HHM Feature – Juan Galvan, Raising Hispanic Muslim Experiences

SEPTEMBER 27, 2019 BY NBAMUSLIMS

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nbamuslims/2019/09/27/hispanic-muslims-juan-galvan/

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month,  NbA Muslims, in collaboration with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, will feature Latinx Muslims engaged in progressive work inside and outside of US Muslim communities. This week, we profile Juan Jose Galvan, who has highlighted Latinx Muslims and advocated for appreciation for and inclusion of their unique cultural experiences in Muslim spaces and narratives.

Galvan is the editor of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam and served as the executive director of the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) from 2005 to 2013. He was the editor of its online newsletter, The Latino Muslim Voice, from 2002 to 2012. Through his role as the editor, he actively contributed articles to the newsletter, including Jesus and the Virgin Mary in Islam and FAQs about Latino Muslims. In his career, he has actively written about various Latino Muslim events, organizations and leaders. Juan manages the LatinoDawah.org and HispanicMuslims.com websites. He has a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management Information Systems (BBA-MIS) from The University of Texas at Austin.

Galvan advocates for the inclusion of the Latino Muslim voice in the mainstream Muslim narrative. He pushes for increased visibility of America’s Latino Muslims in religious publications. Juan has assisted dozens of students, professors, and reporters with research and has provided access to the Latino Muslim community through interviews and his writings. He has spoken at various Islamic conferences and developed a growing national reputation as a content expert on the Latino Muslim community through newspaper interviews and publications.

Galavan authored Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam and the recently-released “And One of His Signs…”: Quran Verses that Softened my Heart.

When did Latino Muslim conversion begin to grow in the U.S.?

Following the tragedy of 9-11, many people came to learn about Islam for the first time. People wanted to know, “Is this Islam? What is Islam?” Many wanted to know why the attacks happened. So, millions of non-Muslims went out and purchased books about Islam, visited mosques, and heard lectures on Islam. Most Americans came to separate Islam and the greater Muslim community from those responsible for the 9-11 tragedy.

Some people came to hate Islam, and some people came to love Islam. Many people at least began to respect Islam. Largely, these adopted views depended on the information they read, heard, or watched about Islam. Many people studied Islam and liked what they read and then converted. I met a lady that said that she first started reading about Islam because she wanted to confirm that Islam was evil. After reading a lot about Islam, she converted to Islam! Many people returned to their churches, synagogues, and mosques while others came to churches, mosques, and synagogues for the first time. And, of course, we should not forget all the people and organizations that reached out to their neighbors for the first time.

Latino Muslims have been converting to Islam since before 9-11. The Latino Muslim community has consistently grown annually. I do not know how many Latinos embraced Islam after 9-11. Some Muslim organizations have stated that the Latino Muslim community tripled or quadrupled after 9-11. Like many other Americans, many Latinos embraced Islam after learning what Islam was really about. 

In 2017, Dr. Gastón Espinosa, Dr. Harold Morales, and I released the results of the Latino Muslims Survey (LMS) in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion. According to the report, the growth of conversion rates among Latinos in the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon though individual Latinos have been embracing Islam since the 1920s. Over 74 percent of LMS respondents reported having embraced Islam in the past fifteen years (1999-2014). Only 4 percent of Latino Muslims surveyed reported they were raised as Muslims. 

What are some parts of the country with the highest number of conversions? 

The size of the Latino Muslim population within a particular area typically corresponds to the size of the overall Muslim population within that area. For example, an area, whether city or state, with numerous Muslims, usually has more Latino Muslims than an area with fewer Muslims. You can find Latino Muslims in all major cities within the United States. The largest numbers of Latino Muslims live in cities with large numbers of both Latinos and Muslims, resulting from interactions between members from both communities. Cities with the greatest numbers of Latino Muslims include Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and Chicago. 

The number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine because the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information about religion. Estimates range from as low as 40,000 up to as high as 250,000. No precise numbers exist regarding the size of Latino Muslim populations in any specific cities or states. In Texas and California, most Latino Muslims are Mexicans or Central Americans. On the east coast. Latino Muslims are usually Puerto Rican or Dominican, which is not surprising considering the dispersion of the Latino population within the United States.

