Of Dios… Latinos Embracing Islam
By Sara Hassan
The Message International
November-December 2005, pp 8-13.
The soft lilac headscarf compliments her matching outfit and her light complexion. Her face rests at peace as she concentrates on her prayer, her lips moving softly to the memorized Arabic words. She kneels and prostrates in the front line of several rows of a culturally diverse group of women at the Omar Ben Abdel-Aziz mosque in Queens, New York. When the prayer ends, she happily bounces around the room chatting with the others, addressing each one as sister. “I feel like I belong,” she says. Marlene Lillo-Smith, 44, says she enjoys being in the company of other Muslims. She converted to Islam in November 2001, not too long after the attacks of September 11.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Lillo-Smith is one of the many Latino converts to Islam, accounting for six percent of 20,000 Muslim conversions in the United States, according to one 2002 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). And Muhammad Nimr, Director of CAIR’s Research Department says that, “It is absolutely true that there is a growing number of Latinos converting to Islam,” but there is not much documentation or research that has been done on the topic.
“Latinos began converting to Islam in the early 1970’s through their exposure to the Nation of Islam,” says Louis Abdellatif Cristillo, the Coordinator of the Muslims in New York City project, conducted by the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. The Nation of Islam is a sect of Islam that began in the 1930’s promoting Black empowerment over Whites. It was embraced by people like Malcolm X, who later rejected it as not mainstream Islam, which promotes equality among all races. Cristillo says that although Latinos were not active members of the movement, their first exposure to the religion was because of contacts with the group.
And that silent trend has not abated as a result of September 11, 2001. “There has been a dramatic interest in obtaining material in Spanish, especially the Qur’an, but also secondary sources of information,” said Edina Lekovic, Communications Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Los Angeles bureau. She says interest for these materials have skyrocketed. “Over the last two decades, there was a steady increase, but there was a sharp turn upwards in demand after September 11.” Lekovic says that this could have happened because after the attacks “the greater public became very interested, or suspicious, of Islam, causing extra examination; and that included the Latino community.” She says that in the current context, one of the primary motivations that draw Latinos to Islam is the commonalities, such as family values, shared between Latinos who are rooted in Roman Catholicism and those who follow Islam. “They feel comfortable within the same structure and there is a lot in common minus the Trinity,” said Lekovic. She also said that it is a religion that judges people based on their deeds and work for mankind rather than salvation. And another means through which many Latina women come to Islam is through marriage. Lekovic says that in her Los Angeles community, she knows about a dozen couples who fell in love and married, thus exposing the women to Islam.
For many people, the attacks made them re-examine their faith and some new Muslims were even shaken by its impact. But for Marlene, who left a strict Roman Catholic background to become a Muslim, the negative publicity engulfing Islam caused her to embrace it all the more tighter and use her faith to make her stronger. Like Marlene, there is a group of Latino converts who are holding fast to their new faith after the attacks, despite the negative images linking Islam and Muslims to terrorism.
And when Lillo-Smith converted, she wanted to defend her new faith from the negative images it was gaining. She says that the accusations that were made were blind attacks on Islam. She felt that people were looking for a culprit without trying to find rational explanations to what happened. Marlene says that many people spoke out of ignorance and trashed the religion without trying to learn about it or find out what the Qur’an really says. “One person brought up Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, who had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks of September 11,” she said. Her faith was solidified because, through all the negative propaganda and anti-Islamic sentiment, she realized that most of the accusations made by people were false and stemmed from ignorance. Marlene says that those who did try to learn the facts about the religion realized that Islam is really a religion of peace and does not authorize what happened, and that the negative allegations turned out to be baseless and false.
Before she came to the United States, Lillo-Smith was raised in Santiago, where she was born to a middle class family. She was a member of the YMCA and part of a very religious family. As a member of the YMCA she would visit hospitals, help kids with their homework, and educate youth about Christian principles. But the strict doctrine that dictated her life at home somehow did not strike the right chord within her heart. “I started to feel disenchanted with the Catholic faith, with all the red tape they have and bureaucracy, and some things they couldn’t give me answers to, because I’m always asking questions, why is this, why is that?” she said. She said that she often reached many topics where she would reach the end of her answers. Lillo-Smith moved from one dried well to another as she started to experiment with other religions. She tried Buddhism and received literature from the Bahai faith, “but it didn’t click with me,” she said. Then she tried Spiritism, a Brazilian religion that believes the living communicate with the spirits of the dead. “Besides everybody being nice, they didn’t bring anything to me either,” she said. She eventually embraced and stayed with Islam.
She, herself, had originally been exposed to the religion through marriage. But she was not fully rehearsed in this new religion she had embraced. She thought she could find answers to Islam through her new Moroccan husband. To the contrary, his non-religious practices became a hindrance to her learning. After taking the Shahada, the first step to becoming a Muslim by declaring that “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” she tried to implement the other tenets of the religion. She started praying five times a day. And she even fasted the entire month of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, for the first time while she was with him. She was expecting a difficult task, but she was shocked by her stamina. “It was something really easy for me and I was really surprised,” she remembers. “I liked the entire idea, the entire purpose of it.” But instead of helping her to progress as a Muslim, her husband became an impediment to her growth.
