Islam Gains Toehold in
Mexico's Zapatista Country
By Alistair Bell
January 25, 2005
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (Reuters) - Islam
has joined a battle for the hearts and minds of
Mexico's volatile Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas state,
home of Zapatista rebels and a hotbed of sectarian
strife between Christians.
In an unlikely meeting of two worlds, an idealistic
Muslim sect has converted some 300 Tzotzils, a Maya
Indian group known for drink-fueled fiestas and
"It was difficult to learn the prayers in Arabic at
first but now I have them in my heart," said Muhammad
Emin Lopez, 46, a Tzotzil fruit merchant who boasts
that his conversion to Islam in 1995 was the state's
He prays five times a day as required in Islam, has
gone on the obligatory "haj" pilgrimage to Mecca and
attends a small mosque in a cornfield on the outskirts
of the hill town of San Cristobal de las Casas.
Beside the mosque, a Tzotzil woman dressed in colorful
Indian garb and known by the Muslim name Karima washes
clothes in a stream near ramshackle wooden houses.
The growth of Islam in such a restive area has raised
the eyebrows of Mexico's intelligence agency, wary of
possible terrorist activity aimed at the neighboring
But the Tzotzil Muslims have little interest in holy
war, having seen religious and political conflict
Many are former evangelical Protestants who were
thrown out of a nearby town by fellow Tzotzils who
practice a mixture of Catholicism and ancient Maya
Indian rites in a conflict that began in the 1970s.
Some 30,000 Protestants have been forced from their
homes and more than 100 have died in sectarian
"People are full of darkness in Chiapas," said Lopez.
"The Catholics and Protestants have fought each other
a lot and the Zapatistas only want to know about war,
not Islam," he said.
Several dozen Spanish missionaries who introduced
Islam to Chiapas and still live here hold radical
political and economic views such as wanting to do
away with currencies, taxes and the nation state, but
church leaders and academics say the group has no
connection to violence.
The Spaniards, members of a group of mostly Western
converts known as the Murabitun, failed in a bid to
ally themselves with Zapatistas 10 years ago and have
been relatively quiet since.
The missionaries, also active in the United States and
Europe, suffered a blow when Lopez and some 80 other
Tzotzils split from them several years ago in an
argument over land and jobs and began worshiping on
Now numbering some 330,000, the Tzotzils in the
mountains of Chiapas have never been fully assimilated
into the Catholic, Hispanic world since Spain
conquered Mexico in the 1500s.
Along with other poor Maya Indians, they form the
backbone of the Zapatista guerrillas, who staged an
uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and have now retired to
bases in the jungle.
The Catholic Church has only a tenuous hold over the
Tzotzils, some of whom sacrifice chickens in church
and down moonshine known as "posh" during nominally
The Tzotzils, like many of Mexico's 12 million
indigenous people, have a hunger of the spirit.
"They are people who become attached to religion no
matter where it comes from. Islam presented itself
just as any other option could have come along as
well," said Felipe Arizmendi, Catholic bishop of San
Cristobal de las Casas.
Experts says the Maya have become adroit at adapting
to different beliefs and allegiances as the outside
world has encroached on their jungles and mountains.
"That's why they have survived so long. They've been
able to be at the forefront of whatever proposal or
political project that's been offered to them for 500
years," said anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho.
That said, surprised Zapatista rebel leaders turned
down the Murabitun missionaries' invitation to convert
to Islam during a meeting in Chiapas in February 1995.
"They had an initial contact with the Zapatista army
and failed," said Morquecho, author of an academic
paper on the Chiapas Muslims.
Since then, the Murabitun have kept a low profile in
Chiapas, setting up a mosque, "madrassah" Islamic
school and several small businesses.
Headscarved indigenous women bake and bearded Mexicans
serve at a pizzeria in San Cristobal de las Casas
owned by Murabitun members. Pepperoni pizzas are off
the menu, likely due to the Islamic prohibition on
Founded by a Scotsman who turned to Islam during a
stay in Morocco in the 1960s, the Murabitun are from
the orthodox Sunni branch of Islam but have
incorporated some mystical Sufi practices.
They are highly critical of the charging of interest
rates as un-Islamic and advocate scrapping currencies,
taxes and the nation state, to be replaced with
Islamic emirates trading in gold coins.
"Our model is not ideological or utopian but is based
on the life of our Prophet Mohammad," reads a
statement on the group's Mexican web site,