According to the LMS study, the states with the highest concentrations of Latino Muslim participants were California (19%), Texas (15%), New York (12%), New Jersey (11%), Florida (7%), Illinois (5%), Georgia (4%), and Pennsylvania (3%).  The LMS survey found that most Latino Muslims are women (73%), were born in the U.S. (62%), and come from diverse countries of origin, even though a majority trace their ancestry to Mexico (31%) or Puerto Rico (22%). 

What are some the common reasons Latino Muslims convert to the faith?

Why people choose Islam depends on the individual you ask. Many Latinos will just say that it is through Allah’s mercy and guidance. In our LMS report, we include the following table that shows the results of some questions we asked survey respondents. The Islamic belief in monotheism/Tawhid (95%) is a “very or somewhat influential” factors in Latino Muslims’ decision to embrace Islam. Other highly influential factors included the practice of daily prayers (76%), the Islamic belief in prophethood (75%), the racial/ethnic equality called for in Islam (74%), and the practice of charity/zakat in Islam (71%).

In the LMS report, we concluded that the high conversion rates of Latinos to Islam are largely due to a heavy emphasis on proselytism (dawah). We supported this finding by the fact that 40 percent first heard about Islam from a friend, 13 percent from a spouse or future spouse, and 8 percent from a family member, while only 4 percent first heard about Islam from a radio or television show, and 3 percent from an Islamic website. Roughly a third (33%) of the LMS respondents reported trying to convert others to Islam regularly; 11 percent did so every day; 10 percent once a week or more, and another 12 percent once a month or more. This focus on personal dawah helps explain the Latino Muslim growth between 1999-2014.

Because of a commonly held misconception that Islam was “spread by the sword,” many non-Muslims find it hard to accept that Latinos convert to Islam primarily because they fall in love with the teachings of Islam. Belief in Islam is a matter of the heart and mind. People also continue to associate Islam with polytheism or paganism when in reality it is the purest monotheistic religion. When you read the news, people seem to convert to Islam for every reason but belief. Many new Muslims often point out reasons that may have initially attracted them to Islam, and rather than putting these reasons into their proper perspective as part of the journey, they attribute them as the catalysts for conversion. Media coverage often overlooks the Islamic message of hope, love, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, Islam is seen as a foreign religion from a faraway land, and its followers are also seen as foreign and therefore, strange, different, and distant. Islam has many similarities with the other Abrahamic faiths that attract many non-Muslims. However, if Islam were exactly like other religions, non-Muslims would have no reason to embrace Islam. People are attracted to Islam because it is different. That is where the beauty comes from. I hope my book Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam fights against this anti-Islam mentality. In my book, Latino Muslims from all walks of life discuss their conversion to Islam. 

Are Latino Muslims integrating their cultural identities into their new faith experiences? How?

I strongly believe that the central role of the family is the most important aspect of Latino identity. The problems found in Latino families may be similar or maybe even the same as those in other communities. Different families have different problems. For example, a Latino immigrant to the United States may have a large, supportive family in her native country, knowing all their cousins, aunts, and uncles. These people are very important to them. If something happens, the family is there to help. However, this may change when moving to the US. They may question common values held in their home countries’ cultural identities and find themselves with little family support if any. Their family members experience a lot of stress and hardship. Problems they never imagined may occur. Families in Latino culture is very similar to how it is in Islam. Many Latinos are looking for a way to protect their family life and see Islam as a way of returning their family to its proper place in society. Islam takes what is beautiful and makes it more beautiful. 

Most Muslim converts effortlessly adjust to their relationship with their family embracing their Muslim identity. No one wants to be the outcast. One of the worse things new Muslims can do is to alienate themselves from their family. Converting to Islam does not mean cutting ties. After becoming a Muslim, you are still a member of your family. Your mother is still your mother, and your father is still your father. Love towards your family is natural and unconditional. You should be kind toward your family. You should obey your parents and elders as long as their advice does not contradict the teachings of Islam. Embracing Islam is an opportunity to teach your family and friends about Islam. Know that they have a right to reject Islam if that is what they want. Also, know that you cannot take part in haraam, or prohibited, activities. Integration is not about rejecting everything about your culture. I still love the food I grew up eating but eat nothing that contains pork. These are important considerations for all Muslim converts integrating their cultural identities into our new faith.

