Latino and Muslim in America

Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority

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Harold D. Morales
AAR Religion, Culture, and History
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190852603.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since 2016, the issues of immigration, religious freedom, and the question of the compatibility of Islam and the West have been hotter-than-usual issues in the United States. In the narrative of Latino Muslims (a term I will later problematize) in the US, these various strands intersect and overlap. 

According to Harold Morales’s own previous research, there “are likely between 50,000 to 70,000” Latino Muslims in the US. Regardless of numbers, there is a pertinent need to study religious minorities such as Latino Muslims for their ability to “de-naturalize and de-essentialize, to broaden and to push our varied and unfixed understandings of and relations” (211) to various categories of religion, identity, ethnicity, and issues such as immigration, religious freedom, and Islam in and of the West. This need is what Morales seeks to address in his latest book, Latino and Muslim in America: Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority. 

Morales’s introduction is a more-than-suitable primer on Latino Muslims and how their “identities emerge through complex and historically specific processes, through competing and dominant narratives that are mediated in newspapers and on the Web, and in relation to broader categories and histories regarding race and religion in America” (3). This serves as an important addition to the corpus of research currently expanding our notions of religion in America, Muslim communities in the US, and what constitutes “Latino religion.” While there remains a need to extend this work and expand upon Morales’s introduction, this serves as a fitting initiation into the world of Latino Muslims in the US. 

Morales tells the tale of Latino Muslims in terms of three waves (or generations). The first wave flows from Andalusian Spain all the way to La Alianza Islámica — a predominately Puerto Rican Islamic outreach and social justice organization that emerged in El Barrio (a.k.a. “Spanish Harlem”) in the 1980s. Acknowledging the “gap in the link” between Andalusia and the first significant generation of Latino Muslims in the US in New York City and its environs, Morales nevertheless notes the significance of this eight-century-long presence, power, and influence of Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. He rightly emphasizes just how vital this history is to Latino Muslims and the authentication of their identity in multiple directions — both as Latinos and Muslims. 

The second wave is constituted by the emergence of three da’wah (missionary) organizations across the US, as the Latino Muslim movement grew and shifted its emphasis away from social justice and toward working with broader US Muslim organizations and institutions in order to increase conversions. These organizations (PIEDAD, the Latino American Dawah Organization [LADO], and the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association [LALMA]), their leaders, and the account of their histories and activities not only illustrate the distribution of the Latino Muslim community across the landscape of latinidad in the US, but also the community’s general Sunnification alongside so-called “immigrant Muslim communities.”

Morales contends that a third wave is now emerging in the wake of these previous two generations. Consolidating the successes of their community’s history, this fresh generation of Latino Muslim leaders—spearheaded by the group Islam in Spanish out of Houston, Texas—is carving “their own identity into America’s diverse religious landscape” (170) through self-produced media alongside the reinvigoration of social justice issues against the backdrop of the 2016 election and its aftermath. 

In between the second and third waves, Morales focuses on three prominent themes: hip-hop music and the “clash of civilizations”; 9/11 and the media; and the notion of “reversion”—a believed return to the faith of one’s natural state (fitra) or to the faith of their ancestors (e.g., in Andalusia). A particular strength of Morales’s work is his focus on the role of the media in the story of Latino Muslims. Whether it be hip-hop music, online social networks, or the hundreds of news articles playing variations on the theme of reversion, Morales brings a critical lens to the ways in which Latino Muslims have both shaped and been shaped by the media in which they are represented, and through which they represent themselves to the world. 

Having worked with, learned from, and researched Latino Muslims since 2012, I am pleased with Morales’s addition to the fine work done by various scholars in the past. His new book stands out as the first wholesale monograph on the topic (notwithstanding Hjamil A. Martínez-Vásquez’s Latina/o y Musulman: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2010) and is commendable for its comprehensive and nuanced introduction to this important religious minority. This type of book has been in need for years, and it is a welcome supplement to the diversifying field of American religious studies. 

With that said, I do have a couple of general critiques. First, the critical scholar in me wonders what to make of Morales’s seemingly prescriptive recommendations to the community included at the end of each chapter. Remembering the work of Russell McCutcheon, we would do well to remember that we are “critics, not caretakers” when it comes to the academic study of religion. 

Second, I wonder what went into Morales’s decision to use the label “Latino” as opposed to “Latinx” or “Latin@.” More than simple semantics, this choice overlooks the stories of female, queer, transgender, or indigenous Latinx Muslims, and potentially reinscribes gendered, patriarchal, and conservative views within the Latinx Muslim umma or community. While my own  research confirms that the majority of Latino Muslims prefer the moniker “Latino” (and that may be why Morales chose it), scholars cannot ignore the debate among Latinx Muslims about gender, identity, and minorities-within-minorities. 

While sufficient as an introduction, and commendable for its critical emphases on reversion stories, the media, race, identity, and the history of Latino Muslims in the US, Morales’s work could go even further. Specifically, I see the need to broaden our view of what constitutes the American Latino Muslim community to include geographies across the American hemisphere. Themes of solidarity, relationships, and transnational networks and connections would be important to highlight and research in the future. Furthermore, the general theme of collaboration and conflict with other communities (African-American, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Muslims, or American and Latinx cultures in general) would be a valiant theme to take up from here (see 203). Finally, students of Latin American culture and ethnicity know full well the immense diversity that this umbrella category entails. Future research might hone in on particular inflections of “Latino” Muslim communities. A good place to start might be the largest constituencies among Latino Muslims in the US: Mexican and Puerto Rican Muslims. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ken Chitwood is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and is conducting research in association with UFs Center for Global Islamic Studies.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Harold D. Morales is Assistant Professor of Religion at Morgan State University.

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