“He wasn’t a practicing Muslim,” she explains. “He was really the opposite, he was very bad.” He would tell her that he was going to the mosque, but that she could not go with him because he said women were not permitted to go to the mosque. Marlene was not expecting such an answer and did not know what to make of his orders. She felt curtailed and shortchanged by the situation. “I was really upset by that because I was searching and looking for something and he never opened that door for me,” she said. But Marlene found out later that her husband had good reasons for not taking her with him. He was not attending the mosque at all, but rather was drinking, smoking, and partying.
Marlene, however, makes the distinction that she does not equate her circumstances with her husband as a representation of Islam. She says that the religion was not to blame for his actions. She says that she can see the difference that occurs between practicing and non-practicing Muslim men. She feels that those who practice Islam like it should be followed naturally tend to be more respectful to women, especially to those who wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarf. She says that the patriarchal aspect of Muslim men come more in the form of over-protectiveness they shed over the women for their well-being. Lillo-Smith says she noticed this change in her husband and his friends when they started to reacquaint themselves with their religion and become better Muslims. She noticed that “as more practicing Muslims, men behave as better husbands and fathers. They discover new respect even for their mothers.” Marlene says she enjoys the fact that “women have more rights under Islam than I could have in my country in the Christian religion.” If a woman chooses to work, she is not obligated to share her money with her husband. Today Marlene says she is even able to talk to her husband about Islam and both of them are learning together. “Now he is really willing to teach me anything and pray by listening to the Arabic over the phone and transliterating it into her own combination of English and Spanish. She would then tape the passages to the wall in front of her to read while she performed the physical prayer until she finally memorized the passages. She also requested products and information from WhyIslam.org. They sent her a package for first-timers that included a hijab, a prayer rug, a Qur’an in Arabic and Spanish, prayer beads, and some literature about Islam.
By November 2001, she was ready to become a Muslim on her own accord, not like the haphazard way she did at the time of her marriage. Sitting at the computer, she said, “I felt like I was ready.” She performed the Islamic ritual of ablution, wore her hijab, and sat on her prayer rug and recited the Shahada, this time from the heart. And this was not long after September 11, 2001. She recalls the huge publicity Islam received “bad and good, all over the world, and then Islam became known to everyone.” She said the attacks depressed her, especially because she had worked at the World Trade Center from 1995 to 1999 as the Executive Assistant of General Managing at Commerce Bank, the third largest German bank.
When she had gone home to Santiago to visit her family after the attacks, she was not even embraced with a warm welcome from her own family. “They were outraged,” she said. They thought it was just another phase in her search for a permanent religion. Of all the outlandish ideas Marlene had experimented with, they never expected that she would stick with what they viewed as the most extreme religion of all the choices. She said the bad publicity of Islam in South America made many people afraid of the religion. “In Chile people are not open-minded. They’re really prejudiced,” she said. “They will welcome you as an outsider, as a tourist, as someone that won’t have an impact on their culture, but once you decide you want to be a part of it and change things over there, they’re going to reject you.” Marlene said that her mother would not accept any conversion, but with her decision to accept Islam, her mother also feared for her daughter’s safety in the midst of that society.
Her mother was also concerned that Marlene would influence her sisters, Helia and Veronica, or her brother Enrique, or even her nephews and nieces. Her father had passed away in 1996. The family was especially concerned that she would influence the children because they look up to her as the only aunt that lives outside of the country and who is also a godmother to many of them. Veronica and her husband, who have four children, even asked Marlene never to pray in front of their children. Marlene said it makes her feel really sad that “they don’t want them to see me doing it because they will copy me, and they don’t want that.”
And back in the United States, Lillo-Smith says she faces constant discrimination. As a student at New York University, she says she felt the discrimination in her grades after 9/11. She said that she was on friendly terms with one of her professors and they would often leave the classroom joking and chatting. But after September 11 things changed. “The first time I came to class in my hijab, the professor wouldn’t talk to me,” she explained. Then she said she noticed her grades dropped to B’s and C’s. “Not because I deserved it,” she said. “In fact, I was studying even harder.” When she confronted her professor and asked him why he was lowering her grades, he responded with, “Because I can.” She says she even tried to tell somebody else about it, but that “people who make waves get pushed aside.” In the classroom she says that “everybody in the class moved away. I was completely ostracized.”
Marlene stopped wearing the hijab not too long afterward. As a result of September 11, because the discrimination had been worse when she would wear the headscarf, she says that it makes it more difficult for her to find a job. Her Spanish accent does not indicate that she is a Muslim, but when she covers her dark brown hair with a scarf, it makes her stand out more as being different. “Right now I need to work,” she said. “And I need to work quickly because I’ve been out of work for almost four years and I have a huge debt, plus my student loans, and I fully support my mom on my own.”
Despite all these challenges, Marlene did not leave Islam and says she is happy to be a Muslim. “I think that Islam is a difficult religion to follow,” she said. “I believe it’s not for weak people. And it makes you stronger in many senses.” And this strength is what kept her from giving up on the religion. Learning more about the religion gave her a sense of empowerment.