What are some unique challenges facing Latino Muslims inside Muslim communities in the U.S.?

I appreciate the love and support we receive from other Muslims. Many mosques, Muslim organizations, and individual Muslims actively work with Latino Muslims on projects hoping to strengthen the Muslim community. CAIR, ISNA, MAS, and ICNA have programs geared specifically for Latino Muslims. ICNA/WhyIslam is a noteworthy example. Because Islam is a universal brotherhood, I deal with every Muslim as an individual and avoid stereotypes that can endanger our relationship with one another. Some raised Muslims have negative stereotypes about Latinos. Some people raised as Muslims think all Latinos are promiscuous and incapable of becoming a ‘real’ Muslim. Often, the different Muslim communities in the U.S. aren’t too sure how to relate to one another. 

We all share our religion but we don’t all share the same connected histories. Latino Muslim history differs greatly from African-American Muslim history, for example. The Muslim communities are not all the same. Although you may feel welcomed at your mosque, it doesn’t mean a Latino will feel welcomed there. According to the LMS findings, three-fourths (77%) of those surveyed reported that Latino Muslims face racially or ethnically discriminatory attitudes (48%) or sometimes face racially or ethnically discriminatory attitudes by Muslims who are not Latino (29%). Only 15 percent reported that they do not face or sometimes face discriminatory attitudes by non-Latino Muslims.  

Latino Muslims want to feel accepted and treated as equals. One reason Alianza Islamica was founded in the 1980s was that Latinos were constantly asked not to speak Spanish at the mosques they attended. The Bani Saqr, a mostly Puerto Rican Muslim community, was founded in New Jersey in the 1970s under the leadership of a well-respected African-American imam. I also encourage you to learn about the history of the Punjabi Mexican-Americans in California. The Latino Muslim community has been a bridge between Muslim communities because we can relate to both the native-born and immigrant Muslim communities through our common experiences. “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” – Quran 49:13.

What are some challenges facing Latino Muslims in Hispanic communities and the broader society? 

Eighty-four percent (84%) of LMS participants reported that Latinos Muslims face discriminatory attitudes (63%) or sometimes face discriminatory attitudes (21%) by Latinos who are not Muslim. Many Latino non-Muslims genuinely believe that Islam is bad for the Latino community. They may be concerned with other Latinos leaving their “original culture.” But what is original culture? Latinos can’t define culture by religion because our ancestors were from all different religions. Many Hispanics think leaving Catholicism means rejecting their identity. We should reevaluate how we traditionally define culture. Although some people define culture as something static, I think defining culture as a dynamic process is more accurate. The current Latino culture is merely today’s Latino culture. If in a hundred years from now most Latinos are Muslim, the typical Latino would consider Islam inseparable from the Latino culture. Islam sets the framework and direction that the Latino Muslim culture takes. Accepting Islam means rejecting some old ways, accepting some new ways, and adapting when necessary. I am a Latino American and a Muslim. There is no contradiction in my identity. 

Hispanic Heritage Month occurs annually from September 15th to October 15th. It celebrates the history, presence, and contributions of all Hispanics and Latinos in the United States and highlights the diversity of the Latino community. In the U.S., citizens have opportunities to interact with people from all nationalities, cultures, and religions. We live in the most diverse country in the world. Many people are not very supportive of diversity when it comes to Latino Muslims though. Many Americans do not appreciate all the cultural and religious diversity found in the United States. However, negative stereotypes are constantly challenged in our diverse society. Americans have been blessed to share their different beliefs, experiences, and perspectives. Latino Muslims are a great American story. 

Note: According to a short survey I conducted last year, most Latino Muslims do not like being referred to as Latinx. Please forgive me if I have offended anyone.

Article – Why the stories of Latinx Muslims matter

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Why the stories of Latinx Muslims matter

Ken Chitwood

There is the mother who converted when she saw her son transition from a life of drugs and crime to one of prayer and faithful religious practice. Then there’s the story of the guy who met the woman of his dreams, moved to Kenya to pursue her, and converted in order to become her husband. Or there is the Marine who took the shahadah while stationed in Japan. There are former Pentecostals and Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and agnostics, atheists and Mormons; they’ve all converted to Islam. They are from Puerto Rico and Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador, San Franciso and San Salvador, New York, Newark, Miami, and Houston.

