Prayers Offer a More Intimate Link to God, Some Say
By Chris L. Jenkins
At dusk, Aminah Martinez prepares dinner in her small Fairfax kitchen. Corn tortillas for enchiladas, grated cheese and beef for tacos, maybe an avocado for guacamole -- all staples of her youth.
But dusk is also time for prayer. So every evening, with her husband and two children, she places her hands together and kneels to the east. It is Maghrib, Muslims' fourth prayer of the day, and she begins whispering in Arabic as the subtle aromas of Mexico mix with sounds often associated with the Middle East.
Martinez is one of the thousands of Latinos nationwide who have converted to Islam. It is an amalgam of two seemingly disparate communities. But in growing numbers, Hispanics, the country's fastest-growing ethnic group, are finding new faith in Islam, the nation's fastest-growing religion. Moved by what many say is a close-knit religious environment and a faith that provides a more concrete, intimate connection with God, they are replacing Mass with mosques.
"Islam has given me a sense of religious community and well-being that I was starting to miss in my life," said Martinez, 26, who converted from Catholicism in 1993. "It's helped give me a sense of completion."
The steadily increasing number of Latino Muslims illustrates how deeply rooted Islam has become in the national landscape -- even spreading to communities not normally associated with the faith, religious scholars say. The Muslim population in the United States is estimated at more than 4 million, nearly six times the number in 1970, but still a fraction of the nearly 1 billion Muslims worldwide.
Although exact numbers are difficult to find, the American Muslim Council, an advocacy group in Washington, estimates that there are 25,000 Hispanic Muslims in the United States. The largest communities are in New York City, Southern California and Chicago -- all places that traditionally have had large Hispanic and Muslim populations. All-Spanish mosques have emerged in some of those areas.
Many of the converts say th ey are choosing Islam because they feel the religion gives them greater direct contact with God, without saints and a rigid church hierarchy. Some also point to what they see as a closer-knit, smaller community that helps replace the extended family they have lost here in America, as well as a supportive sanctuary to help sort through their sometimes recent immigration. The Latino Muslims are part of a larger trend of American Hispanics leaving the Catholic Church, experts say.
In the Washington region, the population of Latino Muslims is largely from Mexico and Central America, as it is in western states, according to Latin American Muslim Unity, an advocacy group in Fresno, Calif. In other eastern cities, including Miami, significant numbers of converts are from Puerto Rico and Cuba.
"It certainly is a community that we have seen grow throughout the country over the past several years," said Aly R. Abuzaakouk, executive director of the American Muslim Council. "The community is not as organized as other Muslim groups here, so sometimes it's hard to determine the numbers."
Signs of the growth of Islam in the United States can be seen in everyday life. A few colleges are building student centers for Muslims, just as they built Hillel centers for Jewish students or Newman centers for Catholics several generations ago. The White House now sends greetings for the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, the feast that ends Ramadan.
"I think on college campuses and other public spaces, you're finding a greater acceptance of the views and the presence of Muslims," said John L. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and director of its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "A generation ago you might use the phrase 'Islam and the West,' and now you would say 'Islam in the West.' "
Indeed, acceptance and exposure are fueling the conversions, making it easier for Latinos to learn about Islam. Martinez, for example, converted when she was a student at the University of Texas in Austin. The eldest child in a strict Catholic household, she says Islam was largely alien to her until she began talking with Muslim students on campus. Like many Hispanics who have converted, she said she felt a distance from the Catholic Church, both as a religious community and a spiritual path.
"Growing up, I was a very devout Catholic. . . . Youth groups and everything," Martinez said. "But as I got older, I felt there were too many distractions in the church. Islam, to me, was a more direct faith where I felt a strong sense of belonging."
Her faith was tested immediately. Martinez's grandmother was so disappointed by the conversion that she asked her granddaughter to leave her home and refused to support her financially. She saw the defection from Catholicism as a rejection of family and tradition, Martinez said. It would be a year before the two would reconcile.
Such stories are common among Latinos who have abandoned Catholicism for Islam.
Others have had a smoother transition. Becky Diaz Abu Ghannam, 39, a Chilean American resident of Sterling who converted in 1984, said that she grew up feeling that Catholicism did not provide the close-knit religious community she was looking for. As she became more aware of Islam when she came to America, she found that it provided a warmth and direction that appealed to her -- particularly the five daily prayers. Initially, like many other Hispanic women interviewed, she was concerned about the role of women in Islam and whether she would be forced to take a subservient position to her husband, who is also Muslim, and other men. Her fears subsided as she learned more about the Koran and its teachings and how some countries' Islamic communities are less stringent about such requirements.
And, she adds, her mother, a lifelong Catholic, converted several months ago after seeing her daughter's spiritual path.
"The sense of sisterhood I felt with others who wore hijab was something that I had never experienced," said Abu Gha nnam, referring to the practice of Muslim women covering their heads in public. She added that, like Martinez, she is raising her children to speak all the languages of their upbringing: Arabic, Spanish, English.
"I think what many [Hispanics] are finding in Islam is a community that they find more nurturing," said Nicole Ballivian, a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker who is completing a movie about Latino Muslims called "Luces Sobre Islam" ("Islam in Focus").
She has traveled throughout South America and the Caribbean and visited many Hispanic Muslim communities here. She said that many of the converts she has talked with say the Catholic Church is large and impersonal.
These concerns about Catholicism mirror a trend that many officials in U.S. dioceses have tracked for years: the defection of Hispanics. The Catholic Almanac estimates that 100,000 Hispanics in the United States leave the church each year, although some other experts put the number as high as 600,000. Most have moved to Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant faiths as well as Mormonism, Islam and Buddhism. Converts appear to be both men and women in equal numbers.
"The numbers of Latinos who convert to various religions is certainly significant," said Alejandro Aguilera Titus, assistant director for the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs with the National Council of Catholic Bishops in Washington. "We find that the conversion efforts of many faiths have increased recently, which has led many Hispanics away from the Catholic Church."
Many area Latinos who have converted say their attraction to Islam is spiritual and pragmatic. And even as their community seems scattered -- with members attending mosques in Manassas, Herndon, Falls Church, Langley Park and College Park -- they have formed their own organizations and have produced their own literature. Spanish translations of the Koran, for instance, are popular at several Northern Virginia mosques.
The Association of Latin American Muslims, a group based in Takoma Park, distributes a bilingual, bimonthly newspaper, "La Voz Del Islam" ("The Voice of Islam") with members occasionally walking the streets to talk to Latinos.
"Organizing here can be very difficult at times, because it is easy to mistake Hispanics for other ethnicities," said group president R. Abdur Rahman Campos, who converted in 1982 after coming here from Mexico. Campos, 48, said he left the Catholic Church frustrated by what he called its heavy emphasis on saints, which he says distracted him from the word of God.
"But it is important to continue to spread the teachings to Hispanics and non-Hispanics," he added. "To everyone."