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Cleaning Out Our Own Closets This Ramadan: Bigotry

Why Eliminating Hate Begins with Us

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Before Muslims take a stand against xenophobia in the U.S., we really need to eradicate it from our own community.

There. I said it.

There is no nice way to put it. Muslims can be very intolerant of those outside their circles, particularly our Latino neighbors. How do I know? I am a Latina who came into Islam almost two decades ago, and I have experienced my fair share of stereotypes, prejudice, and just outright ignorance coming from my very own Muslim brethren.

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And I am not alone.

My own family and Latino Muslim friends have also dealt with their daily doses of bigotry. Most of the time, it is not ill-intentioned, however, the fact that our community is so out of touch with Latin Americans says a lot about why we are often at the receiving end of discrimination and hate.

“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves…” (The Qur’an, 13:11)

Recently, Fox News came under fire for airing a graphic that stated, “Trump cuts aid to 3 Mexican countries,” on their show, “Fox and Friends Weekend.” The network apologized for the embarrassing error, but not before criticism of their geographical mishap went viral on social media. The reactions were of disbelief, humor, and repugnance for the controversial news channel that has become the archenemy of everything Islamic. People flooded the internet with memes, tweets, and comments regarding the ridiculous headline, Muslims included. American Muslim leaders quickly released statements condemning the lack of knowledge about the difference between Mexico and the nations of Central and South America.

Ironically, however, just about two months ago, my eldest son wrote an essay about the bullying he experienced in an Islamic school, which included insults about him being Mexican and “eating tacos” even though he is half Ecuadorian (South America) and Puerto Rican (Caribbean), not Mexican. I include the regions in parentheses because, in fact, many Muslims are just as geographically-challenged as the staff at Fox News. When a group of Hispanic workers came to replace the windows at his former school, my son approached them and spoke to them in Spanish as a means of dawah – teaching them that there are Latin American and Spanish-speaking Muslims. His classmates immediately taunted him saying that the laborers were “his cousins.” Although my son tried countless times to explain to his peers the difference between his origins and Mexico and defended both, they continued to mock Latinos.

On another occasion, a local masjid invited a famous Imam from the Midwest to speak about a topic. My family and I attended the event because we were fans of the shaykh and admired his work. A few minutes into his talk, he made a derogatory remark about Mexicans, and then added with a smile, “I hope there aren’t any Mexicans in the room!” A gentleman from the community stood up behind my husband, who is Ecuadorian, and pointed at him saying, “We have one right here!” Some people chuckled as his face turned red. The shaykh apologized for his comment and quickly moved on. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. This was nothing new.

Imam Mohamed Alhayek (Jordanian Palestinian) and Imam Yusuf Rios (Puerto Rican) share an intimate moment during the 16th Annual Hispanic Muslim Day. Photo/Caption by Melissa Barreto — at North Hudson Islamic Educational Center (NHIEC).

Once, I visited a Pakistani sister, and as I enjoyed a cup of warm chai on her patio, she turned to me earnestly and said, “You and (another Latina Muslim) are the only educated Hispanics I know.” She then asked me why Latinos did not have “goals and ambitions” because supposedly, all the Hispanic students in her daughters’ school only aspired to work in their parents’ businesses as laborers. She went on to tell me about her Hispanic maid’s broken family and how unfortunate it was that they had no guidance or moral values. I was shocked by her assumptions, but I realized that this was the sentiment of a lot of Muslims who simply do not know a thing about our culture or have not taken the time to really get to know us.

When I accepted Islam back in 2000, I never expected to hear some of the narrow-minded comments and questions I received from those people who had become my brothers and sisters in faith. After all, I came to Islam through the help of an Egyptian family, I declared the Shahada for the first time in the presence of people from Pakistan, and I was embraced in the masjid by worshippers from places like Somalia, Sudan, Palestine, India, Turkey, and Afghanistan. A white American convert gifted me with my first Ramadan guide and an Indian sister supported me during my first fast. I expected to be treated equally by everyone because Islam was for everyone and Muslims have been hearing this their whole lives and they preach it incessantly. I do the same now. As a Muslim Latina, I tell my people that Islam is open to all and that racism, colorism, classism, and xenophobia have no place in Islam.

Nevertheless, it did not take long for me to hear some very ugly things from my new multi-cultural community. I was questioned about whether I was a virgin or not by well-meaning sisters who wanted to find me a Muslim husband. My faith was scrutinized when my friend’s family introduced me to an imam who doubted I had converted on my own, without the persuasion of a Muslim boyfriend or husband. I was pressured about changing my name because it was not “Islamic” enough. I was lectured about things that I had already learned because foreign-born Muslims assumed I had no knowledge. I was even told I could not be a Muslim because I was Puerto Rican; that I was too “out there,” too loud, or that my people were not morally upright.