They are Latinx Muslims, one of the fastest growing religious communities in the U.S.

When I started learning from Latinx Muslims back in 2012 I was able to cobble together a few articles from scholars such as SpearIt, Patrick Bowen, and Hisham Aidi, read a single monograph (Hjamil A. Martínez-Vásquez’s Latina/o Y Musulmán: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States), peruse blogs, and talk to leading Latina/o Muslims like Juan Galvan, Daniel Abdullah Hernandez, Mujahid Fletcher, Isa Parada, and Juan Alvarado to complete my research. The result was my master’s thesis Islam en Español: The narratives, demographics, conversion causeways, & conditions for community cohesion among Latina/o Muslims in the U.S. 

At the end of my thesis, I wrote there was still a pertinent need to expand research in this area and in the quest for quality, comprehensive, newswriting and coverage, that students and commentators should provide more nuanced information about this important religious community. Over the last several years I have seen an increasing amount of new research, publications, and writing on the subject. It’s an exciting time to be in the field.

Just this year, five major publications have come out — or are on their way — that will help scholars and a wider public better understand the why, what, when, where, and how of Latinx conversion to Islam and how Latinx Muslims are shaping the American religious scene and impacting the broader Muslim world. Below I provide a brief overview, review, and comment on each of them before concluding with some ideas for the future, and some suggestions for how these might spur further research and consideration of Latinx Muslims in the U.S. and beyond:

1. Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam by Juan Galvan

I start with this text because it is both highly valuable and for me, it is highly personal. Since I first met Isa Parada at a masjid in Houston, TX and began learning from my Latinx Muslim teachers and friends I have remained humbly fascinated with Latinx Muslim journeys through the uncertainties of being “quadruple minorities” — Latinx in the Muslim community, Muslim in the Latinx community, Latinx in the U.S., and Muslim in the U.S.

This text, which I turned to in its draft form as a website and blog during my master’s research, not only presents general comments on the place of Latinx Muslims in the American Muslim story, but it also does the simple, but significant, service of presenting scores of stories from Latinx Muslims themselves. Readers listen to men and women from across the Americas who identify as Latina, Latino, Latinx, Hispanic, or Spanish-speaking tell their stories of reversion (or ‘conversion,’ Latinx Muslims refer to their conversions as ‘reversions,’ both because they believe in fitra — that human beings are born with an innate inclination toward tawhid [the oneness of God] and draw on their Andalusian roots to speak to the very Arab and Muslim basis of much of Latinx culture, language, and history).

Readers will enjoy how Galvan frames these narratives with his own historical, theological, and cultural commentary, but will be most impressed by the sheer diversity of stories and experiences of those who converted in prison or on their front porch, to those who reverted in Australia and Bolivia, and those who found Islam on Facebook, through Latinx specific organizations, their future spouses, in dreams, or even while smoking weed and drinking a 22oz. of Heineken. Not only does this text do well to let the stories stand for themselves and permit Latinx Muslims’ voices to be heard above all else, but it also provides a wealth of primary data for researchers and interested students looking to learn more.

2. American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam by SpearIt

On this point of conversions of prison, SpearIt presents an overview of prison culture in the U.S. with a specific focus on the role of Islam and Muslims within the system. The main point of this anthology is that “problems in prison are not isolated from society, and [prisons] are not neatly cornered off from society, but rather, are partners in toxic relationships with the communities to which ex-prisoners return.”

Against, and alongside, what he posits as a poisonous prison system he showcases the spiritual journeys of many Muslims who convert while incarcerated. Significantly, he includes an exploration and analysis of Latinx Muslims — their conversions, their communities, and their central importance in telling the story of Islam in the U.S.

3. 40 Sayings of Prophet Muhammad by Daniel Abdullah Hernandez

One of the more significant voices in my research has been “Imam Danny.” He is a scholar, an inter-religious leader, and a friend. His tireless efforts at understanding, communicating, and sharing Islamic theology are well appreciated by many Muslims — Latinx and otherwise.

