‘Latino USA’ talks about the complexities of being Muslim and Latino

Photo/Federica Valabrega

In December Latino USA reporters Maryam Jameel and Michael Simon Johnson took a look at the fastest growing group in Islam in the United States—Latinos. Jameel and Johnson disucss the difficulties that come with being part of two groups that face continuous scrutiny for vastly different reasons.

Latino USA’s episode “Muslim & Latino” focuses on the “history of Islam in the U.S., the challenges of leaving your family’s religion and moving to a new one, and facing a world that refuses to accept that these two identities can co-exist.”

AltM news editor Kaitlin Montgomery spoke with Jameel and Johnson to find out what turned them onto this interesting story, what they hoped their piece had accomplished and what they wished for their listeners to learn.


What brought the two of you to Latino USA?

Michael: My entry into radio production was originally as an engineer. I had been mixing an African music documentary show called Afropop Worldwide, which was a really culturally valuable experience. Not long after that, Latino USA approached my boss and asked if we would mix their show too, and he basically assigned me to that. I was pretty pumped because I thought a show like Latino USA would be culturally enriching in a different kind of way, and I was right. I’m not Latino and I didn’t have many points of entry into that world, so even just mixing the show was a real learning experience. After a year of engineering, I had expressed enough interest and they hired me as a producer. I was very lucky. I stayed there for 4 very good years and I actually left about two months ago. This project (“Muslim and Latino”) was the last big project—and interestingly, the very first piece I ever produced was also about Latino Muslims, so I really came full circle.

Maryam: I had produced a couple of pieces (as in several-minute-long pieces, not whole episodes) as a freelancer for Latino USA before, and I was drawn to start pitching to the show because I really enjoyed listening to it. Despite how infinitely diverse Latinos are, it’s pretty typical to see media lump us together with little nuance, when we’re brought up at all. So it’s really refreshing, and sometimes therapeutic, to listen to a weekly show that digs into all kinds of issues and identities that relate to Latinos. I’d noticed the show had covered other religious groups but not done much on Muslims, so I sent them a message when I was attending the opening of a Latino mosque, in case there was some interest already brewing on their end that might lend itself to using that tape. And it turned out Michael was already thinking about doing an episode.

What exactly turned you two on to this story?

Michael: I’ve always been interested in religion and what attracts people to one religion over another. In the year or so prior to this episode I had headed up two other episodes of Latino USA that had focused on the Catholicism and Judaism respectively, so I had sort of taken on the “religion” beat. Afterwards it occurred to me that an episode centered about Muslims and Islam would be a good idea, and at some point I asked Maryam if she was interested in working on it with me because she had pitched us something that was pretty similar. As the year progressed it became clear that the episode wasn’t just a good idea, but probably important too.

Maryam: I had wanted to produce something related to Latino Muslims for a while, I think mainly because I hear so many interesting, and sometimes troubling, stories in my primarily Latino Muslim community at home. (I’m half Pakistani, half Salvadoran). I always like hearing about how people navigate their religion and spirituality, and especially how people come to Islam. One thing I was particularly interested in delving into was what happens afterward, and how things unfold for Latino Muslims within broader Muslim communities. When I went to the opening of a Latino-run, Spanish-dominant mosque in Houston earlier this year, it was clear to me that a space like that was highly needed, and I wanted to dig into to some of the things that made it so. Things like, what it can mean to Latinos when Islam is presented as a religion that can exist in any culture and language, including theirs, as opposed to an inherently Middle Eastern or South Asian religion. And the challenges Muslims who aren’t of those backgrounds can face in having an equal voice and resources in Muslim institutions. So visiting that mosque, the Centro Islamico, and meeting people there, were an important starting point.

What were you hoping to accomplish with the piece?

Michael: I think there’s a lot of misinformation about who Muslims are and what Islam is. That misinformation can be really dangerous—obviously for Muslims themselves but even for the people who are misinformed. It means that lots of people who are supposedly “engaging” with Islam are doing so from a faulty premise. It’s so easy to talk about Islam and about Muslims without actually knowing anything about the religion itself or, more importantly, actually talking to people who are Muslim. And it’s such a simple fix to just have these conversations and talk to these people. The value of radio is being able to do that publicly. So in a way I see this episode as way of having Latino USA engage its listeners with a topic they might be tiptoeing around and hearing from people they might not normally hear from. It’s what that show does best anyway.

