Mayan Muslims of Mexico Are Redefining Indigenous Identity

Screenshot from mini-documentary produced by Zoomin.TV Latinoamerica and published on Youtube.

Note: Some external links direct to Spanish-language webpages.

The Southern Mexican state of Chiapas is known for having a diverse population of people from various ethnic and faith groups, creating a unique social interplay of people whose cultures com together and intertwine with one another.

For a long time, the region’s communities, many of whom are indigenous, witnessed a conversion from Catholic groups to Evangelist ones and the fusion of these new beliefs with a vision of the world that remained compatible with Mayan traditions. However, it is the Tzoztil communities from San Cristobal de las Casas who have most recently caused a stir in the media, due to a rise in conversions to the Islamic faith.

Many reports and online commentaries have reacted towards these communities with shock, rejection and fear. In a time when indigenous groups are already targets of racism and discrimination, these recent conversions to Islam have brought to the surface debates surrounding the complexity of identity as well as a rise in online attacks from those who fear what these changes might mean in Mexico:

I've just read this on my TL: that Chiapas’ indigenous Muslims don’t feel indigenous, nor do they identify with the EZLN.

Go and take a look at the highlands of Chiapas, here there are indigenous Muslims, a big time bomb.

We need to be careful. In Chiapas, Muslims keep growing. They play on the indigenous’ needs and ignorance.

Indigenous of Chiapas D: Muslims? Wtf?

Members of the Tzotzil Muslim community report being victims of discrimination, targets of defamation campaigns.

The online media company Zoomin.TV Latinoamérica has collected testimonies that reflect the difficulties and social adaptation process that converts to Islam face. Despite what some may think, the Tzotzil people’s ancient traditions are not simply forgotten or thrown away but instead adapted to the practice of Islam:

Soraya: Piensan que tenemos algo en la cabeza [por usar el pañuelo]. Un ejemplo de lo que decían es que tenía piojos.

Layla: Cada vez que salgo con el pañuelo… No me hacen preguntas, pero las miradas… Y me dicen que es malo, que soy terrorista.

Manuel: Cambio a musulmán, pero mi comida eso sí no.

Roberto: Teníamos una imagen mala del musulmanismo [sic], pero vemos que son gente muy sencilla. Y sobre todo que le dan cariño y respeto a toda la gente.

Soraya: They think that [we use the headscarf because] we have something on our heads. One example of things they say is that they have lice.

Layla: Every time that I go out wearing the headscarf…no-one asks questions, but they give you looks… they say to me that it is bad, that I’m a terrorist.

Manuel: I’ve become a Muslim, but changing my eating habits? That ain’t gonna happen!

Roberto: We had a bad image of Muslims [sic], but now we see that they are very kind people, and above all they are caring and respect others.

Despite these problems, members of other faith groups and residents of San Cristóbal recognize that Tzotzil Muslims are peaceful members of the community and are figures that combat stereotypes about Islam.

The number of Tzotzil Muslims continues to grow and their communal activities are developing. Families study the Koran and the new generations learn Arabic from an early age. The community organises group trips to participate in the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. For many members of the community, this is often the first time they travel outside of Mexico and have the opportunity to meet Muslims from all over the world.

Origins of Islam in Chiapas

Islam was first introduced to Chiapas by missionaries from the Murabitun World Movement. The missionaries arrived in the country looking to create links with leaders of the Zapatista uprising, an event that took place in Mexico in 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect.

At first, the objective of the armed uprising, led by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), was to create a new state model and defend indigenous populations. These peoples had, historically, had their rights violated. According to the document sent by the Muslim missionaries, they were hoping to unite and support this Zapatista cause, but it seems that the EZLN didn’t respond to them.

Nevertheless, one person did respond to the missionaries’ invitation to Islam, and that was Salvador López, who now goes by the name Mohammed Amín. Amín was the first Muslim originating from the region. It was at this moment that the region's Muslim community was established and started to grow, though this was not without internal and external conflicts. Often such conflicts resulted in divisions within the new community, and today Chiapas is home to four different groups of Muslims.

Evolving Identities

The work of Paulina Villegas, Marcela Zendejas and Lasso de la Vega, published in the magazine ‘Letras Libres’ (Free Letters) –and later leading to the creation of a documentary – tells the story of these communities and explores the complexity of their history, from beliefs inherited from pre-Columbian cultures to the melting pot of Chiapas today. The testimonies collected by the authors reflect a new direction in an ancient history and a spiritual quest of identity that connects many around the globe:

El entramado de este islam que se extiende en el sureste de México está compuesto por varios ejes, tales como una identidad étnica compartida, condiciones socioeconómicas específicas, elementos de transnacionalismo y multiculturalismo debido a las peregrinaciones y viajes que han realizado, y un fuerte sentido de pertenencia. Los matices y particularidades que definen este islam indígena son precisamente las prácticas, los usos y costumbres resultantes de la adaptación y simbiosis entre los chamulas y “su” islam.

The fabric of the Islam that extends to southeast Mexico is influenced by various central points, such as a shared ethnic identity, specific socioeconomic conditions, and elements of transnationalism and multiculturalism, due to pilgrimages and travels that they have undertaken. These are linked with a strong sense of belonging. The nuances and particularities that define the Islamic faith of these indigenous communities are its practices, uses and traditions that stem from an adaption and symbiosis between the people of Chamula and “their” Islam.

They continue:

…lo que es más importante reconocer: que los indígenas no católicos –ya sean evangélicos, pentecostales o musulmanes– no son cajas vacías donde se depositan ideologías extranjeras, sino dueños y estrategas de su propia historia […] Esta reflexión constituye un reto importante y necesario en un país donde hablar de grupos indígenas se reduce con frecuencia a moldes racistas y falsos estereotipos, en un país donde la diversidad no es realmente asumida ni comprendida como sinónimo de riqueza. Porque resulta que en Chiapas, desde hace mucho tiempo, se descubren y crean nuevas formas de ser indígena a través de luchas y procesos históricos. Porque la identidad étnica, tanto como cualquiera otra forma de identidad, es dinámica, se redefine y reinventa en el tiempo para mantenerse viva.

…the most important thing is to recognize that the indigenous people who are not Catholic – whether they be Evangelical, Pentecostal or Muslim — are not empty shells on which foreign ideas are simply planted, but instead masters and directors of their own story […] This reflection poses an important but necessary challenge in a country where discussion of indigenous groups is often reduced to racist tropes and false stereotypes. Where diversity is not really accepted or perceived as enriching to society. It just so happens that for a long time in Chiapas, ideas of what it means to be indigenous are being reconstructed and discovered through a continued struggle as well as through natural historical processes. Just like other forms of identity, ethnic identity is dynamic, it redefines and reinvents itself over time in order to stay alive.

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