Islam in the West: Cause for Celebration and a Time for Concern

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A Washington Post headline recently screamed, "Islam luring more Latinos", an indication that despite the recent wave of Islamophobia, the number of Muslims in the Western Hemisphere continues to grow.

Chris L. Jenkins, the Washington Post staff writer noted, "in growing numbers, Hispanics, the country's fastest-growing ethnic group, are finding new faith in Islam, the nation's fastest-growing religion. Moved by what many say is a close-knit religious environment and a faith that provides a more concrete, intimate connection with God, they are replacing Mass with mosques."

Indeed, the steadily increasing number of Latino Muslims illustrates how deeply rooted Islam has become in the national landscape -- even spreading to communities not normally associated with the faith. According to Jenkins some also point to what they see as a closer-knit, smaller community that helps replace the extended family they have lost here in America, as well as a supportive sanctuary to help sort through their sometimes recent immigration. The Latino Muslims are part of a larger trend of American Hispanics leaving the Catholic Church, experts say.

Latino Muslims have become a part of the growing Muslim American community. The Muslim population in the United States is estimated at more than 8 million, nearly 8 times the number in 1970.

The reasons for Islam's phenomenal growth are due in part to the growing number of converts to the religion. Many say they are choosing Islam because they feel the religion gives them greater direct contact with Allah, without saints and a rigid church hierarchy. The second edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, published by the Oxford University Press, noted that while Christianity remained the world's biggest religion, Islam posted notable increases in the 20th century.

The book is a compilation of statistical estimates and descriptions for each religious group in each nation. The Encyclopedia said that Islam ranks second, growing from 200 million in 1900, or 12.3 percent of the population, to 1.2 billion, or 19.6 percent, last year. Christianity, it said, began and ended the century as the world's biggest religion, with 555 million believers in 1900, or 32.2 percent of the world population, and 1.9 billion, or 31 percent, as of last year.

Signs of the growth of Islam in the United States can be seen in everyday life. A few colleges are building student centers for Muslims, just as they built Hillel centers for Jewish students or Newman centers for Catholics several generations ago. The White House now sends greetings for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, and the US Postal Service has unveiled its first Eid stamp to be issued October 2001.

On college campuses and other public spaces, there is a greater acceptance of the views and the presence of Muslims.

In the words Dr. John L. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and director of its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: "A generation ago you might use the phrase 'Islam and the West,' and now you would say 'Islam in the West.' "

Many reverts learnt about Islam on campus when they began talking with Muslim students. A revert said that Islam provided her "provided a warmth and direction." A revert who was concerned about the role of women in Islam and whether she would be forced to take a subservient position to her husband and other men, overcame her fears as she learned more about the Qur'an and its teachings and how some countries' Islamic communities are less stringent about such requirements. These stories point out to the needs that Muslims fulfill by not only reaching out to non-Muslims with understanding but also by providing literature produced in a manner that the host communities can understand.

Such wonderful news is matched by another reality - the loss of Muslims. It is a well-known fact that thousands of Muslims came to the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries, and nearly none of the their descendants became practicing Muslims. Many are proud to boast that Carlos Menem, the former president of Argentina, had Muslim forbears. But the troubling aspect is that this person did not inherit Islam from his forebears. Such dangers also confront the present generation of Muslim Americans.

Reports abound how Muslim children cannot even perform wudu or eat pork products in school despite admonitions from their parents. There is little to hope that such young people will grow up Muslims, or even identify themselves as such.

Islam is growing, but with the reality of loss, Muslim Americans need to remind themselves to be vigilant in order to protect themselves from being swallowed up by the waves of the dominant culture.


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