Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Islam gains Hispanic converts/new trend in Fl?

Islam gains Hispanic converts Ramadan rite expands with new trend in Florida

By Lisa Bolivar
Special Correspondent
Posted September 30 2005,0,29610\

This year's Ramadan celebration will be extra special for members of a Margate mosque who will observe the holiday in a brand new building instead of inside the
cramped storefront they used to call home.

Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen's spacious new building is just behind the old storefront off Sample Road, where Margate touches Coral Springs, but this mosque will
allow more families to gather for the traditional fast-breaking meal, called an iftar, said Bibi Khan of Margate.

"Because the space we were in was so small and congested, now more people can join us in more space," she said.

Ramadan, which begins around Oct. 4, depending on when the new moon is sighted, is a monthlong holiday in which Muslims abstain from food, drink, and any
worldly pleasures from sunup to sundown. The holiday is part of five requirements, or pillars, of the Islamic faith. The other four pillars are the shahaddah, or the witnessing, where a believer declares three times that there is one God and
Muhammad is the messenger of God; the performing of five daily prayers; paying the "poor due" or zakat, which amounts to about 2.5 percent of a person's
monetary worth; and performing a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia once in a lifetime, if it can be afforded.

Melissa Matos is among some area Muslims who will be celebrating the season for the first time.

When she speaks of celebrating her first Ramadan, the 20-year-old clasps her hands excitedly and smile spreads from ear-to-ear.

Matos, who took the shahaddah in order to become a Muslim in April, has started down a path toward a new way of life, a new circle of friends and a tradition
that, she said, she knows will teach her to be a better person.

"What I am looking forward to for the month is letting go of a lot of things I do," said Matos, who lives in Miramar. "I am going to be more sensitive to things I
didn't notice before, like hunger; I am looking forward to what it is going to do for my sensitivity."

Matos represents a growing number of Latin women who are taking the shahaddah and donning the traditional hair covering, called a hijab.

Altaf Ali, executive director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Pembroke Pines, said Islam is gaining an increasing number of Hispanic

"More so in California, but in Florida it's a new trend. …Yes, there are several Hispanic Muslims that have been in Florida for some time now, but in regards
to the conversion rate within the last few years, I've seen an increasing rate in Hispanics converting to Islam," said Ali, a native of Guyana. "I think the
Hispanic culture itself is very rich in terms of family values, and that is something that is very prominent in the religion of Islam.

"Family values play an integral role in the formation of a Muslim community. Because of those family values, there is a lot of other norms that are consistent
within the Hispanic community and Islam; for instance, respect for elders, married life and rearing children, these are some of the traditions Hispanics have in
common with Islam."

Matos began learning about the faith, and what she found spoke to her heart.

"Its simplicity and its universality, it's for every culture, for every time, every country, it's for everyone," she said.

Zeleina Bakhsh, Bibi Khan's sister, grew up in Guyana and moved to South Florida with her family. Bakhsh also likes to celebrate the diversity of her faith,
especially at this time of year.

"Islam is about unity, and we have that here among the brothers and sisters," she said, speaking of the fellowship at the Margate mosque. "It makes you feel
very emotional in that month. We read a lot of Quran, we do dikhir (reciting the names of God) and Allah is giving you a chance to beg for forgiveness if you have
made a sin."

Matos said she is looking forward to learning the lessons of the season.

"It's a time when Muslims get to basically learn sensitivity to others," she said. "During that time (of early Islam) when the people lived you had large
class divisions, the very, very rich and very, very poor and it was a way to get people to understand what it is to be poor."

Ali said Ramadan also offers an opportunity for starting another year on a better footing.

"What I think is very significant this year is that taking into consideration all that has happened within the Muslims who live in America and the … challenges
that we faced, the month of Ramadan once again boosts our morale and it increased our self-esteem," he said.
"And once again we apply forgiveness toward those who have wronged us in many ways; the negative publicity and the injustices passed upon us.

"This is a time when we say it's another year, it's a time of forgiveness, a time of reflection and giving, and we reflect on the good things we've accomplished
in our country, and what this country has given us, and we appreciate that. It takes us away from the constant battle of proving what we are," he said.

Latino women finding a place in Islam ‘I am doing this for God,’ one convert says
By Carmen Sesin
Reporter NBC News
Updated: 4:15 p.m. ET Sept. 30, 2005

UNION CITY, N.J. — On a hot summer day, Stefani Perada left work for the day in West New York, N.J., and stepped outside in her long jilbab, the flowing clothes worn by many Muslim women.

Meanwhile, other Latinas in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood were taking advantage of the warm day, walking around in shorts and midriff-exposing halter tops.

Perada, 19, who converted to Islam just over a year ago, is still trying to become acclimated to certain customs, such as the jilbab and the hijab, which covers her head and hair.