I know about good practicing Muslim men who have been turned down for marriage because they are Hispanic. On the other hand, I have seen sisters taken for marriage by immigrant Muslims to achieve citizenship status and later abandoned, despite having children. I have been approached by Muslim men searching for their “J-Lo,” who want to marry a “hot” Latina because of the disgusting exploitation of Latina women they have been exposed to from television, movies, and music videos. I have made the mistake of introducing this type of person to one of my sisters and witnessed their disappointment because she did not fit the image of the fantasy girl they expected. I have felt the heartbreak of my sister who was turned down for not living up to those unrealistic expectations, and who continues to wait for a Muslim man who will honor her as she deserves. An older “aunty” once said to my face that she would never let her children marry a Latino/a.

I met a brother named José who was told that he had to change his un-Islamic Spanish name so that he would be better received in the Muslim community, even though his name, when translated to Arabic, is Yusuf! I have been asked if I know any Hispanic who could work at a Muslim’s store for less than minimum wage 12 hours a day or a “Spanish lady” who can clean a Muslim’s house for cheap. I have spoken to Latino men and women who work at masajid doing landscaping or janitorial services who have never heard anything about Islam. When I approached the Muslim groundskeeper at one of these mosques with Spanish literature to give them, he looked at me bewildered and said, “Oh, they are just contractors,” as if they did not deserve to learn about our faith! I have heard that the child of a Latina convert was expelled and banned from returning to an Islamic school for making a mistake, once. I have been told about fellow Hispanics who dislike going to the masjid because they feel rejected and, worse of all, some of them have even left Islam altogether.

Latina Muslims share a laugh during the 16th Annual Hispanic Muslim Day.
Photo/Caption by Melissa Barreto — at North Hudson Islamic Educational Center (NHIEC).

A few weeks ago, news was released about the sentencing of Darwin Martinez Torres, who viciously raped and murdered Northern Virginia teen, Nabra Hassanen during Ramadan in June 2017. The story made national headlines and left her family and the entire Muslim community devastated. Although the sentence of eight life terms in prison for the killer provided some closure to the public, the senseless and heinous act still leaves sentiments of anger and frustration in the hearts of those who loved Nabra Hassanen. Muslims began sharing the news on social media and soon, remarks about the murderer’s Central American origin flooded the comments sections. One said, “An illegal immigrant from El Salvador will now spend the rest of his life in a U.S. prison where all his needs will be met, and his rights will be protected… When we attack efforts to stop illegal immigration and to deal with the criminals coming across the border every day, remember Sr. Nabra… we should all be united in supporting common-sense measures to ensure that our sisters do not walk in fear of attacks. (And no, this is not an ‘isolated case’…).”

Although I was just as relieved about receiving the news that there was finally justice for our young martyred sister, I was saddened to see that the anti-Hispanic immigrant sentiment within our own community was exposed: To assume that Latino immigrants are “criminals coming across the border every day” is to echo the very words that came from current US President Donald Trump’s mouth about immigrants prior to his election to the presidency. To blame all Latinos for a crime committed against one and claim it is not an “isolated case” is to do the same thing that Fox News and anti-Muslim bigots do when they blame all Muslims for a terror attack.

Why are we guilty of the same behavior that we loathe?

I do not like to air out our dirty laundry. I have always felt that it is counterproductive for our collective dawah efforts. It is embarrassing and shameful that we, who claim to be so tolerant and peaceful, still suffer from the very attitudes for which we blame others. As I write this piece, I have been sharing my thoughts with my close friend, a Pakistani-American, who agreed with me and said, “Just like a recovering alcoholic, our first step is to admit there is a problem.” We cannot demand our civil rights and expect to be treated with dignity while we mistreat another minority group, and this includes Latinos and also other indigenous Muslims like Black Americans and Native Americans. I say this, not just for converts, but for my loud and proud, half Puerto Rican and half Ecuadorian children and nephews and others like them who were born Muslims: we need a community that welcomes all of us.

