In the nine years since the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, many Westerners have come to view Islam (in all of its modes and refractions) as a religion associated with violence and terrorism, and to speak of Muslims living in the West as a suspicious ‘other’. In the United States and Europe, Muslims have come to symbolize a possible “enemy within”, doubly victimized as both potential targets of as well as objects of blame for terrorist attacks. This singling-out of Muslims has dramatically increased in the last year, as demonstrated by recent Congressional hearings spearheaded by New York Republican Congressman Peter King. Dubbed the “Islamic Radicalization Hearings,” the professed goal of these proceedings has been to ‘weed out’ home grown Muslim terrorists in the United States.
The demonization of Islam in the United States has placed a particularly heavy burden on Muslim converts from cultural backgrounds not traditionally associated with Islam. This have been evident within the growing community of Latino Muslims, who struggle to be understood and accepted both within their Latino communities, as well as amongst the Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian populations that dominate the American-Muslim community. As a result of this, as well as the political and social backlash towards Islam in the United States, Latino Muslims have experienced a three-tiered alienation: first from their fellow Latinos who view their conversion as a betrayal of Latin culture; second, from many Americans who view Islam (and by proxy Muslim converts) with suspicion; and finally from Muslim immigrant communities, some of which consider Latino converts to be “inauthentically Muslim” because of their lack of an “Islamic” cultural heritage.
Despite these difficulties, the number of Latino Muslims in the United States has not decreased. Though precise numbers are difficult to confirm, the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) estimate that approximately 40,000 Latino Muslims live in the United States. While this represents a small proportion of the overall U.S. Latino community, which according to the 2010 census has come to represent 1 in every 6 Americans, the growth of Muslim converts amongst American Latinos is a notable and accelerating trend. Latinos are the most steadily expanding minority group in the United States, while Islam is often described as a fast-growing religion, particularly in Europe. The convergence of these trends, as well as the current political realities for Muslims in post-9/11 America, make Latino Muslims a prime example of the tensions and opportunities created by new transnational identities that arise from the ever-increasing cross-cultural encounters that mark the 21st century world.
Latinos and Islam: (Un)Likely Encounters
In the United States, conversion to Islam amongst primarily urban Latinos is not entirely new, linked not only to a dissatisfaction with Hispanic culture’s prevailing hierarchical, Catholic belief system, but also potentially to a defiance of state authority.
New York’s Alianza Islámica (Islamic Alliance) was founded in 1975 and is one of the more established Latino Muslim groups in the United States, created at a time when the struggles of Malcolm X, as well as the Vietnam War, were still fresh in the minds of many. In the beginning, Alianza Islámica was primarily supported by a community of New York-based Puerto Ricans who also advocated for the independence of Puerto Rico, a United States commonwealth whose political future still remains uncertain. For them, Islam was a religion that rejected divisions of class and race and supported ‘fighting the good fight.’
Conversion to Islam amongst members of the U.S. urban youth has continued to the present day. As then-graduate student and now Columbia International & Public Affairs Lecturer Hisham Aidi noted in a 2002 New York Times article, “Islam is entering America through the streets, through the inner city, the ghetto, the prisons…The people who are most drawn to Islam tend to be minorities, African-Americans and Latinos, who feel they’ve been abandoned by the powers that be, by the Judeo-Christian heritage…”1 Certainly, in choosing to convert to Islam, Latinos are breaking long-standing cultural and traditional bonds and aligning themselves with social and political discourses traditionally associated with Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian communities. As the Latino population in the United States continues to grow, this realignment presents intriguing prospects for America’s religious and political future.
At the same time, the increase in Latino Muslims will no doubt affect the composition of America’s Muslim communities, as well as mainstream perceptions of Muslims in this country. From New York to California, Miami to Chicago, the numbers of Muslim converts from Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean islander backgrounds are on the rise. Still, for these groups, the conversion process brings particular challenges, as they struggle to reconcile their linguistic and cultural heritages with Islamic traditions.