"Mostly it's because of how your friends and family are going to look at you," she said. "They look at you like, ‘Why is she wearing that, it’s so hot.’”

But, she said, “I am doing this for God, and one day I will be rewarded for what I am doing.”

And there's an immediate benefit: She's not harassed as much by men when she walks down the street.

“You know how guys [say], ‘Hey Mami, come over here?’ I used to always hate that. I would cross the street just to get away. Now you still get some guys that are
still curious, but it’s much less,” she explained.

“They are going to look at me for me, and not for my body.”

Growing number of converts?
Perada is not alone as a Hispanic women converting to Islam.

The exact number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine, because the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information about religion. However, according
to estimates conducted by national Islamic organizations such as the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North
America (ISNA) there are approximately 40,000 Latino Muslims in the United States.

Likewise, it is difficult to break-down the number of Latino converts to Islam into male versus female. But, according to anecdotal evidence and a survey conducted
by the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), whose mission is to promote Islam within the Latino community in the United States, the number of Latinos
converting to Islam tilts slightly in favor of women — with 60 percent women to 40 percent men.

Juan Galvan, the head of LADO in Texas and the co-author of a report "Latino Muslims: The Changing Face of Islam in America," explained that those
numbers are unscientific, but based on the results of a voluntary survey that has been conducted on the LADO website since 2001.

“From observation and experience those numbers are correct,” Galvan said. “From my personal experience, there are definitely more Latina Muslims than Latino
men.” Galvan explained said that there “just seem to be more” Latina Muslims at the various events he attends through his work with LADO.

At the Islamic Education Center of North Hudson, 300 of the people who attend the mosque are converts, and 80 percent are Latino converts. In addition, out of
the Latino converts, 60 percent are women, according to Nylka Vargas, who works at the mosque with the Educational Outreach Program.

Overall growth Peter Awn, an Islamic studies professor at Columbia University, says there is no doubt that the number of Latinos converting to Islam is growing.

Louis Cristillo, an anthropologist who focuses on Islamic education at Columbia University, points out there are several indicators that reflect the growing
trend of Latinos converting to Islam.

For example, there are a number of regional and national organizations that cater to Latino Muslims, and there are even support groups that can be found on-line specifically for Latino converts — in particular, as well the LADO organization at

In fact, last weekend, Latino Muslims in this country celebrated the third annual Hispanic Muslim Day with different activities throughout the day.

For women, particular challenges Converting to Islam can be shocking for families who
are largely Catholic and harbor stereotypes of Muslims, specifically concerning women.

Perada says her mother, who is Colombian, accepted her decision to convert because she never really pushed her into Catholicism. However, her father, who is of
Italian origin, has had a tough time dealing with it.

“Sometimes he says things about the way I dress,” said Perada. “He’ll say, ‘Why do you have to dress that way. I’m Christian. I don’t walk around with a cross
in my hand.'

“He always complains to my mom about it, but with me he just keeps it to himself. But I know for him it is very hard,” Perada added.

Vargas, 30, from the Islamic Education Center, is of Ecuadorian and Peruvian descent. She says her family is already accustomed to the idea of her being Muslim,
since it has already been ten years since she converted. But she recalls the days in which her family was dealing with the initial shock of her new faith.

“When I started being more visible, that’s when things started getting weird. My sisters couldn’t understand why I would cover myself. They thought I was being
oppressed or brainwashed,” said Vargas.

She admits it was difficult at first to adjust to certain customs, such as wearing the hijab or a headscarf and having to pray five times a day.

“First it felt kind of weird to be covered, but after a while it [the headscarf] becomes your hair. I refer to my hijab as my hair.”

‘A return to traditional values’ Like other ethnic groups, Latinos convert for a
variety of reasons.

Some, says Cristillo, grew up in inner-city areas ravaged by poverty, drugs and prostitution, and were attracted in part by the fact that some Islamic
communities were very active in cleaning up the neighborhoods.

Vargas, meanwhile, says she questioned many things about the Catholic faith in which she was raised and felt an emptiness in Christianity.

Galvan, from LADO, pointed out that many people come to Islam through people that they know, "friends, co-workers, classmates, boyfriends or husbands.”

Professor Awn said that many Latinas find there is a greater sense of economic and social stability in Islam and that it also represents “a return to traditional values.”

In that regard, Awn does not think Islam is any more patriarchal than other traditional religions, but recognized that “the younger generation is looking for
a more progressive form of Islam."

And Perada does not feel that her adherence to the Muslim faith restricts her freedoms as a woman.

“If I get married, I know I am going to work, but I am going to be there for my kids, too,” said Perada, dismissing any notions that Islam would prevent her
from living the life of any other modern woman.

Carmen Sesin is an assignment editor on the NBC News Foreing desk.

More about Hispanic Muslims at:

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