Their present and future problems and solutions
By Yusuf Hallar
Praised be Allah, Creator of the universe, peace and blessings be with the Prophet Muhammad, with his Family and with all his Companions.
Praised be He who made us noble through the Coran and illumined our hearts with faith.
Dear brothers and sisters:
Assalamu Alaikum wa Rahmatullah
I am pleased to present this compact study on the muslims in Latin America, begging God Allmighty will assist me to provide an image that is clear and correct. In this study I will try, with the help of God, to expose the problems of the Latin Islamic Community, opinions on those problems and to propose convenient solutions, knowing the situation of the community in this part of the world, given the fact that I am a part of it. Besides, we mustn’t forget that there is a similitude of situations, political, social, economic and cultural in all Latin America.
Every minority in particular goes through difficulties according to the place of residence. There is no doubt that, for any observer, there are common problems and obstacles for all islamic minorities everywhere. Some of these problems are imposed by the society where they live and others by muslims themselves. Therefore we find, in many cases, muslims far apart from each other, weakened, without the possibility of occupying posts of importance in politics and of making important decisions in the countries where they live.
The problems facing muslims in Latin America in general, are similar to the ones faced by muslims all over the world.
MUSLIMS IN LATIN AMERICA
History and immigration
Since the discovery of America by the Spaniards in the fifteenth century, the slaves brought by the conquerors from the north and west of Africa, introduced Islam, staying in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and some Caribbean islands.
The great majority of slaves were muslims, in many cases forced to leave their religious beliefs or be executed instead. Thus, with the passing of time, Islam started fading away in Latin American countries.
At the end of the sixteenth century, after the liberation of slaves and the return of many of them to these lands, together with immigration from India and Pakistan, new concentrations of muslims appeared. According to some documents, between the years 1850 and 1860 a new massive immigration of arab muslims to American lands took place. The majority came from Syria and Lebannon, and stayed in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. Some of these also stayed in Paraguay, together with immigrants from Palestine, Bangladesh and Pakistan. This immigration was very intense, and started decreasing in the 50’s in these countries and in the 70’s in Colombia, with future currents taking residence in Brazil and Venezuela.
These communities, just like in the USA, integrated themselves to national activities, standing out for their hard work, respect and love for the country that sheltered them.
Many of them grouped to create Islamic societies, centers, mosques, etc in order to worship freely. Nowadays, in all Latin American countries, there are muslim concentrations, immigrants and natives, who adopted Islam as their new faith.
According to statistics, the number of muslims in Latin America is over four million, serving as an example 700,000 (seven hundred thousand) in Argentina and more than 1,500,000 (one point five million) in Brazil.
EXAMPLES OF SIMILITUDE AMONG LATIN AMERICAN COUNTRIES
A great percentage of muslim residents in Latin American countries are immigrants, another great percentage are new muslims who converted to Islam. Nowadays these percentages are approximately 50% each.
The similitude of Latin American countries is a very important one. On the one hand they share the same language, except for Brazilians, speakers of Portuguese, which does not represent a barrier as it has the same roots as Spanish.
Similarity of beliefs, as most of the inhabitants of the continent are catholics. Similarity of political, social, economic and cultural situations.
According to the above, we can say that all studies of muslims in any country in Latin America is useful to all other countries in the continent, due to the similitude among its components, whether their way of life or their Islamic work.
Here we must make one point clear: when we refer to the islamic community in Latin America, we say that immigrants represent 50% of muslims, the rest being new muslims of different nationalities, for example: Mexicans, Spanish, Italians, Colombians, Argentinians, etc.
DIFFICULTIES FACED BY MUSLIMS IN LATIN AMERICA
1. Lack of knowledge of the islamic culture and religion.
2. Random practice of the religion by some. There was also a high degree of impotence at not being able to maintain their islamic identity. This came about because muslims themselves did not understand Islam, trying to look and act like the societies where they live, finally imitating their traditions, losing interest in their own rights.
3. Lack of formal teaching of the arab language.
4. Lack of economic resources.
5. Lack of religious guides who spoke Spanish, and knew the traditions of the countries where they spread the Da’wah.
6. Lack of help for kids and adolescents.
7. Lack of a commission to administer islamic property (Uaqf).
8. Lack of islamic and arab secondary schools.
9. Lack of islamic material in Spanish.
10. Lack of coordination in the activities of islamic institutions.
11. Lack of communication among muslims in all aspects: individual, in the family, and among institutions and organizations.
12. Lack of frequency of conferences and religious gatherings.
13. Lack of trained personnel in charge of liasing with the press.
14. Local media showing a wrong image of Islam and of muslims.
After exposing the different problems and mentioning how muslims were scattered or absorbed by the traditions of the countries which sheltered them, especially in the acts of the muslims’ daily life, such as marriage, funerals, burials and others, till they lost their identity. In spite of all this, thank God, many groups maintained their identity and did everything possible to return to their religious origins. These groups worked hard in order to change that situation.