Maryam: The initial premise for me was fairly basic – this is a complex, growing group of people whose stories the public should get to know. Just like any other Latino group whose stories a program like Latino USA might explore. So I think I wanted to contribute to a hopefully ongoing presence of Latino Muslim representation – the idea that some Muslims are Latino, some Latinos are Muslim, and we should expect that overlap.  But beyond that, I realize that many Latinos, and non-Latinos, who aren’t Muslim are curious about Islam but don’t often have the opportunity to talk with a Muslim or get accurate information. It would be nice if stories like the ones we produced could fill a little bit of that void for some folks. I also hope that for some of us Muslims hearing about challenges of being new to Islam or of being a minority Muslim, these stories might prompt us to think deeper about how we can be truly inclusive.

Did you go into the interview with any preconceptions or ideas that were changed by the end?

Michael: I definitely went into this whole thing thinking that we would be discussing some of the more in-depth religious topics more than we did. Working with Maryam was a pretty wonderful experience for a number of reasons, but one of them was that she helped focus the show more on the people rather than on the philosophical elements, which in the end was absolutely the right call. All the things we didn’t include, people can look that up on their own.

Maryam:  A few people told me they thought they were the first Latino Muslim ever when they converted, which I initially could hardly imagine, but it totally makes sense – Latinos and Muslims are rarely portrayed as overlapping groups, and in some parts of the country, the chances of meeting a Latino Muslim in real life are slim. There were some people who found a much easier time fitting into Muslim communities of different cultures than I anticipated, and there were others who had much uglier experiences trying to do so than I anticipated.

What did you learn?

Michael: I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent to which young Muslim converts often had to hide their experiences and, ultimately, their truth, from their families—which if you think about it is just crazy and tragic, really. I still can only imagine what it’s like to have to hide your identity from your family. It shows both a fierce commitment to what these young people see as the best way to live their lives, which shows real independence, as well as the deep fear and mistrust that so many people—adults!—have of this religion they just don’t understand.

Maryam: I was surprised by the extent to which the internet helps some Latino Muslims meet others, learn about Islam and build community. We met several people who would hardly know other Latino Muslims if it weren’t for Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or Facebook. I even talked to someone who used AOL chatrooms to find Muslims years ago. I’m a part of a Latino Muslim WhatsApp chat group that we did a story on, and being in the group over these months and interviewing its members for this project, I gained a new appreciation for how the internet can bring people together and provide support. And talking to these young converts, I learned a lot about how much that support is sometimes needed.

Was there anything surprising or unexpected the show revealed?

Michael: I don’t think most people know that a pretty significant percentage (~15%) of African slaves brought to the Americas during the slave trade were Muslim. I certainly didn’t know that and I imagine that’s probably one of the things listeners would be surprised by.

Maryam: I think some people might be surprised to learn about Alianza Islamica, an activist-oriented Latino Muslim community organization that formed about 30 years ago. They’re not active anymore, but they had a community of hundreds of people in New York’s Spanish Harlem neighborhood and even their own mosque that gave services in Spanish. When I first heard about them, I was surprised to learn that such a developed Latino Muslim organization was around back then. We interviewed one of the founders, and he described how challenging it was for Alianza Islamica to exist and make their own space in the first place.

Is there something you wish people knew more about in regards to this particular topic?

Michael: We tried to make this point clear in the episode without making a big stink about it, but I wish more people understood that Christianity and Islam are not nearly as distinct from each other as they are often framed. Obviously there are fundamental differences, but they share some worthwhile similarities that are usually ignored. I say this because I think a lot of the misconceptions about Muslims stem from this idea that Islam is something alien rather something more like a sister to Judeo-Christian theology. How much easier would the lives of these young people we talked to be if their parents didn’t think of Islam like the Dark Side of the Force or something?

Maryam: The way Islam is talked about in popular culture, news and politics can make a big difference in Muslims’ day to day experiences. As much as I’ve felt that to be true in my life, I was still struck by how many of the people we interviewed mentioned media as the main source of the misconceptions their family members had about Islam.

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