Islam in Chiapas: An Overview and Critical Engagement with the Sources

Islam in Chiapas: An Overview and Critical Engagement with the Sources

In the mid 1990s a Sufi Muslim community in Spain tuned in to news media coverage of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. After learning about the plight of the indigenous Mayans, several members of the group decided to fly from Spain to Mexico in order to help in their struggle for justice. Leaders from the Spanish Sufi Muslim order reportedly met with leaders from the Zapatista rebellion but no formal relationship was established. The Muslims from Spain nevertheless stayed and established a school, pizzeria, and several other businesses that attracted several families to the emerging community. News reports estimate that there are now 300-500 Muslims in Chiapas largely as the result of the Spanish group’s da‘wa or missionizing work. Many of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayans who have embraced Islam there have changed religious affiliation multiple times throughout their lives, including between Mayan traditions, Catholicism, various forms of Protestantism, and now Islam. 

“Many of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayans who have embraced Islam there have changed religious affiliation multiple times throughout their lives, including between Mayan traditions, Catholicism, various forms of Protestantism, and now Islam.”
Members of this community reportedly experience religious conflict not only between these religious traditions, but also between different forms of Islam. This conflict has made it into the public sphere through news media that frames the story as part of a so called “growing threat of terrorism.” Government officials, including the 2000-2006 president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, have expressed concerns about a possible connection between the Mayan Muslims in Chiapas and “Islamic terrorist organizations.” Despite the challenge of being Muslim in Chiapas, the Islamic communities there continue to thrive.

The available sources for understanding Islam in Chiapas are comprised of news media, travelogues, government reports, and a few scholarly works that are themselves based largely on second-hand accounts. This article, therefore, seeks to provide an overview of and critical engagement with a number of media sources that I cite in this article. Regarding these sources, I argue that journalistic mediations or representations of Mayan Muslims must be understood as partial and biased in historically specific ways that frame the story in terms of the Zapatista appeal, “Islamic terrorism,” and Mayan conversion.

One of the most common themes in the news media is an implied connection between Islamic and Zapatista ideologies. In all of these mediations, however, very little is said about the Zapatista uprisings themselves and even less about the historical and material conditions that prompted them. Instead, the Zapatistas are used to explain the presence of Spanish Muslims in the region. If it was indeed news coverage of the Zapatista uprisings that inspired the Muslim group in Spain to travel about 5,500 miles to a place they had heard about from news media, we are nevertheless left with more questions than answers. What is particularly absent from most of these narratives is precisely any substantial engagement with an ideological connection. Instead, the Muslim group from Spain that landed in Chiapas is simply identified as a Sufi Muslim sect: the Murabitun World Movement.

One exception stands out however. Hadjian’s 2013 article provides a level of detail not found in the other news sources. The Murabitun have a historical connection to the Darqawi Sufi order, but the two groups operate independently of one another today. Despite its prominence in Morocco and elsewhere, little academic work has been written on the Darqawi. Equally difficult to find is scholarship on the Murabitun, which is surprising given its influence on high profile figures including the prominent American Muslim  scholar Hamza Yusuf. Though scholarship on the Murabitun is lacking, the group has published several essays and videos of lectures delivered by its leading figures through internet technologies. Additionally, a few government reports have been published on the Murabitun. Based on these resources, Hadjian is able to develop a few general insights, including that the Murabitun draw on particular forms of Islamic theology and European philosophy to articulate a critique of globalization and the social injustices wrought by its economic impact.

The move from Spain to Chiapas is thus framed as part of an ideologically informed struggle for justice. The Murabitun group from Spain attempted to join forces with the Zapatistas in Chiapas in order to fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement and its perceived consequences. A glaring problem with the implied connection between the Murabitun and the Zapatistas in Chiapas is that little to no evidence is provided in most cases. A few articles reference a public letter written by Nafia, a member of   the Murabitun, to Subcomandante Marcos from the Zapatistas. Hadjian’s article is one of these. In it, Hadjian manages to include the following segment from the letter: “We, the Murabitun World Movement, invite you to sit down with representatives of the great nations of Chechnya, Kashmir, Euzkalherria [the Basques] and other nations at the forefront of the struggle against the tyrannical world banking order, and with whom we have a relationship of cooperation. They have asked that we transmit their invitation to share now the effort in the struggle, in order to be able to enjoy together the pride of the final victory.”

In the end, Marcos never met with Nafia, and it seems that the principle reason is that the Subcomandante concluded it was better to remain autonomous from any particular religion so as to gain the broadest number of supporters, especially given the history of inter-religious conflict in the region between some Catholic and Protestant groups in San Juan Camula, a municipality in the state of Chiapas.

A second and related theme in the news sources on Islam in Chiapas is that of a possible connection between the Murabitun and “Islamic terrorism.” Though these claims are ultimately dismissed by the news stories themselves, the possibility itself has been used in some instances as the leading headline, including McGirk’s “Radical Islam Takes Root in Chiapas.” Though Nafia was not able to connect with Subcomandente Marcos, his letter nevertheless gained attention from various journalists and even from former president Vicente Fox who “accused them of having links with Al-Qaeda, although solid proof was never presented.” Worried about such accusations from journalists, government officials, and even from the local population, Nafia began denying he had even written the letter asking Marcos to Islamize the Zapatista movement. Finally, “In a telephone interview from Mexico City,” writes Hadjian, “he [Nafia] acknowledged he had written it [the letter], saying that his previous denials came in the dark days after the terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists on Sept. 11, 2001.” One interviewee laughs at the accusation that the Muslims are linked to terrorist accusations, saying: “We have no links whatsoever with any foreign group of Muslims, and we have no problem with any other religion here. Islam means peace, we respect everyone around us.”