Since September 11, the rest of the Muslim community is becoming aware of a Latino Muslim presence. “There definitely is a growing number of Latinos converting to Islam,” said Mahbubur Rahman, Editor-in-Chief of The Message International, a magazine produced by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
The Latino Muslim community in the whole tri-state area is at the Islamic Center of Passaic County and the North Hudson Islamic Education Center in Union City, New Jersey. They both have a large Latino Muslim population. “I’ve noticed that since 9/11, there was a wave of Hispanics reverting to Islam at this center,” said Yousef Abdallah, the Outreach Director. “Since then, there has been an average of one person a month accepting Islam.” One of those people is Linda Rodriguez, 29. She is also Puerto Rican and came to the United States to live in Brooklyn at the age of 16. She became Muslim in January 2002 and had been studying Islam for a while. “After 9/11, I saw how Muslim people were being somewhat attacked,” she said. She thought she could help the Muslims and the non-Muslims make sense of what happened. And she used her Spanish to make the bridge between the two religions in the Latino community. Her five-foot-nine-inch slender frame gracefully bends over the desk in Yousef Abdallah’s office as she translates his English dictation into Spanish for a flyer. Translating literature into Spanish is how she volunteers at the mosque. And she, herself, attends classes every Saturday morning at the mosque to learn Arabic.
And there are other Latinos who are part of the New York City Muslim community. At first Khadijah James, 24, did not agree with her husband; she only just supported him. But now Khadijah wears the hijab, the Islamic headscarf, and prays five times a day. The neatly wrapped white cloth compliments her slender face as she speaks in a soft voice. Her husband is currently in prison and decided to convert to Islam while he was incarcerated. And now she visits her husband in prison every two weeks.
Khadijah James is a student at New York University and is obtaining her Master’s in Direct and Interactive Marketing. She was born in the United States and lives in Brooklyn, but her parents immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. She and her two older brothers were raised Roman Catholic.
James met her husband many years ago, since he was friends with her brother Anyori, 29. They started dating several years ago when he was accused and convicted of robbery. While he was in jail, Khadijah mentioned to her parents that she wanted to marry him. They told her to wait and did not approve of the idea. In the meanwhile, she secretly married him in prison. “My parents didn’t know until a year after we got married. I was still living in the dorms, so it was easier to keep it a secret from them,” she said. “Marriage is a big thing and I’m sure my parents wanted to be a part of it.” Her parents are just hoping that he turns out to be a good husband because they feel that he might be acting a certain way because he is in prison right now.
During his time in prison, Khadijah’s husband learned about Islam from people involved in Muslim outreach programs to people in the prisons. When he accepted the religion, Khadijah still was not too sure about it. She started to learn from her husband about it and at first had her doubts. But her doubts with the Roman Catholic religion pushed her to learn more. James says she could not understand the concept of Confession in Roman Catholicism where your sins could be forgiven by telling them to a priest and saying the “Hail Mary.” “Who gave the priest the authority and how was it ordained,” were some of the questions that James had. She always believed in a more direct connection with God. And when she started learning about Islam, in some of the practices she says, “I saw as restrictions, but later they made sense for the well-being of society.” This concept at a time when some Islamic practices are being challenged by individuals and groups around the world.
For James, she says that the hijab was not an issue for her when she converted. She saw the logic behind the headscarf being a form of modesty and thus did not raise any questions about it. Her questions dealt more with issues like polygamy. “At first I thought it was unfair that men could have up to four wives, but that women could only have one husband, “ she said. “Later on I realized that there is a place for that.”
But James says that although she does know that Latinos are converting to Islam, she does not participate in Latino-only Muslim gatherings. “I think part of the reason is because of Islam’s multicultural aspect.” She says that the few gatherings she attends on the NYU campus consists of Muslims from all over the world. She says that especially in New York City, there are no specific gatherings that she is aware of that caters only to Latino Muslims, and she feels that it is a result of the fact that there are so many Muslims from so many countries that there is no need to section off into small groups.
For James, the events of September 11 did not illicit direct discrimination from others, but she says that she, herself, feels differently when she is in public as a result of the attacks. “I was more self-conscious of how I would be viewed by others,” she said. “I was only randomly checked one time at the airport, but when I am in the subway and they make the announcement to report any suspicious activities, I always wonder if people are thinking about my presence.” And when the Northeast blackout occurred in the summer of 2004, she had to walk home from NYU to Brooklyn. She thought about how others would view her with a headscarf if it was another attack. “I didn’t think like this before,” said James.
Another reason that Latinos are drawn to Islam is because of the connection to their own cultural history to Islam. Although Roman Catholicism is now deeply rooted in Latin America through the forces of colonialism, Latinos can trace their heritage back to the early eighth century when Spain existed under Muslim rule. The Berber army brought Islam from Morocco to Spain through the Straits of Gibraltar in 711. The place was known as Andalusia.
Islam flourished in this region for about eight more centuries. With this rule came Islamic traditions and government, as well as, art and architecture that can still be seen in structures like the great mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra at Granada. Perhaps when Latinos discover, or maybe even rediscover their Muslim ancestry, they will be drawn to explore more about the religion.