Islam, Jan - Mar 2007

So That You May Know Who I Am

By Juan Galvan

Assalaam alaykum,

In Quran 49:13, Allah (SWT) has stated, “O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” The wisdom found in the Quran never ceases to amaze me. The most honored in the sight of our Creator are those with the greatest piety. Although we all come from a single soul, we are now scattered throughout this world. However, we have not come to know one another. In many instances, we do not have any desire to know one another. Instead, we are quite content on acting like complete strangers. By doing so, we continue to be fearful of one another.

An important part of my own dawah efforts has been about encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to come to know one another. Although both are important segments of American society, the Latino and Muslim communities do not know much about each other. Ignorance abounds in a world where two people do not know each other. Unfortunately, I have not always done such a great job at letting people come to know about who I am. Therefore, I should not be very surprised that I am often asked several questions about myself when I present at various events. By opening up about my experiences, I hope to encourage other Muslims to open up about their own. This article will be my attempt to answer questions I am frequently asked about myself. I will avoid repeating any information that I have previously written.

– How have you been? Why did you move to Florida?
Those are among the most common questions I have been asked lately. I am doing all right. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, I moved to San Antonio for a few years, but I now live in Florida. Even before my son was born, my wife and I had decided we would eventually move to Florida because we wanted our future children to live near grandparents. We could move to either Florida or the Texas Panhandle, and there was no way I would convince my wife to move to Amarillo. Actually, we also discussed moving to Chicago or Houston. She has lived most of her life in Chicago. Unfortunately, my father-in-law passed away last summer after his battle with cancer. Dealing with his death has been very difficult. I do thank God that he had a chance to meet his grandson, Juan Yusef. He was among the first to hold my son when Juan was born in January. Yusef is the Arabic name for the Prophet Joseph. Joseph in Spanish, or Jose, is my middle name.

– What do you think of Florida? Are you having trouble adjusting?
Because I have moved around a lot, I can become accustomed to just about any environment quickly. Until last year, I lived in Texas for 31 years. I find Florida to be very beautiful. I feel as if I live on a beautiful island. Bodies of water surround us with the exception of toward the north. I love the palm trees, and I like the weather. The weather is very similar to San Antonio’s. It rained a lot this summer but I am not sure if that is typical or not. I have not yet gone to Disney World or Universal Studios but I definitely look forward to it. I am having the most difficulty in becoming accustomed to the diversity of races and ethnicities. Coming from San Antonio, I am used to a community that is primarily Mexican-American. San Antonio is the largest American city with a Hispanic majority.

Many non-Floridians think that Cubans comprise the largest percentage of the Latino population in every city in Florida. However, to my surprise, in many major cities such as Orlando, the majority of Latinos are Puerto Rican rather than Cuban. I met a Puerto Rican for the first time while attending Texas Tech University. I am very impressed with the large number of Brazilians in Florida. In many cities, Brazilians make up a significant percentage of the population. Portuguese publications are commonplace. Definitely, I would love to work on making Islamic literature in Portuguese readily available. Life here is definitely different than the life I knew while growing up in the Texas Panhandle.

– How has being a husband and daddy affected your dawah?
I have an entirely different perspective on life. I think it comes from my new responsibilities, which include many new hopes and fears. Married life is much different than the single life. My wife is Albanian-Brazilian. I was not even sure where Albania was when I first met my wife. My wife is a symbol of the diversity in this world. On any given day, we will say words and phrases from five different languages. My son is Mexican, Albanian, and Brazilian. Our son, whom we call Juanito, is one in a million. Like many Americans, I am concerned about the possible negative effects of popular culture on my child’s future.

My new family responsibilities also take up much of my free time. I have distributed much of my dawah work among LADO representatives. I am quite impressed with their continued efforts. Brother Isa Lima of Washington DC is now the chief moderator of the LADO YahooGroup, and brother Juan Alvarado of Pennsylvania now handles most of LADO’s e-mail correspondence. Maintaining the quality of our work is more important than my own interests. I would never have dreamed that I would be the person I am today. I could not have imagined my life. God is the Most-Wise, the Most-Merciful.