This second theme, which seeks to examine whether or not Islam in Chiapas may be connected to “Islamic terrorism” forms part of broader post-September 11 media trends that have increased the amount and negativity of coverage of Muslims. One concern is that such coverage frames the question of what kind of Islam is being practiced in Chiapas in terms of simplistic binaries between so called “radical” and “moderate” forms of Islam. Rather than fall prey to these misleading classifications, we must strive for more complex and nuanced understandings of the ways in which individuals live their religiosity.


Conversion in Chiapas

A third prominent theme in the news sources on Islam in Chiapas regards issues around religious conversion. Here, several conversion theories are considered in the news stories, including that the Totzil attraction to Islam was primarily based on the economic benefits provided by the Murabitun. Saliba’s 2012 article references a series of violent conflicts that have taken place in San Juan Chamula from the 1960s to the late 1990s between Catholic and Protestant groups. Saliba quotes Sandra Canas, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin who describes the conflict as politically and economically motivated rather than simply religious. “By becoming evangelicals,” Saliba quotes Canas, “the Indians break with a corrupt, authoritarian system run by local notables, whose dominant position is rooted in Catholicism. Landowners throw the Indians out to stop them [from] challenging their authority.” It seems that the Murabitun were able to connect primarily with those groups who had converted to a Protestant form of Christianity and were living in exile and poverty as a result. 

“It seems that the Murabitun were able to connect primarily with those groups who had converted to a Protestant form of Christianity and were living in exile and poverty as a result.”
When the Islamic group arrived from Spain, they promptly established a school and several businesses including a carpentry shop, bookstore, bakery, and a pizza shop. Though such economic factors may play a prominent role in the decision to embrace Islam, they cannot however fully account for the practice of Islam amongst Totzil Mayans in Chiapas. This is particularly evident with regard to those who have left the Murabitun and no longer enjoy its economic benefits but nevertheless continue to practice Islam.

Some Chiapan Muslims who left the Murabitun have reported that the Murabitun members from Spain acted paternalistically toward the Tzotzil members of the community and did not give them much autonomy or authority in decision making processes. It is not lost on most critical observers that the Murabitun hailing from Spain and hoping to convert and discipline the behavior of Mayan Muslims  carries a certain heavy irony to it, reminiscent of colonial encounters. Of particular concern were reports that the Murabitun from Spain had prohibited the Tzotzil Muslims from visiting their non-Muslim family members out of fear that they may be persuaded to leave Islam. The Tzotzil Muslims were also forbidden from sending their children to the government schools for similar reasons. Finding such prohibitions intolerable, many Tzotzil Mayans broke away from the Murabitun and founded their own Islamic community with their own leadership.

Stories about this defection are connected to a second conversion theory regarding family relationships. It seems that influential figures were able to play a prominent role in their broader family’s decision to embrace Islam. Reports claim that up to a quarter of Chiapas’ Muslim population belong to the Chechev family. And it is indeed members from this family who are overwhelmingly quoted and/or references in the news stories. A third Conversion theory is that Islam may provide a higher social status even if without the economic benefits, especially for several individuals who have gained cosmopolitan experiences while on Hajj in Mecca.

A final conversion theory articulated in the media stories is that Islam may be understood as an anti-colonial continuation of Mayan identity. Here, Islam is not only framed as compatible with the Tzotzil’s cultural practices and values, but as a continuation of them. Practices like eating from the floor without utensils are identified as being more similar to pre-Columbian Mayan practices than some which are prescribed by Christians. Unlike Latino Muslims in the U.S., who claim their cultural heritage is partly rooted in a Spanish heritage highly influenced by over 800 years of Islam in Spain, the anti-colonial Chiapan Muslims seeks to return to an a-historical universal link between Mayan and Muslim practices rather than to a historically corroborated link between Islamic and Spanish practices.

“Of particular importance will be developing more critical and nuanced engagements with stories in the public sphere that will help move away from simplistic binaries between “good” and “bad” Muslims…”

Though more research is needed for a fuller understanding of Islam in Chiapas, a few prominent themes and questions are clear from the media sources currently available to us. First, in what ways does the potential connection between Murabitun and Zapatista ideologies help us understand the impetus for the Muslim group from Spain to migrate to Chiapas? On the other hand, in what ways does it conceal aspects of this phenomenon by glossing over issues of context and failing to identify substantial connections. Second, in what ways do post-September 11 media practices continue to shape media stories on Islam throughout the world, including the coverage of Islam in Chiapas? Of particular importance will be developing more critical and nuanced engagements with stories in the public sphere that will help move away from simplistic binaries between “good” and “bad” Muslims. Third, in what ways do mediated conversion theories help explain the development of Islam in regions like Chiapas? And in what ways will a myopic focus on issues around conversion detract from a deeper and historically specific understanding of the diverse ways in which religion is lived? The latest report from the region indicates that there are now as much as four different Muslim communities in Chiapas, each practicing distinct forms of Islam. Diversity, it seems, is at the core of the story. It remains to be seen, however, how future mediations of this diversity will be developed and/or covered up by both journalists and scholars.