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The Padilla Factor: From Andalusia to Aztlan

Scott Richtert 29 August 2007 No Comment

The conviction of former Chicago gang member José Padilla on August 16, 2007, has stirred up great controversy. Even some who understand the threat that radical Islam poses to the security of the American people have argued that the treatment of a U.S. citizen as an “enemy combatant” was a legally dubious action on the part of the federal government, and Padilla’s conviction of “conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and maim persons in a foreign country,” when no such murders, kidnappings, or maimings have taken place, moves federal law into uncharted legal territory.

From the beginning, however, the true significance of Padilla’s arrest at O’Hare International Airport on May 8, 2002, has been lost in the debates about civil liberties and the extent (if any) of Padilla’s connections to Al Qaeda. If, as many counterterrorism experts are arguing, the case of Derrick Shareef—who planned to wage “violent jihad” on the largest mall in Rockford last December—represents the future of Islamic terrorism in America, José Padilla may well represent the future ethnic composition of American Islam.

A decade ago, Hispanics made up a negligible portion of U.S. converts to Islam every year. Today, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), they make up six percent. That makes Hispanics, and especially recent immigrants from Mexico, the fastest-growing group of converts to Islam.

Obviously, we’re not talking large numbers—yet. But given the extent of Mexican immigration (both legal and illegal) to the United States in recent years, there’s a very large pool of immigrants that Muslim groups can target for conversion. And that is precisely what they are doing. CAIR runs Hispanic outreach programs, and its Chicago office supported the “immigrants-rights” rallies last year.

Websites such as HispanicMuslim.com and LatinoDawah.org are growing in popularity, and feature both conversion stories and a potted history designed to convince Hispanics that Islam is their ancestral religion. As Aaron Siebert-Llera, himself a Mexican-American convert to Islam and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Northwestern University, wrote: “Research to this point has demonstrated that Latinos who embrace Islam do so in part because of perceived Spanish (or Andalusian) Muslim heritage.” In targeting Hispanics, Muslims often make explicit connections between what Northwestern University professor Dario Fernandez-Morera has called “the Andalusian myth” and the equally powerful Mexican irredentist myth of Aztlan.

There are other factors at work as well, “including a broader flight from the Catholic Church and the perceived threat to traditional Latino values of family and community in America,” as Siebert-Llera writes. The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, MSNBC, and NPR have all run lengthy stories on this phenomenon over the past year. To a man–or, rather, we might say to a woman, since 60 percent of the converts are Latinas–everyone interviewed in each story was a Catholic who explained that Islam provides him or her with something that Catholicism in America does not.

The “Padilla Factor” is an element totally ignored in the current immigration debate—but ignored, perhaps, at our peril.

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, the flagship publication of The Rockford Institute.

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