– What about your dawah in Texas?
I will continue to do as I have been doing. I will continue to emphasize issues important to Latino Muslims, such as Islamic literature in Spanish. My personal activities are transportable and are not dependent on any particular area. For example, I can write and edit articles wherever I live. I will also continue to work on various projects around the country. “Where you go, there you are,” is one of my favorite mottos. Many people are looking for happiness in a faraway paradise that they often envision. But if they were to find that paradise, they would still be miserable because they would still have the same outlook on life. I will always love Texas, and I feel blessed for the many great memories. My friendships have been an enormous blessing. Saying goodbye has always been difficult. Muslims have a responsibility to their local communities. As a Floridian, I will work on behalf of Florida Muslims as I did for Texas Muslims. What I love most about Florida is the Muslim community. Most Florida Muslim communities seem to be well established, very active, and very welcoming to new Muslims.

– How did you get involved with LADO?
After embracing Islam, I felt saddened by what appeared to be a small number of Latino Muslims in Texas. I was also facing many internal issues and questions about my identity as a Latino and as a Muslim, and I knew I could not be the only Latino Muslim with these concerns. After becoming a Muslim, I thought that I might be the only Latino Muslim in Austin, Texas. Therefore, I made a conscious effort to learn more about Latino Muslims. I wanted to know about their dawah efforts around the United States, especially in Texas. And, that is how I came upon LADO. I was thoroughly excited about the prospects of working with this organization. After coming into contact with Samantha Sanchez, the LADO President, I told her about some of my ideas and concerns. “That’s what LADO is for,” she responded. And, I would later meet several Latino Muslims from not only Austin, but from Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Brownsville, El Paso, etc.

– Why didn’t you want to be the leader of LADO? What is most difficult about being a Muslim leader?
Beginning this year, I will officially be the executive director of LADO. What is most difficult about being a Muslim leader is also the reason I did not want to be the leader of LADO. I feared rejection, but as a Muslim leader, I get plenty of rejection. Muslim leaders inherit enemies because they are viewed as a threat to the status quo. I feared constant scrutiny, but now I am under constant scrutiny. I do not like to stand out wherever I may be, but now I am highly visible in the Muslim community. I am not the type of person who I have envisioned the leader of LADO to be.

I do not think I make a good representative for Latino Muslims, because I do not represent the typical Latino Muslim. As true with many Latino Muslims, I come from an interesting background. I come from a very poor family that came from the Rio Grande Valley area in Texas. I would hoe cotton during summers while growing up, and today my parents work difficult low wage jobs. However, I grew up in rural communities whereas most Latino Muslims grew up in urban areas. Consequently, many of my thoughts and opinions on several matters are different due to my background. Even worse, I speak very little Spanish. I am a third generation Latino. After hearing my voice, some people say that I do not sound like a Mexican. Sometimes, I will reply with, “Orale vato!”

When I originally began with LADO, I did not expect to be involved at this intensity for more than five years. I thought others would become leaders of LADO. And, I thought that other Latino Muslims and their Muslim organizations would rise to do what we do better. I do not understand how I got to where I am today with my dawah. It does not really make much sense. I cannot carry on a conversation in Spanish. I do not consider myself a religious leader. I have never formally studied Islam, such as at an overseas Islamic university. I am not an imam. I do not know Arabic. The greatest leader ever was the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Amazingly, he brought together several warring, pagan Arab tribes into the fold of Islam. As a leader, I have difficulty simply bringing together Latinos who already love Islam and who already are friends. I have tried to recruit from those who are more qualified than myself. I have developed great friendships, and they have given their blessing.

Even as LADO has grown, I continue to have difficulty getting commitment from members. I constantly fall short of being the Muslim that I want to be. And, therefore, I am uncomfortable that people look to me for wisdom and guidance when others are much more experienced and knowledgeable. Because we are all imperfect, we should not allow the possibility of making mistakes from performing good deeds. I fear the consequences of inaction. Patience has been one of my greatest virtues as a leader, because Muslim leaders must deal with diverse groups of people. Personally, I am not really great at anything I do. I am simply good at doing lots of much needed work. And, maybe, that is what LADO needs right now.

