent. "It is the straight path."
Britos recently attended a Columbia University student event titled "Latinos in Islam: Rediscovering our Roots" that saw a diverse group of people in attendance. The affair included a Mexican feast and a discussion led by Hernan Guadalupe on why Hispanics are converting to Islam today. The Ecuadorean-American outlined the Muslims' reign in Spain from 711 to 1492. Between 10 percent and 30 percent of Spanish words come from Arabic, he said. Guadalupe spoke of the cultural similarities and family values inherent to Hispanics and Muslims. Typically, Hispanic households are tightknit and devout, and children are reared in a strict environment — traits that mirror Muslim households, Guadalupe said.
"There are 780 years of Islamic influence that can't be ignored," said Guadalupe, 24, a mechanical engineer from South Brunswick, N.J. "If you understand that, as a Latino, you have Spanish blood in you, then you would understand ... that you have Islam in you."
Not coincidentally, Guadalupe converted to Islam on Sept, 11, 2001 — or "the day the towers fell," as he said — after years of studying different religions and cultures. He started the Latino Muslim Outreach Program this year, traveling to schools in the tri-state area to educate — not convert — people on Islam, he said.
Other organizations have formed in recent years, including Piedad, an Internet group with nearly 300 members whose mission is to teach non-Muslims and give leadership training to women, particularly Hispanic females.
"On a daily basis, I hear Latinos coming into the fold of Islam," said Piedad founder Khadijah Rivera. "It is so close to our culture that, once they understand, it is like second nature to belong to Islam."
But Catholic leaders do not consider the conversion rate a sign of the faithful growing disillusioned with the church, said Alejandro Aguilar-Titus, associate director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Of the 45 million Hispanics in this country, 32 million are Catholic, he said. Conversely, there are more than 6 million Muslims in Latin America, and it has been reported that Islamic ideologies are spreading among indigenous groups.
"As far as we can see, Catholics becoming Muslim is more of an individual choice that comes through marriage, friendships or relationships," said Aguilar-Titus. He later added, "It saddens the church, but at the same time, there is respect for that person's choice."
Aguilar-Titus reflected on Islamic Spain and said the influence brought several practices and symbols similar to Catholicism.
"These elements could be very powerful and attractive to someone," he said. "I think that's more significant than being disenchanted with Catholicism."
In 1997, the Latino American Dawah Organization — LADO— was formed by a handful of converts. It serves to educate and promote the legacy of Islam in Spain and Latin America. One of its organizers, Juan Galvan, a Mexican-American who lives in San Antonio, said he has been in contact with more than 20,000 Hispanic Muslims in recent years, co-authored a report, "Latino Muslims: The Changing Face of Islam in America," and is co-writing a book on conversion stories. LADO's Web site features dozens of accounts.
The need for support networks is imperative because often Hispanics may feel isolated from others who are born Muslim or because of a language barrier, he said. Galvan converted in the summer of 2001 after having grown up active in the Catholic Church, serving as an altar boy and Eucharistic minister.
"It's a very clear and simple belief," said Galvan, 30. "But it's not enough to say I disagree with the Catholic faith and then become a Muslim. There's more to it."
Indeed, converting to Islam means a lifestyle change that to some can be difficult. Fasting, praying five times a day and giving up alcohol and pork — a staple in the Hispanic diet — can present challenges. Women must wear a hijab, but the misperception, many women argue, is that the veil is debasing. Though there are no definitive statistics, reports indicate there are more women than men converting to Islam.
"A head scarf does not symbolize oppression. It represents freedom," said Ecuadorean Sonia Lasso, while speaking at the third annual Hispanic Muslim Day at a mosque in Union City, N.J. "Because it is not our physical but our intellectual selves that are seen."
Perhaps the biggest obstacle converts face is with their families, who take great pride in their Catholic rearing and have little understanding of Islam.
Reveron said he has yet to tell his family, fearing irreversible repercussions.
"I haven't found the right way to tell them," he said. "You hear stories about families ridiculing and (the Muslim converts) being ostracized."
For Ahmed, her family was more accepting of her decision, so much so that her brother is now Muslim, and her mother has accepted Islam, she said. Her life is much more devout since her conversion. She works as a representative to the James House at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow. She volunteers extensively in Westchester and the Bronx, a move she credits to her faith. She worships at the Thornwood masjid, as well as in the Bronx, and is proudest of helping to establish a mosque in Suffern with her former husband.
While the horror of Sept. 11 moved many Hispanics toward Islam, Ahmed admits that the attacks on the World Trade Center gave her pause about her adopted religion. But it was Islam that prevailed, she said.
"I saw a tragic situation and at the same time had to understand that I am a Muslim," she said. "My faith was tested, but I stayed on track because I'm not going to let a group of fanatics change my faith. I became stronger. Once you believe, you can't go back."