Islam in Latin America
by Antonio Fuentes & Robert L.
This is the first in a series of articles we are running about Islam and Hispanics.
You might not know it be Mexico has the largest Muslim population in Latin America and it is growing not only in Mexico but in Central America, Brazil, Argentina, and other Latin American nations. Most sources agree that Islam arrived in Mexico via immigrants from Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Iran. One big Muslim organization in Mexico is the Centro Cultural Islamico de Mexico (CCIM) which is English means the “Islamic Cultural Center of Mexico.” This is a Sunni Muslim organization headed by Omar Weston who is a British born Mexican convert to Islam. CCIM has been active in several big cities across Mexico especially in the North and Central parts of the country. There is also the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order in Mexico City which is often at odds with mainstream Islam as it is headed by two women Imams (prayer leaders). Another Muslim organization in Mexico is the Centro Salafi de Mexico which is a small Salafi Muslim organization headed by Muhammad Abdullah Ruiz a former deputy of Weston’s. In Mexico City there is also the Centro Educativo de la Comunidad Musulmana en Mexico (the Muslim Community Education Center) which is administrated by Muslims from Egypt and the Middle East and which serves as an Islamic education center inside Mexico.
In the Mexican State of Chiapas there is the Spanish Murabitun Community known as the Comunidad Islamica en Espana. This organization is based in Granada, Spain and has a growing influence in Chiapas, Mexico. The Murabitun movement has a presence in at least 20 countries. They advocate allegiance to an Amir (prince) and reintroduction of Islamic currency known as the Gold Dinar and Silver Dirham among other things. The current Amir is Muhammad Nafia (formerly Aureliano Perez) who was a Spanish missionary. He arrived in the Mexican State of Chiapas not long after the Zapatista uprising and established a commune in San Cristobal. He has succeeded in converting many Maya and Tzotzils to Islam. There is also a Madrasa (Islamic School) in San Cristobal where children learn Arabic and pray five times per day. Most Mayan converts today have left the Murabitun movement and now are associated with the CCIM and follow the orthodox Sunni form of Islam. They have built the Al Kausar Mosque in San Cristobal de las Casas.
Southern Mexico has long been a bastion of Catholicism but in recent times Islam has gained a foothold and the Mexican government of Vincente Fox has expressed concern about a religious or cultural clash between the two faiths. Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest State and the Mayan and other indigenous people are seen as second class people. There is much racism in Chiapas. Natives have to move onto the street if a light skinned person approaches them still today! One of the reasons Islam is growing in Chiapas is because race plays no role in Islam. A Muslim is a brother or sister no matter what their skin color. Mexican converts to Islam usually take Arabic names and add them to their Spanish surnames. Muslim women in headscarves have become a common sight in San Cristobal.
Vicente Fox’s Mexican government is worried about the conversions to Islam in recent years. The government suspects converts are engaged in covert activities inside Mexico and has even sent the secret service to track Mayan Muslims in Chiapas. Fox has publicly said that he has fears that radical Muslim organizations like al Qaeda may be influencing some Mexican Muslims. However, most of the Indian converts in Chiapas seem to have no interest in political extremism. Most of them belong to the Sunni sect of Islam and in the Murabitun sect which is an offshoot of a Moroccan religious order who preach a literal interpretation of the Muslim holy book known as the Qur’an. They view themselves as restorers of Islam. They defy capitalism and globalization.
In the mid 1990s a group of Spanish Muslims arrived in Latin America under their leader Areliano Perez who is the Amir of Chiapas now. They began converting the Tzotzil Indians in the region. He is known as Amir Nafia now. Perez supports the Zapatista rebels under command of Subcomandante Marcos and has an ideological-religious alliance with the Zapatistas. The Tzotzil Indians make up the majority of the Zapatista rebels by the way. Perez found them to be very open to the teachings of the Qur’an.
The religious strife in Chiapas is nothing new. In the 16th Century the Spanish Conquistadors used force to make the natives convert to Catholicism. About a half millennium later evangelical Christian leaders from the US transformed Latin America into a religious battleground as they sought to lure Catholics away from the Vatican. The Catholics are still the majority, however. Muslims in Mexico and Spain are quick to point out that it was the Christians who destroyed native culture in the 16th century and beyond and that the natives are highly receptive to the teachings of Islam. They also point out that Islam’s strict ban on alcohol helps natives in the area break their addictions. Alcoholism is widespread among the Tzotzil Indians of Chiapas. Further, converts to Islam in Mexico are spreading the teachings of Islam in an effort to convert even more people to Islam.
Spain ruled Mexico and much of Latin America at one time and Spain has a strong Islamic culture. Muslims ruled Spain for 700 years before Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492. Those Muslim conquerors are known as the Moors and they came from North Western Africa from such nations as Morocco and Alegeria. They ruled Spain from 700s to the 1400s. Today there are increasing numbers of Hispanics with their roots in Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central and South America who are turning to Islam as their faith and leaving Christianity behind. Hispanics have several reasons for converting to Islam. Most are former Catholics who became disenchanted with Catholicism and their tenets. Other converts are attracted to Islam’s simplicity and directness. And still others convert to Islam because they marry Muslims.
Some of the Latin American converts to Islam say the decided to convert because to the multi-ethnic components of Islam and its lack of bureaucratic hierarchy along with Islamic teachings being very direct. Some say Islam has given them a broad purpose in life and a reason for living. Some converts say they are reverting rather than converting! They claim that they are returning to a faith (Islam) that Hispanics once belonged to in Spain and was very much a part of their historical heritage and family roots.
In general, Hispanic Muslims seem to be a loosely knit group most bound by websites on the Internet that promote Islam among Latinos and provide social services and Spanish language literature. Some are converting out of just curiosity. Others say they convert to Islam because they have trouble with the Trinity and the teachings of the Church as well as submission to a Pope. Some say that Islam was exactly what they were searching for to fill a spiritual void within them that Christianity did not fill.
Many Latino converts to Islam say that Islam embraces all parts of life including teaching one how to behave and how to educate one’s children. Most importantly many converts say that they do not experience the racial discrimination sometimes found in Christianity. Few Hispanics are worried about Muslim radicalism or terrorism it seems. The Texas chapter president of the Mexican American Latino American Dawah Organization has said Islam does NOT condone terrorism. This is spite of an arrest at the time of Jose Padilla also known as Abdullah al Muhajir who was raised a Christian and converted to Islam. Padilla was accused by US authorities of trying to smuggle in a dirty bomb. Padilla is a Hispanic Muslim convert.
Many Hispanics struggle with their conversion and feel that they may have rejected their Latino identity. Others do not struggle with this at all. Many are finding similarities between Islam and Latino culture in such areas as food, language, and even similarities between Muslim and Hispanic celebrations and history.
So in part Islam is drawing Hispanics and although Hispanic Muslim numbers are small there is a conversion taking place throughout Latin American nations including inside the US. Hispanics do share a part of their history with Islam from the time the Muslim Moors ruled Spain for about 700 years. The Moors had a very big impact on Hispanic culture, food, tradition, and language. Many Latinos are rediscovering those roots and converting. And many are becoming disillusioned by Catholicism and corruption in the church that has recently been exposed. Many say that Islam offers them a more concrete, simple, and down to earth faith in God that Christianity does not.