His most recent project is a labor of love that also opens up a window into the influence of Latinx Muslims in the process of Islamic theology in the U.S. and abroad. Not only have Latinx Muslims been producing works, and translating works into, Spanish over the last 40 years, they have also been creating new works in English. Imam Hernandez’s efforts at translating and collecting 42 hadith, reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and other early Muslims, on the five pillars of Islamic practice (confessing the faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and the hajj pilgrimage) are quick, practical, references for intentional Muslims. More than that, they are another prime example of indigenous knowledge production and leadership among Latinx Muslims who are making an impact on their religion in the U.S. and abroad. It is evidence that Latinx Muslims are not only being shaped by the global umma (Muslim community) but also shaping it with their words and deeds.

4. “Latino Muslims in the United States Reversion, Politics, and Islamidad,” Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion by Gaston Espinosa, Juan Galvan, and Harold Morales

This journal article lauds itself as the first large-scale survey research on the demographics of the Latinx Muslim community and the question of why Latina/os converted to Islam. There has been important research conducted in this area, but as they note it has largely been limited to smaller numbers in particular cities and without any consistent methodology. As they wrote, “This study seeks to help fill this gap in the literature by analyzing the survey results of 560 Latino Muslims across the U.S.”

What they provide is the most comprehensive picture of the general make-up and sociological contours of the Latinx Muslim community in the U.S. They also make a critical interlude by discussing the idea of “Islamidad” — a distinct Latinx Muslim identity that resists complete assimilation to Arab cultural norms even as it reimagines and expands what it means to be Latinx and Muslim.

5. Latino and Muslim in America: Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority by Harold Morales

This book, which comes out in April, is a highly anticipated and pioneering monograph that,  “examines how so-called ‘minority groups’ are made, fragmented, and struggle for recognition in the U.S.A.” To do so, it focuses on the story of, “Latino Muslims [who] celebrate their intersecting identities both in their daily lives and in their mediated representations online.”

While I have yet to get my hands on this book, the publisher’s description gives us an overview:

“In this book, Harold Morales follows the lives of several Latino Muslim leaders from the 1970’s to the present, and their efforts to organize and unify nationally in order to solidify the new identity group’s place within the public sphere. Based on four years of ethnography, media analysis and historical research, Morales demonstrates how the phenomenon of Latinos converting to Islam emerges from distinctive immigration patterns and laws, urban spaces, and new media technologies that have increasingly brought Latinos and Muslims in to contact with one another. He explains this growing community as part of the mass exodus out of the Catholic Church, the digitization of religion, and the growth of Islam. Latino and Muslim in America explores the racialization of religion, the framing of religious conversion experiences, the dissemination of post-colonial histories, and the development of Latino Muslim networks, to show that the categories of race, religion, and media are becoming inextricably entwined.”

As is evident from the above, research from, and on, Latinx Muslims is on the rise. The above provides valuable fodder and necessary provocation for further research and understanding by broader Muslim, American, and Latinx populations. Reflection, writing, and research is getting  deeper and wider and that’s a good thing.

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Of course, to be more cognizant, and fine-tuned, in researching Latinx Muslims, researchers have to ask the right questions in a community that is still growing, emerging, and solidifying itself. Future research must be deeper and broader still, more thoroughly theoretical in its approach, and perhaps focused on some of the following suggested areas for further research:

  • more understanding of, and from, Latinx Muslim women who provide a rich, unique, and gendered place and perspective within a community where they are the majority;
  • investigations of specific Latinx influence on Islamic doctrine and Muslim practice in the U.S. and abroad;
  • further exploration of the accents and considerable transnational lives of Latinx Muslims. I am aiming to provide more on this in my own dissertation research with Puerto Rican Muslims and in my forthcoming book from Hurst Publishers and Oxford University Press on Islam and Muslim communities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Certainly, there is more left to discover about the nuances of this community’s narrative and how they fit into the global Muslim picture. Yet, the above works help provide a firm, and comprehensive, foundation for this further research.

Just 100 years ago the Latinx Muslim community in the U.S. scantly existed, if it was present at all. Today, Latinx Muslims have the opportunity to shape Islam and Muslim communities in the U.S., in Latin America, and across the globe with their particular accent on its theology, practice, and expansion and via the various media of global communication and contact between multiple cultures and communities. The above works showcase how this is already happening and why it matters.