Latino Muslims in the United States
As Latino Muslim communities continue to grow both physically and virtually through the presence of small masjids and online sites that provide support systems for Latino Muslims, including www.HispanicMuslims.com, www.Latinodawah.org, and www.piedadislam.org, the presence of these cross-cultural groups will likely contribute to the raging storm over situating the ‘dangerous’ Muslim. Despite post-9/11 government rhetoric disclaiming any ‘U.S. war with Islam,’ law enforcement agencies have continuously exhibited “unease” with Muslim communities in this country over the last nine years.
In the documentary “New Muslim Cool”, released in 2009 and filmed primarily in 2006, Pittsburgh-based Puerto Rican convert/rapper Hamza (Jason) Pérez was shown being interviewed by WHCR Harlem Community Radio. During the segment, the interviewer, a local imam, commented “You’re Muslim, you’re Puerto Rican, you’re from the hood, you’re a rapper…you sound like America’s worst nightmare!” The imam’s tongue-in-cheek jibe was perhaps prescient, as Hamza’s home-cum-makeshift mosque was raided soon thereafter, on June 30, 2006, during Friday prayers. The FBI claimed to be looking for mosque member Larry Williams, a convicted sex offender who was suspected of gun possession and had failed to notify the local sex offender registry of his presence in the community. The FBI failed, however, to provide any explanation for breaking down the door of the mosque/home, for raiding the facility during the Muslim holy day and in the middle of prayers, or for questioning and detaining mosque members after Larry Williams had been taken into custody. As a result, many members of the north Pittsburgh Muslim community believed that the FBI had used the arrest of Williams as an opportunity to survey the mosque itself and to send a signal to the Muslim community that it was under surveillance. Indeed, many mosque attendees felt that they had been targeted simply because they were Muslim and had been successfully converting to Islam other community members in their crime-ridden neighborhood.
In retrospect, this and other raids on Muslim communities in the United States appear to have laid the ground-work for the recent, dramatic increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric from U.S. government officials. The deeply partisan King Hearings, held in March 2011, have been the most visible and high-level example of this assault. During the event, opposing sides faced off, with Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota (Democrat), one of only two Muslims in Congress and himself a convert to Islam of Latino heritage, moved to tears as he recounted the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a young Muslim-American medic who died on 9/11 while attempting to save those trapped inside the World Trade Center. After his disappearance, Hamdani’s Muslim heritage sparked rumors of his possible involvement in orchestrating the tragedy until his remains were later located at Ground Zero. In response to Ellison’s powerful and emotional testimony about Hamdani’s heroism, Congressman King responded, “I’m more convinced than ever that [the hearings] were appropriate.”
As some in Congress actively struggle to paint a distorted picture of Islam in America, the debate has unsurprisingly had a direct impact on the daily lives of many Muslims in this country. As the March 2011 CNN special “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” has demonstrated, there is an increasing sense amongst Muslims that they are being watched not only by the government, but also by their neighbors. The series included a profile of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a small town turned upside down when the local Muslim community tried to build a mosque. This seemingly innocuous action led to acts of vandalism at the proposed site, arson, protests, and a lawsuit that challenged whether Islam even qualified as a religion.2
For Latino Muslims, the challenges created by this massive politicization of faith have been compounded by the current anti-immigrant discourse. Regardless of religious affiliation, Latino Muslims remain ‘Latino enough’ to face rejection in this country based upon their immigrant identity. At the same time, they also encounter hostility from Hispanic communities who view conversion away from the Catholic faith as a denial of Latino culture and family. Finally, more established Muslim immigrant cultures often reject Latino Muslims for their lack of a shared linguistic and cultural heritage. At a time when immigrants and Muslims are under increased scrutiny, Latino Muslims are experiencing some of the most extreme forms of social alienation. As the political, social, and religious discourses in the United States become more polarized, it remains to be seen how Latino Muslims will react and adapt to these disturbing new realities.
*Lara N. Dotson-Renta holds a PhD from the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also earned a Certificate in African Studies. She holds a Master’s degree in French Literature from New York University in Paris, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in French and Spanish from Dartmouth College. Ms. Dotson-Renta’s work, which explores contemporary North African immigration to Spain, has been published in the Journal of North African Studies amongst other outlets.