– Are you an imam?
I am not an imam. I do not want to be considered an imam even if I do not state that I am not one. I avoid acting within the capacity of an imam in public. I know that Muslims learn from my actions as a leader. I also avoid writing articles and making speeches that are about Islam as religion. However, I am an amir, or leader, although a very reluctant one. I try to keep a low profile by keeping my appearances at a minimum. I work best behind the scenes. Being extremely shy also does not help out much either. I feel very uncomfortable about the large number of Muslims who know of me. Perhaps, I value my privacy much more than I should. I also get more credit than I should because I am one of the most visible Latino Muslims. I converted to Islam in summer 2001, and great people have been doing great things way before then. And, I get goose bumps when I am in their presence.

Although I do not consider myself a pioneer, most Latino Muslim leaders are pioneers in the sense that much of what we are doing has never been done before. All people, especially leaders, should recognize that they influence both the present and the future. Latino Muslim leaders are influencing the future of the Latino Muslim community. Other Muslims look up to what has already been done for inspiration. Consequences can extend far beyond what you imagine. Wise decisions are critical. And, conveying decisions, ideas, and meanings accurately are critical because misunderstandings can be disastrous. All Muslims are responsible for determining how future Muslims will define what it means to be a Muslim in America. Religious leaders must be given an opportunity to participate in this process.

– How do you feel about how American Muslim leaders are asked to comment on every terror incident?
I wonder why we as leaders should have to comment on the evil deeds of people within our religion. You do not see this happen with other religions. When a Muslim leader does something bad, our entire religion and all other Muslims are seen as equally responsible for the leader’s deeds. You do not see this phenomenon with other religions. Non-Muslims directly and indirectly state that our religion is solely responsible for the deeds of its members. The personal ambitions of Muslims are viewed as insignificant. And, once again, you do not see this happen with other religions. Do not you feel that Muslims, intentionally or unintentionally, are creating terrorism? Some Muslims are intentionally creating terrorism. People who say that Islam is unintentionally creating terrorism believe that the mere existence of Islam is dangerous and should end. And, once again, you do not see this happen with other religions.

– Why are you so willing to speak with the media or anyone else interested in Latino Muslims?
My driving force comes from my love of Allah (SWT). Talking about Latino Muslims gives me an opportunity to clear up misconceptions about Latinos and about Muslims. For example, many Americans want to severely limit the immigration of Latinos and Muslims for unfounded fear of both communities. Because the media does not mention differences among Latinos in articles about Latinos, the media continues to propagate stereotypes about Latinos as they do with Muslims. Most Latinos are not promiscuous alcoholics who love to dance the night away. And, most Muslims are not evil terrorists who are anxious to blow up the world.

The arrest of Jose Padilla caused quite a stir in the media because until his arrest, many people did not know there were any Latino Muslims. Unfortunately, some people have defined Latinos in Islam through the actions of Jose Padilla. Many people view him as a representative for Latino Muslims because he is the most visible Latino Muslim convert. This problem would be even worse if all articles about Latino Muslims were about Jose Padilla. I was once asked why as a Latino I would become a Muslim and put myself in a situation where I would be dually discriminated. I cannot change my ethnicity; and my heart belongs to Islam. Latino Muslims are literally a minority within a minority. I see myself in a position that offers me the opportunity to discuss two important segments of the American population.

Most of my media interviews have been through e-mail. I always fear misrepresenting Islam and Muslims, and e-mail is a good medium for people fearful of being misinterpreted. During my first years as a new Muslim, I did not feel very comfortable with telephone and in person interviews. Now, I actually enjoy in person interviews. I am still somewhat reluctant to give out my personal phone number to most people, because I have been called at all hours of the day and night due to time zone differences. Currently, I try to avoid audio and video recordings all together, but it is difficult to object when a microphone or video camera is in your face. I granted my first live radio interviews within the last couple of years. Although I continue to feel uncomfortable in many situations, I do know that without my contribution fewer people would know about Latino Muslims.

