Latinos, Islam, and New York City
By Saraji Umm Zaid
New York City is home to the first masjid specifically for Spanish speaking people, the Alianza Islamica, originally located in el Barrio (E Harlem) of Manhattan, but now in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. However, September 11 has proven to us that Muslims, especially those of Latino descent, can not rest on this accomplishment and expect the Alianza to take up the business of telling the Latino community about Islam. Hundreds of the victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center were Latinos, many of them working in the service industry and administrative professions, many of them immigrants, some of them illegal. Among the thousands of the survivors of the attacks are many Latinos, who are not likely to ever forget the horrors they witnessed that day.
The 800,000 Muslims in New York City and its surrounding suburbs are now faced with a dilemma. Although we have for years lived side by side with Latinos, even done business with them, there has been a definite barrier between our communities. Many Muslims, especially shopkeepers, view Latinos as lazy, dishonest, and promiscuous. Many Latinos view the Muslims as isolationist, greedy, and rude. Both view one another as exotic. It is time for us to break through these stereotypes, for the survival of both of our communities. In all of the time that our people have lived next door to one another, there has never been a conscientious effort to reach out to the Latino community with the message of Islam, or to seek mutual understanding.
After September 11, many Islamic centers around New York City area realized that they had failed in reaching out to the Latino community. While many Muslims distributed books and pamphlets in English to neighbors and co-workers, others remembered their Spanish-speaking neighbors. The manager of the Bronx Muslim Center, located in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, reports distributing 3,000 Spanish language materials in the weeks after September 11th, and has thousands more on order. Bronx Muslim Center has also seen at least one Latino take their shahada since September 11, as well as a nikkah between two Latino Muslims.
However, to truly spread the message of Islam to the Latino community, Muslims cannot pass this responsibility off onto the masjid leadership. We must learn to talk to and answer questions from our Latino neighbors, customers, co-workers, and family members. Spanish speaking television has done Islam a grave disservice with numerous shows promoting the old “Islam is terror and oppresses women” view. This only sets us back as far as our dialogue with Latinos goes. Whatever ignorance you think the “Anglo” or White non Muslim community has about Islam, it is even more extensive in the Latino community, due to the lack of books and television programs and interviews that are available to them.
Prior to September 11, the only thing my cousin knew about Islam was that the men were allowed to marry more than one wife, the women have scarves, and “it’s from India or something.” She wasn’t really interested in hearing what I had to say about Islam, no matter how I approached it. After the attacks, she has become more curious, asking me questions about the Qur’an and violence, the place of Usama bin Ladin in the community, and the roots of the Palestinian -Israeli conflict. She was pleasantly surprised to learn about the central place that Mary and Jesus (peace be upon them) hold in Islam, something she never would have learned from the “news” programs about Islam on Spanish language television. Because of our discussions, she is now able to correct the misconceptions of her co-workers, friends, and family members when the topic comes up.
In order to reach the Latino population of New York City (and elsewhere), the Muslim community in New York needs to shed the painful and inaccurate stereotypes they hold about Latinos. Our close proximity to one another in this city should be an opportunity for dawah, not a case of “too close for comfort.” Those serious about Islam and dawah to Latinos also need to start reminding their brothers that selling liquor, cigarettes, pornography, and other haram materials to non Muslim Latino customers sends a very bad signal about Islam, Muslims, and hypocrisy.
In order to make dawah to Latinos easier, each masjid should have the phone numbers of at least one Spanish speaking and one Portuguese-speaking member in the Rolodex. Spanish and Portuguese language materials should be easily accessible, and attractively displayed on shelves. A sign in the masjid door or window letting Latino passerby know that Spanish materials are available would also be extremely practical. Finally, the masajid of the New York City area should take advantage of the opportunities offered by LADO. We have offered to do speaker / da’iyee training for Muslims speaking to Latinos, host new Muslim classes in English and Spanish, and distribute materials in English and Spanish.
In a city where Latinos hold the majority of the population, there is absolutely no excuse that every masjid should not have these materials and resources on hand. There is no reason that Muslims should not be reaching out to the Latino who lives next door, or works in the next cubicle. September 11th has shown us that we cannot afford to be complacent and lackadaisical about reaching out to non Muslims. This should be doubly true about reaching out to Latinos in New York, a community in pain, mourning, and confusion about Islam. Curiosity about Islam is at an all time high, in Latino and non-Latino communities. If we concentrate on reaching “Anglo” communities at the expense of reaching the Latino communities, it will come back to haunt us.