A new report in The Independent on a small group of Muslim converts in San Cristobal de las Casas, gives itself away with its title: “Mexico’s Vibrant Muslim Community Lives in the Maya Heartland”:
A trip to Mexico’s indigenous Maya heartland showed me how a vibrant Muslim community had sprung up in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
In the southern state of Chiapas, home to a lush mountainous landscape, I photographed members of a small Muslim community made up of hundreds of mostly indigenous Tzotzil men and women, many of whom converted to Islam from Catholic or other Christian denominations.
The Muslim men here are distinguished by their prayer caps, or kufis, and the women by their hijabs which take the form of traditional Maya shawls.
Locals say the conversions to Islam here began in the late 1980s, around the same time Mexico’s Zapatista movement was gaining traction in Chiapas, as institutions including Christianity and capitalism came under increasing criticism.
According to the last census, some 83 percent of Mexicans are Catholic. And although Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Mexico’s 120 million population [actually, they make up only 1/10th of 1 percent], a disproportionate number are indigenous [sic] clustered in and around San Cristobal de las Casas, a highland city in Chiapas that mixes both Maya and Spanish identity.
“People gave us a weird look when we converted, they thought we were terrorists and were scared of us,” said Mustafa, a member of the nearby Ahmadia community. “But with the passage of time and our own actions, that opinion has changed,” he added.
Umar, an indigenous former evangelical pastor, converted to Islam in the late 1990s and now serves as a bridge between local Christians and Muslims.
“Ours is a monotheistic religion,” he said. “But we don’t worship saints.”
“I later met 55-year-old Mohamed Amin who invited me to his home, offering me cookies and tea. He showed me where he prays five times a day and introduced me to his family. He asked me if I believed in God and I said no. That did not appear to bother him.
“He went on to explain the main reason behind his conversion to Islam.
“I like to be clean and change my clothes,” he said. “This is a clean religion and that’s what originally drew me to it.”
What, in the first place, is the effect of such a news story, which has been getting significant coverage online? It feeds a narrative of Islam On The March, of Islamic triumphalism. Here we are, far from the ancient centers of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, far even from the latest centers of Islam in Western Europe, and yet here, in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Las Chiapas, in a remote region of rural — carefully described as “lush” — Mexico, we are brought news of local converts to Islam. We are further told, in loaded language, that these converts constitute a “vibrant community of Muslims.” No evidence is presented for this putative “vibrancy,” but it is insisted upon, and the word has its effect. These people who are converting have created not just a community, but a “vibrant” community, pulsating with energy, alive, energetic, vigorous, vital, full of vim and vigor, animated, sparkling, effervescent, vivacious, dynamic, stimulating, exciting, passionate, fiery — get the picture? Then, in unspoken contrast to this vibrant community of Muslims for which the reporter is also a cheerleader, there is the dead hand of the Catholic Church, handmaiden of political and economic reaction, working hand-in-glove with the capitalist class. No wonder that these conversions started in the 1980s, “around the same time [as] Mexico’s Zapatista movement was gaining traction in Chiapas. The implications clear: support for the Zapatistas, and conversion to Islam, were two versions of the same movement for justice, two ways for the downtrodden indigenous Indians, those Mayans and Tzotzils, to demonstrate their disaffection. For, we must surely realize — it need not be spelled out — Islam promotes social and economic justice. But does it?
We are given to understand that Muslims are converting in other parts of Mexico, but with especial fervor, apparently, in San Cristobal de las Casas. And just how many Muslims are there in this land of 120 million? In 2010, the Mexican government counted 3,760 Muslims; the Pew Research Institute came up with a much larger figure, 111,000. Even if we were to ignore the official Mexican census figures, and accept the Pew figures instead, and rounded up that figure — to 120,000, in order to reflect an increase over the last few years, that would mean only one of every thousand Mexicans is Muslim [and not, as the reporter says, “less than 1%”]. By way of comparison, in the Muslim state of Algeria, which has a population of 40 million, or one-third that of Mexico, by 2015 the number of converts to Christianity numbered 380,000. Isn’t that a figure that might be better known, so as to undermine Muslim triumphalism?