The 9-11 tragedy opened the eyes of many Muslims, including Latino Muslims. Because of the backlash against Islam and Muslims, many Latino Muslims felt a strong need to open up about their experiences as Latinos and Muslims. They were also horrified that those claiming to represent Islam and Muslims had hijacked their religion. Latino Muslims became more willing to be interviewed, and information about Latino Muslims became freely available. Therefore, news coverage about Latino Muslims that was impossible became possible after the 9-11 tragedy. However, this does not excuse the lack of interest in the Latino Muslim community by the media and academia prior to 9-11. Unfortunately, many Muslims are returning to their pre-9/11 way of indifference.

– Who is my intended audience? Muslims? Latinos? Everyone?
My intended audience depends on the purpose of the article or speech. I tend to direct my communication toward Latino Muslims. However, all American Muslims are my typical audience because they are most likely to read my articles or hear my speeches. More non-Latino Muslims read my articles and hear my speeches than Latino Muslims because Latino Muslims make up a small percentage of the American Muslim community. In general, my articles and speeches are for Muslim audiences. I hope that my articles and speeches can be tools that assist Muslims in their own dawah efforts. My articles are also an important means to address common criticisms that Latino Muslims hear, such as that Muslims do not believe in the Virgin Mary. I also try to write articles that motivate all Muslims to become more active. I have also written articles to help address any concerns the general Muslim community may have about Latino Muslims. Most of my articles can be found online in LADO’s free online newsletter. I write in the English language but several of my articles have been translated to various languages.

– How many Latinos have you converted to Islam?
I do not convert anyone to Islam. We simply make Islam accessible to more people. The decision is up to non-Muslims and their Creator. After telling a friend about my conversion to Islam, she responded, “So, you were brainwashed?” Using this sort of logic, I have been brainwashed, and I am now brainwashing others. Many people have a tough time understanding why Latinos come to Islam. Many people feel threatened by the growing Muslim community. This is why many people have spread lies that exist to this day. “Non-Muslims are forced to convert to Islam,” they explain. In explaining why people leave their religion, certainly, they will not acknowledge inadequacies with their own religion and its followers. Instead, they are quite content on denouncing Islam and Muslims.

– Why did you convert to Islam?
I continue to be asked many of the same questions asked of all Latinos. My conversion story can be read online at HispanicMuslims.com. I embraced Islam during the summer of 2001 after coming to believe that Islam is the true religion of God. I get many questions about my identity as a Latino and as a Muslim. How have you reconciled the differences between the Muslim lifestyle and Latino culture? What sacrifices, if any, have you made? Does being a Muslim make you feel like less of a Latino? How do you balance identities? Do you still feel uncomfortable around Muslims and Latinos? I do not have much to add to what I have already written in the past. I have never felt very comfortable around anyone. Sometimes, I still cannot believe that I am a Muslim. However, being Muslim does not make me feel less of a Latino.

As I once stated, coming to Islam is about accepting some new ways, rejecting some old ways, and adapting when necessary. Islam is like the framework of a house. The exterior and the interior of the house are details built around the framework. I still enjoy eating tamales, but I will not eat tamales made of pork. I am a Mexican-American, Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, and a Muslim. Being Muslim does not change my status as a Latino. I love my ethnicity. And, I love my religion. Latino culture like Muslim culture is not about living up to negative stereotypes about who I am supposed to be. I refuse to live up to those expectations. As a Muslim, I choose to do my best to live up to God’s expectations for humanity.

– What kind of Muslim are you? What is Islam? Who are Muslims?
I am really surprised by the number of times I am asked that question. I could state the Testimony of Faith, or I could begin by explaining the Pillars of Islam and the Articles of Islamic Faith. My religion is Islam. That is what I believe. And, beliefs are manifested throughout a person’s life. I hope that I am the kind of Muslim that the Prophets would be proud of. I am nothing more than a servant of God. But most people who ask these types of questions are not eager to know about my religious beliefs. They are much more eager to know about my political beliefs. Although some people want to cause dissension, most Muslims ask such questions because they are sincerely concerned about the types of Muslims with whom they associate. It is important for people to know whether or not they can trust their associates. They also want to know that their associates’ beliefs do not deviate from core Islamic teachings.

