TIJUANA, Mexico — Gathering from different countries at the sleepy beach of Tijuana, a growing number of the city’s population are becoming Muslims, finding Islamic values close to the country’s Catholic traditions.
“The Catholic emphasis on family and family values meshes a lot with Islam,” Dr. Khaleel Mohammed, a professor of Islamic and religious studies at San Diego State University, told KPBS network on Thursday, March 28.
“The difference, however, is that whereas many Catholics see the Roman Catholic values being eroded in the United States in particular, a lot of them are seeing in Islam a difference in that there are more Muslims trying to stick to the traditional Islamic values than leave them aside," Mohammed added.
Enjoying a welcoming atmosphere from Tijuana people, the Muslim population was growing steadily in the small city, with people coming from India, Costa Rica, the Middle East, Mexico and the United States.
At the city, Muslims have established a new Masjid al-Islam mosque to give the estimated 200 practicing Muslims in Baja California a place to worship.
This mosque is one of two new Islamic centers within a mile of one another, both of which have opened within the past three years.
“I never thought 'I'm gonna live in Mexico,' honestly,” Muhanna Jamaleddin, the imam (spiritual leader) and founder of Masjid al-Islam, said.
“So all these reasons come from God, and we thank Allah.”
According to WhyIslam’s 2012 annual report, 19 percent of the some 3,000 converts it assisted in 2011 were Latinos, and more than half of those (55 percent) were women.
The 2011 US Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at 524 mosques across the country, found the number of new female converts to Islam had increased 8 percent since 2000.
Of that number, Latinos accounted for 12 percent of all new converts in the United States in 2011.
Though Tijuana was not the first choice for many immigrants, finding Islam was the greatest gift they have ever got.
“It changed my life, you know,” Amir Carr, a native Californian, and a convert to Islam, told Fronteras Desk.Carr, a tall man wearing glasses and a taqiyyah, or prayer cap, sits in a wheelchair across from his wife, Na'eema, who is wearing a loose blouse and a head scarf.
“I was a — a street kid, you know. I got put in this wheelchair for hanging out and hanging out with gangs and stuff like this, and I got shot.
When he got out of prison in California, his wife Na'eema, a Mexican national, was deported.
“They pulled us over for speeding, and they deported her within about an hour. It was so quick that you just couldn't even believe it," Carr says, shaking his head.
Coming to live in Playas, Tijuana, he was introduced for the first time to Islam, which changed his life for good.
“And for the first time I sat down in my life and listened, and when I listened to Islam, it actually changed my life,” Carr said.
Same as Carr, the life of Samuel Cortes, another convert, changed when he came to live in the sleepy beach city of Tijuana.
Growing up Glendale, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Cortes was a longtime gang member who was deported after spending time in prison for aggravated assault.
“I started gangbanging when I was 9. I stopped when I was 21. When I decided to put that aside, if it wasn't other gang member from other neighborhoods who were trying to kill me, it was my own neighborhood that was trying to come after me because I wanted to change my life," Cortes said.
Though Tijuana was not his first choice, he is happy with the turn his life has taken after getting married and receiving his first baby daughter.
“I left everything back there [in the United States] and that's fine. I mean, hopefully, one day I'll be able to get my visa and go back forth and just visit my family,” he said.
“But for the time being, I'm just mostly concentrated on my daughter, Islam, and work.”
Coming to Tijuana either by choice or no, many Muslims ended up staying in Mexico rather than trying to get back into the United States.
“When we open a masjid here they don't even blink," Carr said.
They look with curiosity and they ask, but for sure they don't march. I mean, for sure nothing negative comes out of them.
“They just accept it as they would accept anybody else.”
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