Judging by the report, it appears that there was nothing terribly profound about these conversions. There is the economic justice aspect, with the Catholic Church viewed as giving aid and comfort to the ruling landowner class, while Islam is presented by its proselytizers as the faith of the downtrodden. The report could have injected a note of skepticism, pointing out that almost all Muslim states have been ruled, for much or all of their histories, by despots, including ruling families whose members routinely help themselves, and their confederates, to much of the nation’s wealth. The most egregious are the Al-Saud, but the ruling families in Abu Dhabi (the Al-Nahyan), in Dubai (the Al-Maktoum), Kuwait (the Al-Sabahs), Qatar (the Al-Thani), Oman (the Al Bu Said) help themselves on a smaller scale. Then there are the non-royal despots, such as the Al-Assads in Syria, Al-Sisi in Egypt, the late Qaddafi in Libya, the oligarchs of the FLN in Algeria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who grab what they can. And Pakistan’s politicians are in a greedy class by themselves, for a former president, Asif Ali Zardari, has accumulated a net worth of $35 billion, and a former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has $30 billion, remarkable sums given their official salaries. If this were known, perhaps those Mexican converts might be disabused of their belief that Islam stands for greater economic justice, as no doubt they were told by those converting them. The record shows quite otherwise. In the West, a government’s legitimacy depends on how well it reflects the will of the people, as expressed, however imperfectly, through elections. In Muslim lands, the legitimacy of the government depends on how well it expresses the will of Allah, as set down in the Qur’an. A ruler can be a despot, as long as he is a good Muslim. This, too, is unlikely to have been explained to would-be converts in San Cristobal.
We learn in passing that there is an Ahmadia community in San Cristobal de las Casas. As many know, the Ahmadis have tirelessly conducted campaigns of outreach and conversion in the West, but not in Muslim countries, where it would be too dangerous for them to try to convert anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, to Ahmadi Islam. An “Ask-A-Muslim” or “Open Mosque” event in the U.S. is most likely to be put on by Ahmadis. Their brand of Islam is indeed more appealing, because less violent, than mainstream Islam, no doubt because they are on the receiving end of so much Muslim violence; hence their success with conversions. The Ahmadis, of whom there are only ten to twenty million in the world, or about 1% of the world’s Muslims, are regarded with hostility by mainstream Muslims, because their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, claimed to be the Promised Messiah. In Pakistan, they are prohibited by law from claiming to be Muslims (and on their official papers are listed as non-Muslims); they have been subject to persecution and murderous attacks by Muslims, mainly in Pakistan, but also in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the U.K. What, one wonders, would these Mayan and Tzotzil converts think of Islam if they knew how the Ahmadis are treated by the mainstream?
Indeed, what do these converts know about the treatment of women in Islam, as set out in the Qur’an and Hadith? Would they be surprised to learn about the practice of polygamy? To discover that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man, or that a daughter inherits half that of a son? Would they have been told that a Muslim father has the power of life and death over his daughters? That a Muslim husband can beat (lightly) a disobedient wife? Do you think these Mexican Indians were told before converting about how, as Muslims, they should no longer take Christians (or Jews) as friends, “for they are friends only with each other”? No one will have told them that they must love fellow Muslims but to disavow, that is hate, for the sake of Allah, all non-Muslims, the doctrine known as Al-wala’ wa-l-bara.
What will they have learned about the 109 Jihad verses in the Qur’an? Anything? Nothing? What will they have been told about verses in the Qur’an that command not just jihad warfare, but the need to “strike terror” in the hearts of the Unbelievers?