In very simple terms, Islam is submission to God’s laws. Muslims are those who submit to God’s laws. The Prophet Adam was a Muslim. The Prophet Moses was a Muslim. The Prophet Jesus was a Muslim. And of course, the Prophet Muhammad was a Muslim. Peace be upon them all. Many valuable resources are available today through many Islamic institutions. You can explore Islam today by visiting your local mosque. Nothing can stop the student from finding the right teacher once he or she is ready to learn. Everyone wants to fulfill his or her purpose.

– Why do you think many new Muslims leave Islam?
The best way to answer this question is through a better understanding of human nature. Humans are not logical beings. Logic is not always sufficient for people to remain Muslim or for bringing non-Muslims to Islam. Personal experiences are treated as fact. Negative personal experiences can turn people away from truth, and positive personal experiences can bring people toward falsehood. And, past personal experiences keep people moving on their current path in life regardless of truth and falsehood. Many people who believe they have found truth reject it due to the prospect of negative personal experiences.

I believe that most problems facing the Muslim community stem from the incompetence of Muslims. Many new Muslims may have high expectations, which are not met by the Muslim community. Unfortunately, many new Muslims eventually leave Islam out of frustration. Some new Muslims leave Islam because their original intention for embracing Islam was not sincere. Rather than leaving Islam, other new Muslims choose to isolate themselves from other Muslims. I encourage new Muslims to have patience with the Muslim community and with themselves, because being the type of Muslim they want to be can be difficult in today’s society. I encourage new Muslims to take the first three years as a new Muslim to study Islam intensely, because this foundation will prepare them for the many tests and trials they will certainly experience. I also encourage new Muslims to do only what they feel comfortable doing. Most new Muslims will not become great scholars, writers, or public speakers.

Embracing Islam is the first step for a new Muslim. Whereas a new Muslim has a responsibility to learn more about Islam, the Muslim community has a responsibility to make resources for learning about Islam available for new Muslims. We must come up with meaningful ways to deal with the challenges that face all Muslims. Certainly, we must not neglect the Muslim youth. They are the most important segment of the Muslim community. Educational programs, such as summer camps for Muslim children, are needed to educate the youth about their religion by bringing them together within a fun-filled, Islamic environment. We must continue to establish Muslim institutions in the United States and support those that already exist.

– Can you list a bad incident that happened to you because you’re a Muslim?
Yes, I can think of more than one bad experience because I am a Muslim. Yes, I can think of more than one bad experience because I am a Latino. Yes, I can think of more than one bad experience because I am a Latino Muslim. Yes, these experiences have involved Muslims, Latinos, Latino Muslims, and non-Muslims. Although I have been hurt multiple times, I refuse to make a list of each instance because I refuse to define myself as a victim. And, I cannot create a complete list because I have tried my best to forgive and forget. The life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is very inspiring. I do not think most people today can forgive, forget, and move forward as he did time and time again. His forgiveness was courageous. Anger is a very time-consuming and destructive emotion. Anger and resentment can make life miserable. Forgiveness heals wounds. Islam has made me a better person. I am much more patient than I ever thought possible.

– What kind of advice do you have for me? What are some of the toughest lessons you’ve learned?
After returning to Turkey, Texas, my uncle decided to rebuild his house. He moved away and while away, he was unable to care for his house. In Turkey, Texas, my uncle, spent many days, months rebuilding his house. On one Saturday morning, my dad and I visited him as he worked on his house. He spoke excitedly, proud about completing his house. He had added electricity to the house. At one time, my mom once told me that he and his family lived in a one room building near a cotton gin in Turkey, Texas. Over time, he began to realize the complexities of building an entire house. What was lacking? Knowledge and skills? Money? Time? Assistance? Commitment? I do not know. He never did finish that house. He no longer owns the land where the house once sat. He hasn’t lived in Turkey, Texas for several years now. I bet he thinks about that little house from time to time.

