Women and Youth as the Majority of Converts to Islam in Latin America

Discover the rise of Islamic communities in Latin America with insights into conversions, adaptations, and challenges. Explore the impact of the erosion of Catholic Church hegemony.

Women and Youth as the Majority of Converts to Islam in Latin America
In Mexico and Colombia, a large number of those who come to pray in mosques are local or indigenous. Credit: UNAM

Two decades ago, the issue of Islam in Mexico was not visible, nor was conversions to Islam; however, in 2001 the attack on the Twin Towers in the United States made it known globally, said Ruth Jatziri García Linares, professor at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the UNAM.

"Today we have a firm ground to understand not only the conversion processes in the country but also in other Latin countries that researchers are exploring to comprehensively understand this phenomenon and make a comparison of this decision between men and women," she said while participating in the round table "Comparative processes of conversion to Islam in Latin America," organized by the Center for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to his research based on publications related to the subject, in Latin America, there are diverse Muslim communities, particularly in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Costa Rica, as well as in Central and North American nations, including Mexico.

In the case of Mexico, there is no census that helps to "feel" the number of Muslims there are, and if they are converts or Muslims who emigrated to the country and decided to stay; the population is volatile and it is not possible to have exact data, she highlighted.

Based on her research, she said that practicing Islam in life implies alterations in behavior and social practices because it is necessary to integrate religious beliefs into their lives, which means an interpretation in each community; each religious group lives a different reality, "women are trying to understand and assimilate in the best way what they want to practice in their daily lives".

Obviously, in them, there are changes in their clothing -by the incorporation or not of the veil-, in their food, adaptations in the daily language, organization of time and space totally different and an integration of festive cycles, which makes them in conste construction with their family and social nucleus. There is also resistance on the part of the family and the social group to accept the religious practice.

There is a greater recurrence in women to have an intellectual and affective spiritual conversion, while in men there is a more anti-western and intellectual narrative. In addition, the majority of those who convert to Islam are young people, she said in the Heliodoro Valle Hall of the Humanities Tower II.

Islamic communities in Latin America are diverse, crossed by migration and negotiations over the types of Islam practiced, but there is a changing cultural context with which they are constantly adapting, not only the migrants themselves but also the converts.

Islam's Spread in Latin America

The spread of Islam and the development of new communities or collective conversions to this religion in countries such as Mexico and Colombia in the Latin American region is due to the erosion of the hegemony of the Catholic Church and the consequent regulation of the religious sphere in some entities of both nations, according to Baptiste Brodard, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Aix-Marseille, France.

For example, in Chiapas, Mexico, and Buenaventura, Colombia, the Catholic Church is less strong than in other areas. It is important to understand the context that allows new religious organizations, at the same time that a phenomenon of alternative religiosities is emerging, which implies a more open mentality that allows people to opt for something else, something that is not possible in Arab or African nations and some Europeans, said the specialist.

Baptiste Brodard added: in both countries, there are mosques of Muslim organizations that share external influences, that is, of immigrant Muslims from Africa, Asia, and Europe, but also of those who seek to appropriate Islam in the light of the local context, maintaining their own cultural identity.

He indicated that in Mexico and Colombia, the majority of those who come to pray in the mosques are local or autochthonous. Chiapas and Buenaventura stand out for their high percentage of indigenous converts.

In the attempts of local affirmation, he detailed, some Muslim communities refuse to identify themselves with a specific movement, while others got to know the religion through a specific movement but decided to make it their own by adapting aspects of the discourse and practice to their social and cultural contexts.

"This is something that can be observed in some Tzotzil groups in Chiapas, and also in Colombia, where Afro-Colombian Muslims learned Islam from outside groups, but decided not to be dependent on them," he explained.

There are also deconversions; that is, people who decide to leave the cult because they do not like what they see, nor do they need someone from outside to tell them what to think and how to act, in addition to objections to foreign Islam, something that occurs frequently in Mexico and Colombia, he concluded.