The Spanish invaded Mexico as triumphant, with the intensity of born-again Catholics, in the early 16th century. They had defeated the Arabs who had dominated southern Spain for seven hundred years or so. But as is obvious, Arab influence remained in language and art and architecture, in the styles brought over to Mexico. Now Islam itself is making at least a small place for itself according to an article from Radio Netherland which appears in Corresponsales Indigenas.
It says (my translation):
More and more indigenous Maya and Tzotzil are converting to Islam. Fifteen years after the Zapatista revolt, profound changes have occurred in the region.
One of them is the appearance of Islam as a new religion. The Muslim community, the majority of them being indigenous Maya and Tzotzil, is making gains.
Molino de los Arcos is one of the poorest neighborhoods of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the second biggest city of Chiapas....The population is almost completely of indigenous origin and the Maya and Tzotzil languages dominate.
However, on Fridays, one can hear the slow and monotonous Arab chant of Islamic prayer. In a wooden cabin decorated with Islamic prayers in Arabic, some twenty Tzotzil families have created a little mosque.
Imam Salvador López López told us:
"Here we purify our spirits and pray to Allah....Our community is still small, we are some two hundred, but little by little we are growing.
"In Chiapas there's much ignorance about Islam. No one really knows what it is about, and at the beginning, not even I was sure if it was for me. My family was against it at the beginning. It was hard. [But] Islam gives me something I don't find in Christianity."
Alternative to capitalism
There've always been Muslims in Mexico, but they were immigrants from Islamic countries in Africa and the Middle East. Starting in 1995, when Spanish Muslims under the direction of Aureliano Pérez arrived in Mexico to spread the word of Allah, Mexicans themselves began to convert to Islam. The arrival of the Spanish is directly related to the revolt of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas in 1994. They considered the impoverished state to be fertile ground for spreading the principles of Islam.
From the time of the Spanish Conquest in the Sixteenth Century, the Maya and Tzotzil have been continuously marginalized. They live in extreme poverty, are exploited by corrupt governments nd are victims of racism on the part of whites and mestizos. Among the indigenous there are many problems with alcoholism.
The Maya and Tzotzil are part of the Murabitun movement which is part of Sunni Islam. It completely prohibits the consumption of alcohol and the charging of interest for loans.
For many people in Chiapas, this religion offers an attractive alternative to capitalism. However, Muhammad Amin insists that Islam is not only for the indigenous of Chiapas
"Allah makes no distinction among peoples. Everyone is welcome."
However, the social component of Islam has surged for a long time in Chiapaneco [an area that corresponds to the city of Chiapa de Corzo in Chiapas], since the Muslims under the leadership of the Spanish missionary Muhammad Nafia (called Aureliano Pérez before his convesion) offered their support to the Zapatista rebels under Subcomandante Marcos.
Many Zapatistas who fought for the rights of the indigenous population and for agrarian report are Tzotziles. Some converted to Islam, although Subcomandante Marcos adopted a vacillating position at the beginning.
The Mexican government was alarmed and began to monitor the presence of Islam in the region. Ex-president Vicente Fox even accused them of having relations with Al Qaeda, but this accusation was never proven.
Muhammad Amin laughs at this accusation: "We don't have any type of link with foreign Islamic groups, nor do we have problems here with other religions. Islam signifies peace, and we respect all of them."
This does not mean that the Christians are disposed to be positive in the face of their new competition. Andrés Ferrer, who now is called Muyahid, converted to Islam in 1998 and had to overcome a lot of prejudice:
"Many people reacted badly, because they had no idea what Islam is. Some called us terrorists. My own family thought I was crazy."
In spite of opposition, Islam is prospering in Chiapas. Muslims have created a madrasa, or school for the study of the Koran; an Islamic mission, a carpentry store and a pizzeria.
There are classes in Arabic for new converts and trips are organized for participation in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca which many indigenous Muslims have already made.
Iman López says that Islam is growing slowly but surely: "In our little mosque alone we already have seventeen families. Little by little, more people are opening themselves to the message of Allah. Yes, I think we've arrived to stay."