Latinos and Muslims share countless cultural similarities. Our paths are the same. Our history is intertwined, whether we know it or not; and if you don’t know it, then it is time you do your research. How can we visit Islamic Spain and North Africa and marvel at its magnificence, and travel to the Caribbean for vacation and notice the Andalusian architecture present in the colonial era structures, yet choose to ignore our shared past? How can you be proud of Mansa Musa, and not know that it is said his brother sailed with other Malians to the Americas prior to Columbus, making contact with the indigenous people of South America (even before it was “America”)? How can you turn your back on people from the countries which sheltered thousands of Muslim immigrants from places like Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey after the collapse of the Uthmani Empire, many of which carry that blood in their veins?

Latino Muslim panelists during “Hispanic Muslim Day” at North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, Union City, NJ Photo/Caption by Melissa Barreto — at North Hudson Islamic Educational Center (NHIEC).

We need to do a better job of reaching out and getting to know our neighbors. In recent years, the Muslim ban has brought Latinos and Muslims together in solidarity to oppose discriminatory immigration laws. The time is now to establish lasting partnerships.

Use this Ramadan to reach out to the Latino community; host a Spanish open house or an interfaith/intercultural community iftar. Reach out to Latino Muslims in your area for support, or to organizations like ICNA’s WhyIslam (Por qué Islam) for Spanish materials. A language barrier is not an issue when there are plenty of resources available in the Spanish language, and we have the universal language that has been declared a charity by our Prophet, Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), and that is a welcoming smile.

There is no excuse.

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Columnist Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, poet, translator, and children's book author. She is the Spanish content coordinator for ICNA-WhyIslam. She is also the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in the Spanish language.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Uthman

    May 13, 2019 at 12:28 PM

    All I can say is I’m sorry, and we need to do better.

  2. Avatar

    Tami

    May 14, 2019 at 2:55 AM

    It’s sad that people are labeling all Hispanics as Mexicans. What you said is valid. Just to add many aunty’s feel like their son is being taken, supposedly the girl is converting because she comes from broken a home and want to marry a normal family. Many aunties are upset that there are not enough men from their culture to get their daughters married because the men are marrying to so called Muslim converts.

  3. Avatar

    Karima Khatib

    May 16, 2019 at 3:22 PM

    God Bless you, Wendy, for bringing this behavior to our attention and giving us inspiration for thought and action. As you aptly put it, we as a group of people on the earth are just that. Flawed, mean, arrogant, hateful, insecure and just behaving badly as well as loving, giving, humble, worshipping as best we can in a world where Islam has no presence. Muslims have a presence of course. Let’s all take a proactive stance keeping the examples you mentioned in mind and become the welcoming rather than wait to be welcomed. I would guess that most everyone at the community iftar last night was feeling a bit socially awkward. We probably all thought everyone else had friends and family and that they were ignoring us as we passed by. Actually we were all “new comers” to the iftar and there was no one welcoming anyone and it is not easy to take the first step. A solution to feeling different is to become the welcoming committee of one. Try to say hello to those at tables as you pass through the crowd and find out if they “come here often” or “is this your first time visiting”, rather than just a nod and basic greeting. Invite those alone to join your table. And let’s take those who are rude and ignorant aside and share hadith and Quran relevant to that behavior and offer a dua for all of us to learn our deen more deeply. God Bless you Wendy.

  4. Avatar

    Amina Khan

    May 26, 2019 at 7:03 AM

    It seems like the people in your community lack basic Islamic adab. They truly sound like the people of jahiliya. What comes to mind is the hadeeth when Abu Dhar RA addressed Bilal RA as, “son of a black woman” and the Prophet SAWS admonished him saying he still had remnants of jahiliya in him. Abu Dhar RA being one of the righteous Sahabah, regretted his words and went to Bilal RA, offering that Bilal RA should place his foot on Abu Dhar’s neck for what he had said.

    Im shocked at the mocking your son has to endure from his muslim classmates. Its disgusting. Why should people like that expect sympathy when the islamophobes want to boot them out? What is happening to muslims these days is only because of what we ourselves have earned. That much is clear.

  5. Avatar

    Basil

    May 30, 2019 at 1:59 AM

    JAK, sister. All too often, we are our own worst enemies. Keep fighting the righteous fight, sister, and may Allah s.w.t guide us all to the proper course of behavior and increase our love for our fellow Muslims, regardless of our differing backgrounds.

  6. Avatar

    Vans

    May 6, 2020 at 5:43 PM

    Sadly it is something I have seen in my UK immigrant muslim community of south east Asian origin. But as first born generation in the UK things have changed, and though not totally eradicated, attitudes are shifting in the right direction. I married into my cultural background, but would not flinch if my son married a muslimah of any ethnic background. Allah protect us from wrong and guide us down the right path. Ameen

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