Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of international relations at the American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of many books, including Journey into America: the Challenge of Islam (Brookings Press, July 2010).
He spoke with Illume about Latino-Americans converting to Islam.
He says that he believes Latino Muslims have been facing a double challenge: cultural and religious. In embracing Islam, Latinos are mainly searching for order and discipline, according to Professor Ahmed.
Do you have an idea about the number or the proportion of Latinos reverted to Islam in the United States?
The figures for all converts included the Whites converts are estimated. So we cannot say for certain how many are converted. Sometimes people are reluctant to say they are converted, sometimes people move around, so it’s difficult to pin them down, but I would say that there is substantial number of Latinos converted. What are the motivations which push them to convert to Islam?I think there are two reasons. The ordinary Latinos find very difficult to enter into the American white society. Some of the things they see around them like the excessive freedom, the lack of order or discipline mean that they live there at a great risk. Their family’s lives, their children, their sense of order, their faith, all that is affected because people are so free and they can do anything they want to. And because Latinos are coming from Catholic background, which is fairly ordered world, to America where is completely free, sometimes they find an alternative in Islam, where they see an order. This is meant Muslims are told not to drink, women can’t go out with any men they want to go out with, they need to look after their families, their children, and so all these things mean some order and discipline.
At the same time, because they are coming from a Catholic background, they also see some echoes in Islam of their own faith. For example, the Catholics have a very high reverence for Mary, the mother of Jesus, which is something they very much appreciate.
During your journey, were you able to draw a typical profile of Latino Muslims?
Latino converts are very different to the White converts. For the White converts, we found that this is more an intellectual challenge. With the Latinos converts, I think it is more a question of adjusting to American society but still being proud of their own culture and background but also adopting something that give them some order. With Islam they have an echo of their previous life in Catholicism, they have the discipline of religious life, and they have the memory of high veneration for Mary.
They have also some memories in back of their minds with the Muslim Spain, in Andalusia. So all that makes them convert to Islam and still be familiar in this new religion. But sometimes that is not popular because lot of the families will not be happy at all because they also don’t like Islam. They picking up the prejudices against Islam from the media and they think Islam is terrible, terrorist, etc…
By the way, do you think Latino Muslims can make change the perception of Islam in the United States?
No, it will be difficult because in America there are already some prejudices against Latinos. Lot of Americans think that among Latinos there are many illegal immigrants. Many Americans associate Latinos with drug smuggling and all sorts of chaos. So in that sense, if Americans are told Latinos are becoming Muslim; for most of them, Islam is a minus and Latinos are also a minus. So is minus plus minus, if you know what I mean (laughter). Unlike, they see the White converts. The conversion of Whites make big impact because Americans ask why there are converting to Islam and there is much more passion and controversy over that.
How do Latino Muslims practice Islam?
We went to many centers and we saw that they are very committed Muslims. For me coming to South Asia, they look like my people. They were very gentle, hospitable, a very nice behavior. And they are being some strength, the strength of culture of Islam and their own culture and it give them a certain confidence in their new religion. Women were wearing the hijab and they were very dignified in the way they conducted themselves.
How is the relation between the new Latino Muslims and the rest of Muslim community?
This is a new relationship and good relationship. Muslims are happy that they are becoming converts. But even in Muslim society, they focus more on White converts. Because I wouldn’t say it is a defined hierarchy but there is a hierarchy. And they (Muslims) take Latinos for granted and think “You know they are like us”, whereas with the White converts, they think “we made some big catch”. There is a kind of hierarchy based on these social categories.
Do you think the conversion to Islam within the Latino community in the Unites States might have some repercussions over Hispanic countries?
Very limited. Because, number one, they are not converting in such huge number and number two, it is all happening under the radar. There is a very little media impact. The impact has not been as great as for example, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) who converted to Islam or recently Cherie Blair’s sister (Lauren Booth) in the UK.
In your book, Journey into American: Challenge of Islam, page 323, you wrote “Latinos converting to Islam are also reflecting the crisis in their own community.”What do you mean?
By that, I mean many Latinos told me in their community “the fathers are too drunk”, or “they go chase women all the time” in America when they come from Mexico. So the family structure is breaking down. They complained and said “our men are drinking all the time or going out with women”, “the children are dropping out of school” or “joining gangs”. So that is the crisis and they are opting out of that by joining Islam. Some of them find order and peace in Islam. At the same time is a double challenge, they face double prejudice being a Muslim and being Latino.
How could you explain, on one hand this increase of conversion to Islam in the United States, especially after 9/11 attacks, and on the other hand the rising of Islamophobia?
There are many reasons. One reason is that there is so much literature on Islam. If you are an American, and day and night people are saying Islam is bad, Islam is terrorism, so you may pick up a book on Islam and what do you see? No, Islam is saying something else so in that sense the interest in Islam has gone up since 9/11. Second reason, there are also many elements in this society, which push people away from it to something else. Lot of people told us, it gives us “too much freedom”, there is “danger for our morality”. Many people said that. Some find, they can have some peace and soul in Christianity, some in Judaism, and some found it in Islam. Lot of African Americans and Latinos found it in Islam. If there were not 9/11 and there were no discussion on Islam in media, Americans knew very little about Islam because there was very limited idea and interest in it. After 9/11, there are so many discussions, which force individuals to begin to think about Islam.