Latina Muslims: the drumbeat continues

muslimwomanThe Washington Post had an interesting story on Sunday about Latino immigrants converting to Islam. I find conversion stories fascinating, and I wish newspapers would do more of them. It makes for very good copy.

That said, I have to point out that Sudarshan Raghavan’s story reminded me a lot of Chris Jenkins’ Washington Post story from five years ago. Same lead and same point, more or less. Both stories claim they are about Latinos (a word signifying either males or a mixture of males and females) converting to Islam. But no Latino Muslims are quoted in either. Raghavan attempts to explain a bit about what led to the conversions:

The converts hail from throughout Latin America. In Islam, some say they see a devoutness and simplicity they find lacking in Catholicism. Like the tightknit Latino culture, Islam places emphasis on family, which can make it easier for converts to adjust.

Yet some are as motivated by feelings of alienation in a nation that is divided over immigration. Latino women find what most westerners rarely see — a respect for women, unlike, some converts say, the machismo culture in which they were raised.

Raghavan also writes that one woman converted after a priest failed to give her a satisfactory explanation of Christianity’s Triune God. Another felt that Catholics didn’t have a deep connection with God. She also felt that Muslims handled race better than Catholics.

But as I said, this is a story about Muslim Latinas. I found this section to be particularly interesting. The woman quoted says she used to wear tank tops and go salsa dancing:

[Convert Jackie Avelar] said it doesn’t bother her that women in Islam have different roles, roles that many westerners describe as repressed. Where they see inequality, she sees respect. A respect, she said, she doesn’t see often in Latino culture.

“The way Latin men portray women, it’s terrible,” Avelar said. “You look at Spanish CDs, and you see women in bikinis on the cover.”

Before Islam: The day laborers at a nearby 7-Eleven whistled and cat-called — “Oy Mamacita!” — as she passed them.

After Islam: The day laborers stared in silence as she, in her hijab, passed them.

“The fact they stayed quiet, I was like, ‘Alhamdulillah!’,” said Avelar, reciting the Arabic phrase “Praise be to Allah.”

“I love the respect that I get from the opposite sex [when I'm] in hijab.”

niqabsThe Post shows which blogs are commenting on articles, some of which were ironic, or showed the views of other Muslim women.

Many of the stories about Muslim conversions from Latin and Hispanic groups make it seem like the first time these groups have been in contact with Islam. As if Spain wasn’t conquered by Muslims in the 8th century.

I really wish these stories would delve much deeper into the theological reasons that these women convert from Catholicism to Islam. I always leave each piece wanting to know much, much more about why and how the conversion happened.

Last week the Post had another article on Muslim women that made for an engrossing read. Faiza Saleh Ambah wrote that many Saudi women love covering up and resent emancipation efforts by U.S. women. Considering how many Muslim women in the States do not wear black niqab, it is interesting to see that this is yet another area where Muslim thought is not uniform. Of course, it’s obvious and reasonable that all Muslims would not interpret all Scripture the same way. But sometimes when you read the news, it seems like we are expected to believe that all Muslims, say, think that publishing cartoon images of Muhammad should be punishable by death.

Photos via Flickr.

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  • Nancy Reyes

    The Christian science monitor had a story about this a couple years ago, quoting the number 50 000 converts. And a Texas paper had a similar story last year…
    However, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Latinos become evangelicals, Pentecostals or Mormons, I haven’t read any stories about these conversions…
    Guess Mormon Hispanic converts don’t rate a story.

  • James Davis

    Latino Muslims seems to be one of those “exotic” trend stories, like Sephardic Jews or Christian rockers, that reporters seem to rediscover periodically. But the stories are usually short on the conversion rate of Latinos to Islam, or even on raw numbers. And the few estimates don’t suggest anything like a trend.

    An example is in the MSNBC article to which Molly linked, which cited an estimate by CAIR and ISNA of 40,000 American Latino Muslims. If you divide that by CAIR’s previous estimate of 6 million to 7 million American Muslims, it comes out to a tiny 5.7 to 6.7 percent. And the article doesn’t even hazard a guess at the rate of conversion in this alleged trend.

    In my own newspaper, the Sun-Sentinel, an article a few years ago stated blithely that Islam was the fastest-growing religion in South America. The article gave numbers in a few cities, but none for the continent, and nothing on the rate of growth. Nor did it offer comparative figures with other religions.

    With Islam, as well as with other religions, a touch of skeptism — and a few annoying questions — would seem to be in order.

  • Will

    “Fastest-growing” is an impressive-sounding label with no discernible referent. Both Islam and neo-paganism, and probably others I have forgotten, have been acclaimed the “fastest-growing” religion in the country. Remember how the Transcendental Meditation front party, whose name I have forgotten, claimed to the be the “fastest-growing” when it ran John Hagelin for president? How is “velocity of growth” measured, anyway?

  • Ana

    If you are left with so many questions about these young women why don’t you ask them yourself? I’m sure the real story is much more than the paper says. This is an article with limited space, not a book. What I got from this article about this young lady, Avelar, is that she was satisfied with what Islam says about a higher being. As a Catholic she did a piece in where she wipes out Jesus’s face…does that not tell you anything??? It’s deeper than just sex roles and men giving her respect. Think about it!