They will have been told nothing about any of this, at least not before conversion. They will not even have been told about the Hadith. They will have learned nothing about Muhammad’s marriage, and consummation of that marriage, to Aisha when she was nine years old. They will not have learned about Muhammad’s attack on the Jews of the Khaybar Oasis. They will have learned nothing about Muhammad’s taking the Jewish girl Saafiya as his sex slave the very evening of the day that he had her husband, father, and brother killed. They will not find out about how Kinana of Khaybar was tortured, on Muhammad’s orders, until he revealed where some treasure was hidden, and then, also on his orders, put to death after having given up the secret. They will learn nothing about Abu ‘Afak, Asma bint Marwan, and Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, who, because they had mocked him, were killed by followers of Muhammad — and Muhammad was pleased.
When it comes to the Qur’an, they will have been told about 2:256 (“There is no compulsion in religion”) and 5:32 (which superficially seems to condemn killing, but read carefully, with 5:33, actually provides rules for when killing is licit). They will not have been told about 9:5, 9:29, 3:151; 8:12, 8:60, 47:4, or another 100 jihad verses. They will not learn that Muhammad said “war is deceit,” or that his last words were apparently “I have been made victorious with terror.”
They will not learn that Unbelievers were offered three choices by triumphant Muslims: conversion, death, or the status of dhimmi, that required them to pay the Jizyah, and endure other onerous requirements, in order to be protected from the Muslims themselves. They will be told that Muslims have a special relationship with the other two “Abrahamic faiths,” and that Muslims revere both Moses and Jesus as prophets, but not told how, for example, both figures are quite different in their Islamic versions.
One Tzotzil gave as his main reason for converting to Islam that by doing so he could better “keep clean and change my clothes.” That gives you some idea of how theologically profound was the conversion process. And those who have endured life in a Muslim society may question this misguided belief connecting Islam and cleanliness. Wudu (the pre-prayer ablutions) aside, the hygiene is not impressive. Unfortunately, as with “prison conversions,” sometimes the practical consequence is that the convert, as he slowly is allowed to learn more, is not necessarily repelled, but may sink ever deeper into the morass of Islam.
It would be interesting to know why the three converts mentioned felt they had to take Arabic names — Mustafa, Umar, and Mohamed. Indeed, that could prompt a conversation on all the ways that Islam is a vehicle for Arab supremacism. A Muslim must prostrate himself five times a day in the direction of Mecca, in Arabia; he should make the hajj, to Mecca, at least once in his lifetime; he should ideally read the Qur’an in Arabic; many Muslims take Arabic names as more appropriate to the faith; some have even given themselves false Arab lineages, as with the many Pakistanis who call themselves “Sayids,” indicating descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
One hopes that the Christians in Mexico, most of them Catholics, will not merely observe whatever inroads are being made by Islam, but will offer a campaign to counteract the proselytizers. No need to wait until the few become many. The Christians need to identify those communities where conversions to Islam are being made, as in San Cristobal de las Casas, to send out teams of Christians who have prepared themselves and can speak knowledgeably about Islam, and thereby to push back against the previously unopposed proselytizers for the Prophet. These Christians should meet with those recently converted, or who seem to be on the path to conversion, and stage what might be called an intervention. They should hold up for careful study a representative sample of the more than one hundred Jihad verses in the Qur’an, explain such concepts as dhimmi and Jizyah, compare the claim that Islam furthers economic justice with the reality of rich and poor in Muslim societies, examine the differing treatments of women in Islam and Christianity, and convey the contents of a dozen of the most disturbing episodes in the life of Muhammad, as reported in the Hadith. Finally, these well-informed students of Islam should present aspects of Islamic history that the converts almost certainly would not have been told about, including the vast Arab slave trade involving as many as 80 million black African victims, the killing of 70-80 million Hindus under Muslim rule in India, the false “convivencia” of Islamic Spain, and the ways in which Islam has been a vehicle for Arab supremacism, with particular attention to how non-Arab Muslims — such as the Kurds, Berbers, and Sudanese blacks — have recently suffered under Arab rule.
Then perhaps Umar, Mustafa, and Mohamed, having been given food for thought from the Qur’an, and Hadith, and Islamic history, material which had been skipped over by their converters, might rethink their allegiance to Islam, shed those names so redolent of Arab supremacism, and find a way back to Christianity which, considering the apparent alternative, hasn’t done so badly after all.