The number of Hispanic Americans converting to Islam is growing rapidly -- particularly in New York, California, Texas and Florida, which have the greatest concentration of Hispanic residents. Muslim leaders say interest in Islam has increased in the past few years, and they also note that Muslims and Hispanics, many of whom are immigrants, share a number of common concerns. Steve Mort reports from a mosque in Florida that has seen a steady increase in Latino worshippers.
The al-Rahman mosque in Orlando opened in 1975 and is the oldest Muslim place of worship in the city.
But over the years its membership has changed, and now increasing numbers of Hispanics, like Jesus Marti, are joining the congregation. "It's the right way to be worshipping God, and I love the Islamic religion. It really has given me a lot of knowledge, and I have learned so many things from Islam."
Jesus, a Puerto Rican living in Florida, converted to Islam only a year ago. He is one of tens of thousands of Hispanic Muslims in the United States: estimates range from around 70,000 to 200,000.
He says that while he has faced criticism for converting to Islam, he has found broad acceptance as a Muslim in America. "Islam is not a country. Islam is a religion. Islam is definitely a way of life, for discipline where you follow and you try to enhance yourself to get the most positive things out of yourself for the benefit of your own self and for the benefit of your own family and the society as a whole."
Muslim leaders say Jesus Marti and other Hispanics choose Islam for a variety of reasons. They say Muslims and Hispanics face common issues and concerns, like finding their way in a new, unfamiliar country. The media focus on Islam since September 11th has also been factor.
Imam Muhammad Musri is president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. The society has about 40,000 members. Iman Musri says Latinos and Muslims find they have a lot in common. "There are so many common denominators between immigrant Muslims and immigrant Hispanics who see the issues common to both of them -- immigration issues, as it is a big discussion in the United States, and there are other issues of trying to find a job, keep a job, buy a home -- all the same struggles two groups of people happen to be going through creates this bond between them".
Hundreds of worshippers attend Imam Musri's mosque, and there is an increasing demand for religious literature in Spanish.
He points to Spain's historical ties with Islam. And that many Hispanics find Muslim culture and values similar to their own.
Iman Musri says, "Many who come from Central and South America come with conservative values and, as well, Muslims come with conservative values. And here in the States they find that those values are put in question or are being challenged. So it is common to see Hispanics and Muslims working on similar projects in terms of family and education and reforms to protect their values, their conservative values they have."
For Jesus Marti and his fellow Hispanic worshippers, the decision to convert to Islam is personal, but also part of a broader trend.
He hopes greater diversity among America's Muslims will help strengthen understanding of Islam within the wider U.S. population.