More US Hispanics drawn to Islam

Marriage, post-9/11 curiosity, and a shared interest in issues such as immigration are key reasons.

With her hijab and dark complexion, Catherine Garcia doesn't look like an Orlando native or a Disney tourist. When people ask where she's from, often they are surprised that it's not the Middle East but Colombia.

That's because Ms. Garcia, a bookstore clerk who immigrated to the US seven years ago, is Hispanic and Muslim. On this balmy afternoon at the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, she is at her mosque dressed in long sleeves and a long skirt in keeping with the Islamic belief in modesty. "When I was in my country I never fit in the society. Here in Islam I feel like I fit with everything they believe," she says.

Garcia is one of a growing number of Hispanics across the US who have found common ground in a faith and culture bearing surprising similarities to their own heritage. From professionals to students to homemakers, they are drawn to the Muslim faith through marriage, curiosity and a shared interest in issues such as immigration.

The population of Hispanic Muslims has increased 30 percent to some 200,000 since 1999, estimates Ali Khan, national director of the American Muslim Council in Chicago. Many attribute the trend to a growing interest in Islam since the 2001 terrorist attacks and also to a collision between two burgeoning minority groups. They note that Muslims ruled Spain centuries ago, leaving an imprint on Spanish food, music, and language.

"Many Hispanics ... who are becoming Muslim, would say they are embracing their heritage, a heritage that was denied to them in a sense," says Ihsan Bagby, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky.

The trend has spawned Latino Islamic organizations such as the Latino American Dawah Organization, established in 1997 by Hispanic converts in New York City. Today the organization is nationwide.

The growth in the Hispanic Muslim population is especially prevalent in New York, Florida, California, and Texas, where Hispanic communities are largest. In Orlando, the area's largest mosque, which serves some 700 worshipers each week, is located in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. A few years ago it was rare to hear Spanish spoken at the mosque, says Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.

Today there is a growing demand for books in Spanish, including the Koran, and requests for appearances on Spanish-language radio stations, Mr. Musri says. The mosque offers a Spanish-language education program in Islam for women on Saturdays. "I could easily see in the next few years a mosque that will have Spanish services and a Hispanic imam who will be leading the service," he says.

The two groups tend to be family-oriented, religious, and historically conservative politically, Dr. Bagby says. Many who convert are second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans.

The two groups also share an interest in social issues such as immigration, poverty, and healthcare. Earlier this year Muslims joined Hispanics in marches nationwide protesting immigration-reform proposals they felt were unfair.

In South Central Los Angeles, a group of Muslim UCLA students a decade ago established a medical clinic in this underserved area. Today the nonreligious University Muslim Medical Association Community Clinic treats some 16,000 patients, mostly Hispanic, who see it as a safe place to seek care without fear for their illegal status, says Mansur Khan, vice chairman of the board and one of the founders.

Although the clinic doesn't seek Muslim converts, Dr. Khan sees Hispanics taking an interest in his faith because it focuses on family, he says. One volunteer nurse founded a Latino Islamic organization in the area. Another Hispanic woman told Khan she felt drawn to the faith because of the head covering Muslim women wear. It reminded her of the Virgin Mary.

The trend is a sign that Islam is becoming more Americanized and more indigenous to the country, Bagby says. As Republican positions on issues such as immigration push Muslim Hispanics and blacks in a less conservative direction, Islam could move in the same direction. Muslim Hispanic and black involvement in American politics could demonstrate to Muslims worldwide the virtues of democracy, eventually softening fundamentalists. He believes the Osama bin Ladens of the world are a small minority, and that most fundamentalists are moving toward engagement with the West.

"The more Hispanics and other Americans [who] become Muslim, the stronger and wider the bridge between the Muslim community and the general larger American community," Bagby says. "Their words and approach have some weight because they are a source of pride for Muslims throughout the world."

Garcia left Colombia to study international business in the US. Always religious, she considered becoming a nun when she was younger. But her Catholic faith raised questions for her. She wondered about eating pork when the Bible forbids it, and about praying to Mary and the saints and not directly to God.

In the US she befriended Muslims and eventually converted to Islam. Her family in Colombia was supportive. Today she says her prayers in English, Spanish, and Arabic, and she eats Halal food in keeping with Islamic beliefs.

"It's the best thing that happened to me," says Garcia in soft, broken English. "I never expected to have so many blessings and be in peace like I am now."

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