Over the Fourth of July weekend, several hundred American Muslims came together in Dallas, Texas for the south-central regional conference of the Islamic Society of North America. Among them were many Spanish-speaking people who have embraced Islam.
Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States and Latinos represent one of the fastest-growing minorities. Increasingly, the two trends are meeting in the form of Hispanic converts to Islam.
San Antonio native Juan Galvan says the transition to Islam is made easy for many Hispanics because of historic and cultural traditions dating back to the time when Muslims ruled much of Spain.
“Islam was in Spain for over 700 years. Spanish, as we speak it today, has been highly influenced. There are over a thousand words which have Arabic roots,” says Mr. Galvan. “Muslims and Latinos have a lot of similarities. Both appreciate family, both appreciate religion and I think that is one of the reasons that a lot of Latinos are coming to Islam.”
The Islamic period in Spain came to an end when Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella succeeded in driving the Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.
To this day, many Hispanic Christians maintain a negative view of Islam, which has been reinforced by images of terrorism and unrest in the predominantly Muslim Middle East.
Muslim converts try to counter that image by presenting theirs as a religion of peace and brotherhood.
Latino Muslims are encouraged by the success of Islam among African-Americans. Nearly half of all Muslims in the United States today are black, as are around 90 percent of all new converts to the religion.
Dallas resident Mustafa Carroll says Islam has spread among blacks and other minorities by the example Muslims have provided. “We are not out proselytizing and we are not asking people to do it. All we do is present the word and people take it.”
One of the biggest sources of new converts to Islam is the U.S. prison system. Mustafa Carroll says Muslim brothers offer support to those inmates who want to change their lives.
“We have a very dynamic inner-prison group right now in the Dallas, Texas area, which helps a lot of inmates to come out. They start the transformation in prison and then they get help to stay out of prison once they get out.”
At the Islamic Society conference, one Mexican-American man told how his conversion to Islam took him away from a life of crime. He says his faith and the support of his brother Muslims has given him a new life.
For most Latino Muslim converts the transition is generally less dramatic. Reyna Cazares converted some months after her husband and daughter. “I was undecided in accepting all of it, in accepting the part that is very difficult for us Hispanics.”
One of the things that she found difficult at first was the role of the Muslim woman, but Reyna says there are advantages in this new life she has chosen.
“The woman has her rights in Islam and they are respected by the man. The man and woman cooperate in following the rules established by God.”
There are no firm figures on how many Latinos have converted to Islam, although there is an estimate of around 40,000, a small number compared to the overall U.S. Latino population of more than 35 million. But Latino Muslims say they believe many more will follow in their path as they spread the word about Islam in their communities.