HOUSTON – For Jaime Fletcher, an American of Colombian origin, Islam came to him at a much unexpected moment in his life.
“One night that I was with a friend of mine who I’d grown up with, after leaving a club and drinking, we were sitting outside of his house. He looked at the liquor that he had in his hands and he said, ‘I can’t believe I’m still doing this,’” Fletcher, the then gang member who drink, chase women and drive fast cars, told Public Radio International (PRI) on Monday, December 23.
“And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I can’t believe I’m still doing this after having gone to Makkah.’ And I asked him, ‘What is Makkah?’ And he said, ‘It’s where the house of God is.’
“And that was strange for me. He said, ‘Islam is the true religion of God.’ And I said, ‘Well everybody says their religion is the truth,’” he added.
This short conversation between Fletcher and his friend was the spark that encouraged him to search for the true religion.
Like most Latinos, Fletcher was raised in a Catholic family, but he says his parents also encouraged him to find his own truth.
In his quest for the truth, he studied Christianity, Judaism, Taoism and Buddhism, coming to a belief that Islam was the true religion of God.
That’s when he decided to revert to Islam to go by the name Mujahid Fletcher, getting rid of one of the biggest disadvantages he had with Catholicism: confession to a priest.
“Islam brings about a clear sense of asking for forgiveness or repentance directly to God, without having an intermediary,” Fletcher says.
The same reason was cited by many Muslim reverts, according to Katherine Ewing, a professor of religion at Columbia University.
“There are frustrations with the structure of the Catholic Church, the hierarchy. A number [of Catholics] say that they’re kind of bored with the mass, that it doesn’t seem related to their everyday needs,” she adds.
Ewing says Islam and Protestantism are addressing those voids for many Latino Catholics.
Yet, many Latinos were pulled towards Islam following 9/11 attacks, in a bid to know more about this faith.
“Maybe they saw it [Islam] as this terrorist organization and wanted to find out more about why Muslims would become terrorists,” Ewing said.
“They started to do Internet research, or to read the Koran to find out if it really advocated violence. And many, as they did that, actually saw Islam as a peaceful religion, as something that had more familiarity than they expected. They also found some of the beauty of the tradition as they explored further.”
Finding Islam, Mujahid Fletcher wanted other Latinos to find this too.
Therefore, he launched a company called Islam in Spanish in which he began doing translations and making audio recordings of the verses.
He and his father, who also converted to Islam, have recorded more than 500 CDs and 200 cable access TV shows about Islam.
“The end goal with Islam in Spanish is to educate Latinos about Islam worldwide,” he said.
Now, Fletcher attends the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, an affluent suburb of Houston.
The large mosque looked like something you'd find in the Middle East or Turkey — an attractive building with high, arched entrances, pillars and two minarets.
Fletcher says Latino Muslims are spread out in small pockets in big cities like Houston.
Thirty minutes away from Fletcher’s mosque, Daniel Abdullah Hernandez, a Puerto Rican-American who was raised Catholic, works as an imam at a mosque in the city of Pearland.
Hernandez, also a gang member, said Islam helped turn him into a responsible husband and father.
“In the beginning, people think it’s a phase. My mother, after two years of seeing my transformation, she became a Muslim,” Hernandez said. His father and brother converted as well.
Together, the family visited Egypt to study Islam, a trip that cleared up any doubts they had about becoming Latino Muslims.
“Me and my family were feeling that we were going to be lonely during the holidays,” he says.
“And that first year, we’re sitting with other Hispanics breaking bread and eating, and we were all amazed.”
It’s difficult to estimate how many Latinos in the US have converted to Islam.
Ewing puts the figure somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000.
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.
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