Latinos are increasingly interested in Islam and, judging by the current issue of The Message International (November/December), the publication of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslims are returning the favor.
The issue, half of which is in Spanish, is devoted to Hispanics and Islam, and cites the recent American Mosque 2011 study which showed that the number of Latino converts has been steadily increasing since 2000, “more so than any other racial or ethnic group.” Similar trends are said to be taking place in Mexico and further south in Central and South America. The ICNA, which is a Muslim umbrella organization, is said to be among the few Islamic organizations providing services for this demographic, such as publishing educational material in Spanish and holding Spanish sessions at its large annual conference. An editorial stresses that Islam is an “integral part of Latino history and culture” and that Hispanics who choose to become Muslim are “merely rediscovering and embracing their past.”
The “testimonies” of conversions to Islam in the issue often cite the influence of the Latino American Dawah Organization, which reaches out to Hispanics and promotes a “greater appreciation of the legacy of Islam in Spain and Latin America.”The presence of Islam in Latin America is becoming enough of a concern among evangelicals to help launch a satellite Christian network to battle such influence, according to Charisma magazine (January).
The magazine reports on televangelists Bill and Carrie McDonald and how they expanded their Unison TV Network via satellite to reach a viewership of 400 million Hispanic viewers. The broadcasting of the Muslim-based network Al Jazeera and, more recently, an Iranian Spanish-language satellite channel that would create an “open door for the Muslim culture to be ushered right into Latin America. As a church we need to get in on this battle,” says Bill McDonald.Whether or not Latinos are being targeted as a special mission field by Muslims, the shared history between the two groups has created a unique approach to Islam and immigration in Spain and Portugal.
In her new book Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia’s New Muslims (Columbia University Press, $25), journalist Marvine Howe provides an in-depth account of the recent Muslim immigration to Spain and Portugal and the historic Islamic influence in this region, giving the reader a sense of how past and present may be related. She argues that the continuing Muslim (mostly African, but also Middle Eastern and some Asian) immigration and growing acknowledgement of their unique Islamic history have set Spain and Portugal apart from the rest of Europe in how they deal with their Muslim migrants. Howe portrays both societies as moving away from interpreting their pasts as one of Catholic supremacy over Islamic aggression, most obviously illustrated by the Inquisition and the expulsion of Muslims. Scholars have actively sought to reconstruct the historical record to show the contributions Muslims made to Iberian culture, especially in the arts and language.
This conciliatory stance toward Islam was complicated by the increasing incidents of extremist Islamic terrorism in Spain since 9/11, more specifically the bombings of commuter trains in Madrid in 2004. Howe notes that such groups as al-Qaeda viewed the country as a launching pad for terrorist activity in the rest of Europe. Yet unlike many European countries, the terrorist threat did not generate large-scale anti-Islamic sentiment in Spain, even if there was a backlash against the rising tide of African Muslim immigrants. Howe writes that because the Muslim community in Portugal is smaller and more integrated than in Spain, the former country has had even less conflict over Islam of the kind reflected in the headscarves controversy in France.
The book is most interesting in its explanation of how the Iberian model of integrating Muslims into society has been something of a success story, standing in sharp contrast to most other European countries. Both Spain and especially Portugal see themselves as countries of immigrants and therefore have an obligation to help other immigrants. To facilitate this welcoming approach both countries have developed governmental and non-governmental organizations (often with ties to the Catholic Church) that advocate for and deliver services to immigrants and work with Muslim groups.
Both countries have made deliberate attempts not to create parallel societies or ghettos that isolate Muslims from society, as has been the case in other countries. Howe concludes on the challenges facing Iberia that there is little agreement among Muslims about which group should represent them to their governments, and the severe economic downturn has spawned more negative attitudes toward Muslim immigrants, particularly in Spain.
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