‘Catholic Muslim’ Latina says ‘Islam is for everybody’

Carmen George
Fresno Bee

Fresno, Calif.

Thalia Arenas of Fresno sometimes is asked, “How are you Muslim if you’re Mexican? I don’t understand.”

It’s a perplexing question to the 28-year-old Fresno woman, but one she answers willingly.

“Islam is for everybody,” she says. “Matter of fact, only 20 percent of Muslims in the world are Arab. Most of them are actually from other countries.”

Arenas is in an unusual position in the wake of recent executive orders by President Donald Trump calling for travel bans from seven predominantly Muslim countries, more deportations, and a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico — a country that many of her family members immigrated from.

“As a woman, as a Muslim, as a Latina — in all of these ways I feel like anything he (President Trump) does is going to affect me.”

She is concerned that Trump eventually may extend his ban to include green card holders from Mexico, which would include some of her immediate family members.

Arenas shared these concerns during a MEChA club meeting at Fresno State earlier this month, where she also told the group that the “Muslim Hispanic community is growing.” She personally knows around 15 Muslim Hispanics and says mosques in cities such as Los Angeles now hold services in Spanish. She wants people to know that followers of Islam are a larger and more diverse group than they are often perceived.

She has overheard offensive conversations about Muslims by people who don’t realize she is a follower of Islam because she doesn’t wear a hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women as a tenet of their faith to dress modestly. She says she doesn’t wear a hijab for functional reasons — she works at an animal shelter, and doesn’t want to get the garment dirty — but also because she is afraid.

“I think people might say something — might look at me differently,” she said.

These concerns were highlighted in an October story in The Bee about a Hijab Challenge at Fresno State sponsored by the Muslim Student Association. Arenas is a spokeswoman for the club. The Hijab Challenge — which encouraged students to wear a headscarf for a day to help them better understand how it feels to be a Muslim in America today — came under attack by a Clovis veteran who denounced the event in a follow-up story, stating it violated the First Amendment.

“There’s a lot of Christian groups that come and they use the Free Speech Area (at Fresno State),” Arenas counters, “and they literally shout at you and promote Christian values. So, I just felt that it was hypocritical or one-sided for them not to see or be open-minded about what the purpose of the event was.”

Arenas also considers herself a “Catholic Muslim.” She was raised Catholic and started researching different religions as a young woman.

“Once I got into college I realized I was my own independent person — my mom wasn’t going to take me to church anymore. ... If I wanted to have a relationship with God, I had to look for it, and I did.”

While searching for her spirituality, she joined three clubs that represented Catholic, Christian and Muslim students. She found similarities between the religions and liked what she learned. She decided to become Catholic and Muslim. She goes to Catholic Church one weekend and a mosque the next.

Similar to Mahatma Gandhi

Her belief system reminds one Fresno State assistant professor of how peace activist and political leader Mahatma Gandhi once said he identified as a follower of many religions.

“He was looking at the shared teachings of all religions rather than dogmatic differences,” says Veena Howard, director of Fresno State’s peace and conflict studies, who teaches Asian traditions and comparative religion.

Howard applauds Arenas’ decision to explore different faiths as a great step in interfaith understanding. She sees many similarities between Christianity and Islam — including the belief in one God, and shared prophets and beliefs — but points out the doctrine particularly differs in how Muslims pray directly to God, and Christians pray to God through their belief in his son, Jesus Christ.

In Howard’s experience, Arenas’ identification as both Catholic and Muslim is something “rather new” and more rare. She has heard of more people mixing faiths such as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Arenas’ mother didn’t take the news well that her daughter identifies as both Catholic and Muslim, but her husband — also Catholic and Mexican — has been supportive.

The number of couples who are able to work through religious differences appears to be on the rise in the United States. The Pew Research Center in 2015 shared survey data showing that 39 percent of Americans married since 2010 have a spouse with a different faith or who identifies as religiously unaffiliated, compared with 19 percent of those married before 1960.

Arenas doesn’t feel like she has to pick between Catholicism and Islam.

“I don’t want to compromise my marriage or my relationship with my parents when I already believe in it (Catholicism) and grew up in it, so why would I have to leave it? I feel like it’s easier to accept both,” she says.

Arenas says she doesn’t follow either religion “by the book,” citing her decision not to wear a headscarf and her support of friends in same-sex relationships as two examples.

“These are all ideas that come through the society that I currently live in, but that would be something that wouldn’t be accepted by Catholicism or Islam,” she says.

During her presentation at Fresno State, Arenas also addressed a number of misconceptions about Islam, including some people’s view that Islam is a violent religion. She says most Muslims don’t agree with terrorism any more than most Christians agree with the views of the Ku Klux Klan. Another misconception: That “Allah” — which means God in Arabic — is a different God than the one Christians worship.

“We don’t pray to any new God. It’s the same God as the Jewish God or the Christian God ... it’s the same being.”