A personal story can be a very powerful educational tool. We can learn much from history, which is not much more than the collection of all true stories. History consists of invaluable stories about how great nations have risen and fallen. History is full of stories about the need to focus on seeking the pleasure of our Creator. This focus becomes more important as you have to deal with larger numbers of people. Because we are all to some extent a product of our own environment, we need to understand that we may have a limited view of reality. Some of your personal views may be contrary to basic Islamic values.

We need to keep Islam at the center of all that we do. We cannot focus entirely on people and other factors in our environment. We cannot allow people to be our only driving force. We must be willing to make tough decisions that many people will not like. We must ask ourselves, “Would this make Allah (SWT) happy?” Although it may seem insignificant, we really must ask ourselves these types of questions. We must also ask ourselves questions, such as “What do I want to do? How much time am I willing to sacrifice?” Do try. Do work hard. Do not stop. Do be flexible. Do listen. Do contribute regularly. Do trust in Allah (SWT).

Certainly, everyone can benefit from the lessons of the Quran and Sunnah. For example, one day Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) noticed a Bedouin leaving his camel without tying it. He asked the Bedouin, “Why do not you tie down your camel?” The Bedouin answered, “I put my trust in Allah.” The Prophet then said, “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah.” (Tirmidhi). This is, of course, only one of many wonderful ahaddith. Many people could have easily avoided mistakes by following Islam. The toughest lessons always seem to come from mistakes. We must continue to use patience and knowledge when dealing with ignorance. Islam is a mercy for everyone. Although I avoid repeating anything I have written in past articles, I know that some lessons cannot be emphasized enough.

As a member of Habitat for Humanity, I felt more like I was building houses when hammering and less so when shoveling or raking. Every action led toward the completion of a house for a person in need. I encourage all Muslims to view all their actions in a similar manner. Because most Muslims are not aware of your contributions, they may think you are doing nothing. And, if you are doing nothing, you are essentially treated as nothing. We need to avoid placing value on others based solely on their production and productivity. All people are of value simply because they are human. The value of a person has become no more than that of a commodity if given any value at all. An extreme focus on production takes the fun out of our work.

Although I currently volunteer at least twenty hours per week on dawah, I know it is not possible for most people to do so. I make many sacrifices to continue this type of work. And, it is not all fun and games. In fact, many things I do are repetitive, mundane, and therefore, very boring. Regardless, I think it is important to quantify your effort. I am not suggesting that Muslims set up quotas for the number of converts per month. Some of the greatest Prophets had little or no success during their lifetimes in calling people to truth. I am suggesting that you do set realistic goals and deadlines. A schedule that includes a forty-hour workweek, two children, a wife, and twenty hours of volunteer work is not sustainable for the long run. I would be happy if every Muslim could donate at least two hours per week on dawah. You can expect to feel that you have not done anything regardless of how much you have actually done. This too is a sign of faith. Every action counts. May Allah (SWT) accept and be pleased with your good deeds.

– What do you think is the future of Islam in all of the Americas?
The future will be bright as long as local communities are strengthened with the presence of Islam. I get very excited when I think about the accomplishments of Muslims in America. For example, I often think about the rapid growth of mosques and of the Muslim population in America. Most Muslim communities in the United States are fairly young. Now that Islam has reached most major cities, our next challenge is to extend a warm invitation to the neighborhoods found within those cities. The Muslim community would not be wise to become complacent with its accomplishments because it is done much less than it thinks.

By and large, every decade has been kind to Islam in the United States and elsewhere. Our Islamic history has led us to where we are today, and today will help determine our future. Our future is secure as long as Muslims continue to strive in the path of our Creator. Muslims have much to contribute to all of the Americas. There is a bright future for Islam all over the world. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said that Islam began as something strange and that it would revert to its original position of being strange, so good tidings for the strangers. I believe that despite our many differences that all of humanity can come to know and appreciate one another, just as our Creator initially intended. Islam lives forever.