The inspiration for my research into the surge of Latinos converting to Islam in the United States comes from an offhand statement from my father. He once mentioned to me that the Middle East–specifically Islamic countries–is one of the last remaining strongholds of conservative religious values in the world. His words got me thinking about the apparent connections between Christianity and Islam–more specifically, the connections between Latino Catholicism and Islam. For my research, I hope to explore the connections between Latino culture in the United States and Muslim religious values that are drawing Latino converts to Islam at higher rates than any other demographic group.
Many theories that I have encountered in my initial research emphasize the role of the Spanish Umayyads in Al-Andalus. Islam is intertwined with Latin American history, but there are other important factors that Latino converts mention. Scholars posit that the surge of conversions to Islam is related to history and a desire to reconnect with lost heritage; however, testimonies from young converts emphasize the importance of religiosity and culture. Converts find in Islam values similar to those they were taught growing up, such as the importance of family and the centrality of faith in one’s life.
The openness to at least learning about Islam comes from a very low level of Islamophobia in Latino communities. An impressive amount of Latinos view Muslims as a group that is politically equal to them; indeed, Latinos and Muslims are scapegoated for very similar reasons in the United States. Both groups are considered an ‘undesirable’ class of immigrants, with Latinos stereotyped as drug traffickers and gangsters and Muslims as terrorists and fanatics. The only area where Latinos are generally skeptical of Islam is the religion’s attitude towards women, which is often perceived as patriarchal and possessive.
Latino converts to Islam are mainly first- or second-generation–that is, born in the United States–and the majority of them are women. The role of women is an interesting and unexpected angle in my research. Many Latino Muslim organizations are built around women’s faith, and many Latina converts are drawn to Islam through their female friends. I am highly interested in digging deeper into the testimonies of young converts and exploring what drew them to Islam. Of course, the path to Islam would not be so easy without the power of online outreach and Spanish translation services, which I hope to research.
Although most of my research will focus on Latinos in the United States, I will also turn to Latin America to examine the small but vibrant Muslim communities scattered across the region. Most of them are driven by immigration, but I cannot wait to investigate why conversion patterns drastically differ between Latin America and the United States. Furthermore, although Latin America may not be seeing an uptick in conversion to Islam, the history and values of Latin America are the same as that which young Latinos in the United States feel connected to.
I hope this research proves something that I truly believe: that the difference between Middle Eastern and Latin American society is not as drastic as it appears on the surface. Our values are shared, and we can connect on many levels.
Author: Jacqueline Bucaro