Spanish Muslim mission grows in Mexico
Links to Mayan, Moorish roots survive centuries of oppression
San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico --- Every weekday morning, children at an Islamic school in this city sit cross-legged at low desks and rock in time as they recite the Quran in Arabic. The older girls' heads are wrapped in obligatory scarves, and all the children are required to leave their shoes at the door. But this isn't Pakistan, Iran or an Arab state. This Islamic ''madrasa'' is part of a small but growing community of several hundred Muslim converts in San Cristobal de las Casas, a Mexican tourist community in southern Chiapas state better known as the gateway to this region's modern Maya Indian culture. The new adherents to Islam in Chiapas are almost all Maya who were once Protestants, a choice that made their families renegades for several previous decades in many Catholic indigenous communities.
And curiously, the proselytizers are Spanish converts who arrived in 1995 and hail from the southern province of Granada, the last stronghold of the Muslim Moors of Spain before their defeat by Christian soldiers in 1492. With about 40 families in their fold now, the Spanish missionaries and their Indian followers envision spreading their movement to the rest of Latin America. The irony of the Spanish involvement is not lost on the Maya. But the converts say they've embraced Islam as deliverance from cultural oppression that began with the Spanish Conquest of the 1500s.
''Five hundred years ago, they came to destroy us. Five hundred years later, other Spaniards came to return a knowledge that was taken away from us,'' said Anastasio Gomez Gomez, a 21-year-old Maya who now calls himself Ibrahim. He sees no contradiction in being a Muslim and an Indian. ''This is the family I never had before,'' Gomez explained, with a blissful expression. ''When you become a Muslim, all your past beliefs are erased. It's like being reborn.'' The Spanish missionaries first came into town just after the 1994 armed uprising staged by Mexico's rebel group, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. ''I went to a Zapatista meeting, and it was really boring,'' said the missionaries' leader, Aureliano Perez, 49, who converted to Islam about 20 years ago in Spain after a trip to Morocco. He is now known as Emir Mohammed Nafia.
Philanthropic funding With funding they say comes from philanthropists in Arab states and other Muslim nations, Perez's mission in just six years has built housing for members, the madrasa --- which the government hasn't yet accredited --- a small mosque and a carpentry shop where some of the Maya male converts work. The Spanish women offer a free sewing workshop for girls in the area, and the group also runs a downtown pizzeria in a prime location.
The missionaries don't draw attention to it, but the community is tied to the 30-year-old Murabitun international Sufi Islamic movement, whose leader is a controversial Scot named Ian Dallas, now known as Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi. Dallas, who is in his 60s, has been eviscerated in the Scottish press, which reported that he produced tracts and speeches considered anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler. Perez brushed off any suggestion that his mission is pushing hate. The mission in Chiapas, Perez said, was set up for ''social reconstruction,'' not conflict, which is common in this volatile, socially unequal state. Sipping carrot juice and wearing an inconspicuous tie and jacket, Perez said his group tries to keep a low profile in Mexico, especially since the terrorist attacks in the United States ''cast a black cloud on Islam.'' Townsfolk have expressed little hostility toward the Muslims, Perez said. But he is well aware that some in town dismiss the missionaries as latter-day conquistadors. "They say, 'You're Spaniards and just want to get rid of the Indians,' " he said with a shake of his head.
"Well, I come from the civilization that the Spanish Christians destroyed. I'm not really Spanish." Talk, eat, pray together Followers of Islam probably number in the low thousands in Mexico, whether they were born into the religion from Arab immigrant families or converted. Anastasio Gomez, or Ibrahim, said he had only heard about Islam from watching news reports about the Persian Gulf War. Now he's married to the daughter of one of the Spanish missionaries, works at the pizzeria and is eager to use his ability to speak Tzotzil, his Mayan language, to recruit more followers. ''I'd like to have more contact with my people, but because of my young age, they won't listen to me,'' he said dejectedly. Gomez converted to Islam after his father threw him out of the house in San Cristobal de las Casas for failing to read his Bible, and he was introduced to the Spaniards. He later helped convert his father, a former evangelical preacher. Gomez's father, Manuel Gomez, had become a Protestant in the early 1970s and was expelled from his native town, Chamula, just outside San Cristobal de las Casas. Over the years, tens of thousands of Protestant Maya from Chamula have also been expelled by leaders who run their own quasi-Catholic church. After their expulsion, the Gomez family wandered spiritually, trying out a number of different sects.
''I spent 35 years as an evangelical, and it never changed my life,'' said Manuel Gomez, 51, who is now Mohammed. ''Here we talk together. We eat together. We pray together.'' The elder Gomez has a full-time job, too, in the carpentry shop. He and his son have even gone on the hajj --- the obligatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca --- courtesy of wealthy Arab sponsors. A couple of years ago, five dissident Maya families broke away from the Spanish missionaries and hooked up with the Islamic Cultural Center of Mexico, another small organization that is run, oddly enough, by another British citizen. ''They said they felt a bit discriminated against,'' said British-born Omar Weston, who grew up in Mexico and became a Muslim while living Florida.