Then the problem stops being impossible to solve and not all is lost. Today many members of the islamic community participate in islamic congresses round the world, young muslims study at muslim universities in the arab countries, and many others keep their islamic religion and traditions, and wish to increase threir knowledge of it.
We can also see that the number of people embracing Islam grows day by day. There are many people in Latin America who are permanently looking for new spiritual paths; we have noticed that people in these countries feel a great void, and the lack of response of other faiths to people’s needs.
The situation for islamic work and the development of Da’wa is a good one at this time, not only to help the muslims from the loss they are experiencing, but also to offer others this religion based on tolerance and faith.
In view of this situation we have gathered the islamic responsible of 19 (nineteen) countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in the year 1997 in Buenos Aires, and we have achieved -Al Hamdu Lillah- the formation of the ‘Islamic Association for Latin America’.
In these last years of hard work we have achieved:
*The edition of various books in Spanish, done by young Latin American muslims graduated from islamic universities, for example:’Funerals in Islam’, ‘The Exemplar Caliphs’, ‘Prophet Muhammad’s companions (PyB)’, the translation of ‘Muslim Sahih Volumes 1 and 2’, ‘Islamic Jurisprudence’, ‘leaflets on Human rights’, some on the ‘Tauhid’, a web page in Spanish for all Latin muslims (www.islamerica.org.ar)
*The first videotape entirely in Spanish ‘The pillars of Islam’, an explanatory educational C.Drom ‘The Islamic library’ , etc.
*Recognition of various islamic institutions from the Latin American local authorities.
*Sending of Latin brothers to the Pilgrimage in representation of Islamic Communities.
*The inclusion of this organization among the most important islamic institutions in the world. *Participation in world forums and seminars on muslims in Latin America.
*Massive distribution of all material in Spanish on Islam.
*Sending of Latin young men to study at islamic universities.
*Return of many of them to their countries of origin, with the corresponding acknowledgement to develop the Da’wa.
*Recognition by government authorities (for example in Argentina) of holy days for the islamic community, including the islamic new year.
*Plant the feeling of responsibility among our young people, as they are citizens of the country where they live and enjoy all privileges and rights, to use them to reach positions of relevance in different government agencies and their different specializations in order to bring benefits to the community as a whole. As an example of this we can mention the Argentine former president, descendant of a muslim family, many governors, senators, representatives and other positions of importance taken by muslims.
*Face the defense of the muslim community before world organizations like the United Nations, and the human rights commission.
Dear brothers and sisters:
If we can elaborate and maintain a common and precise work plan which we can execute and supervise through our islamic structures, we will be able to go back on the situation completely. Let us not forget that there are many people who are not muslims looking for new religious options. Considering the situation the world is facing today, the void people feel and the lack of someone to provide an answer to their needs are constantly latent.
All muslims in Latin America must get together, and follow an intensive program of conferences, meetings, studies, educational gatherings, taking advantage of this meeting that joins us today. Once it has been evaluated and studied, this program can reach young muslims in this part of the world and receive a high acceptance and understanding from them.
We could also edit a newspaper for the Latin islamic community, in our own language using our own resources.
We must incentive the community in the places where islamic societies or centers are non-existent.
We must uphold islamic education and teaching, particularly taking care of the younger generations, starting with a program to teach the arab language and the principles of Islam. We must prepare our young on the basis of the understanding of the Coran and the islamic law with their correct meanings.
We must cooperate in the building of mosques in the places where islamic communities suffer the lack of them.
We must publish, in all possible media, the true Islam and try to dismiss its detraction.
We must cooperate in the creation of a fund for humanitarian help to the old, the poor and the sick. We must unify the attitude of all muslims in subjects like marriage, funerals, burials, etc.
We must stimulate the feeling of responsibility in muslims, motivating them into participating and donating according to their possibilities, to achieve self-funding of our projects, as it is very difficult for the islamic community to move forward counting only on outside help.
We must incentive the activities at the mosques, so that they can perform their true roles and not only that of a place to pray and commemorate events.
Finally, I would like to thank in the name of all countries that form the Islamic Organization for Latin America and in my name the brothers of The Arab Union of Cuba and all the people who worked to make this possible the Third International Symposium ‘The Arab and Islamic Prescences in America’. Allah-Subhanahu wa Ta’ala illumine the heart of all those responsible for the spread of the Arabic and Islamic culture, for the benefit of so many women, children, old people and families in this part of the world, who expect fruitful decisions to arise from this meeting.
As a last prayer to Allah, Allmighty, our eternal thanks.
Wassalamu ‘alaikum wa Rahmatullah
Arquitecto Muhammad Yusuf Hallar
Secretary General of the Islamic Organization for Latin America
Director of the Office of Islamic Culture- Argentina
Members of the Constituent Islamic Council of the Muslim World League (Makka)
Member of Expert Committee on Minority Rights- Islamic Conference (OIC)