Small wave of Latinos feel draw of Islam

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On a Sunday afternoon, while millions in Los Angeles celebrated Easter, Elizabeth Chawki and her brother, Benny Garcia, sat in a quiet back room at the ILM Foundation, a small storefront Islamic center, to speak of what had brought them from traditional Christianity to a religion little practiced by their fellow Latinos.

"Faith and logic have to go hand in hand," says Ms. Chawki, her smiling face framed by the folds of her hijab.

It was a spiritual and intellectual conjunction which Chawki, who is of Spanish American and native American descent, was unable to find within Roman Catholicism or the born-again Protestantism her family explored after moving to South Central Los Angeles.

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But, she says, she did find it at Pasadena City College, in a chance conversation with Lebanese students. This ultimately led her to become one of the tiny but growing number of Latinos who have embraced Islam - now about 15,000 nationwide.

The talk, she says, was challenging - she recalls one student asking, "Why do you worship Jesus and not the one who created him?" No one pressured her to convert and, in any event, she says, "I'm not easily persuaded."

Still "being brought up Catholic a lot of things are done by tradition [and] ... didn't move me emotionally." And she realized she had other doubts about what she'd learned and accepted.

"I went home frustrated. I was trying to defend my faith and I couldn't." Nevertheless, she felt compelled to continue the conversations. "I've always asked God to guide me."

Soon, she says, the directness of the connection to God which Islam offered, the sense of "brotherhood and sisterhood," the structure it gave to daily life, and its inclusion of much Jewish and Christian teaching, led her to convert.

Reaction from other Latinos has varied, says Mr. Garcia, who converted to Islam several years ago for much the same reasons. "It kind of surprises people who meet a Muslim in jeans," Garcia says. "It's so shocking there's no reaction - especially when you speak Spanish. [They ask me]: 'Why aren't you Arabic?' I didn't fit that mold."

Still, because the sense of community identity and Catholic religious practices are so deeply intertwined in the Hispanic consciousness, says Garcia, "there's sometimes a sense of betrayal," although that hasn't translated into violence or discrimination.

Curiosity mixed with acceptance is more the norm as Garcia learned when he worked at a warehouse where many of the employees were Hispanics. His co-workers asked why he had stopped eating during meal breaks. "I would explain that [during the month of Ramadan] we are ordered by the Prophet to fast from sunup to sundown. They really respected that."

While Chawki and Garcia follow Islamic religious practices - both pray five times a day and she has already made the pilgrimage to Mecca - neither believes in being confrontational.

Yet both feel Islam has much to offer the wider Latino world. Garcia suggests that it could help to unite the disparate Latino communities in Los Angeles which are often divided by long standing national or ethnic differences.

"People are searching," says Chawki. "I think [Islam] is going to spread like wildfire."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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