There More José Padillas To Come?
By A. Mario Castillo
On June 5, Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before
the House Judiciary Committee. He defended the Justice Department's
detention of illegal immigrants after the September 11 terrorist
attacks. And, he asked for expansion of The USA Patriot Act
powers to pursue terrorists operating in this country. His
testimony garnered the endorsement of many Republicans on
the judiciary panel. However, Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner
Jr., the Republican (Wisconsin) chairman of the panel, wisely
stated during the proceedings, "To my mind . . . the
purpose of the Patriot Act is to secure our liberties and
not to undermine them."
Both are correct, to a degree. Mr. Ashcroft must do whatever
is reasonable to protect our country. And, Congressman Sensenbrenner
is rightfully concerned about the potential raping of our
civil liberties by overzealous counter-terrorism efforts.
However, equilibrium is needed between a rush to justice and
a fear of reasonable action.
The crafting of this balance is not limited to Messrs. Ashcroft
and Sensenbrenner, Republican and Democratic party leaders
need to be involved. All must understand that discontent begins
at home and that "all the King’s men" will
not prevent the citizenry from pursuing alternative means
of political expression if they come to believe that their
civil liberties are excessively constrained. Party politics
must move beyond the usual "store front" pandering
offered to voters if Americans are to take ownership in homeland
Mr. Ashcroft is rightly concerned that Muslim fundamentalist
terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, may be operating in America.
Yet, not all Muslims are of the Al-Qaeda variety. American
Muslims of goodwill need to be part of our efforts to combat
terrorism. Their counsel is important because Islam is the
nation's fastest-growing religion. It claims approximately
6 million followers in the U.S. and about 25,000 new converts
annually. The largest number of converts are African-Americans,
one third of all American Muslims.
However, a growing number of U.S. Latinos are being drawn
to Islam. This small but growing group now includes about
15,000 Latinos. The attraction of Islam to U.S. Latinos is
complex. The majority of U.S. Latinos identify themselves
as Roman Catholics, however, there are large numbers of "defections"
to other religions. Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the
Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the United States Conference
of Catholic Bishops, estimates that approximately 100,000
Hispanic Catholics leave the church annually. Many are drawn
to Protestant denominations but many are increasingly drawn
Contrary to the popular belief that Islam is completely foreign
to Hispanic culture, many converts see their conversion to
Islam as a return to their roots. They cite the contribution
of Muslim Moorish culture to Spain during its seven centuries
of presence on the Iberian penninsula, beginning in 711 A.D.
Already, there are two translations of the Koran into Spanish
and a third, more modern translation, is being developed.
A quick search of "Latino Muslims" in a common Internet
search engine brought up more than 29,000 entries alone.
Latino converts, as with African-Americans, are attracted
by what they see as a religion that includes persons of many
ethnic groups and cultures. Ibrahim Gonzáles, one of
the leaders of Alianza Islámica, one of several organizations
for Latin-American Muslims in New York said, "When we
realized that within Islam there was every spectrum of people,
regardless of class, regardless of race, we were attracted
to that universal principle of human interaction and communion
with the divine."
Converts believe that Islam serves those who encounter barriers
and a lack of opportunity based on their ethnicity, making
it particularly appealing to those who encounter the most
limitations, such as the younger citizens of poorer areas
looking for a way to channel their frustration. This would
include the many Americans, living in barrios and ghettos,
who are fraught with socio-political frustrations. While the
vast majority of American Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding
citizens, there is a danger of exploitation of frustrated
and desperate individuals by the very forces Mr. Ashcroft
seeks to contain as in the case of José Padilla.
Hisham Aidi, a political science graduate student at Columbia
University, has studied Latino Muslims and observes that for
many Latinos, Islam offers an alternative to their present
feelings of being downtrodden. "Islam historically has
always started with slaves and moved up to kings," Mr.
Aidi said. "In New York, you find a similar phenomenon.
Islam is entering America through the inner city, the ghetto,
the prisons." He added, "The people who are most
drawn to Islam tend to be minorities, African-Americans and
Latinos, who feel they’ve been abandoned by the powers
that be, by the government, by the Judeo-Christian heritage."
Prior to establishing The Aegis Group, Ltd., in 1989, A.
Mario Castillo served as chief of staff of the U.S. House
Agriculture Committee for nearly a decade under former Chairman
E (Kika) de la Garza. In 1985, the Congressional Hispanic
Caucus named him as one of the top twenty Hispanic leaders
in the United States.