The Spiritual Journey of Chiapas’ Tzotzil Maya to Islam


SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS (Nov. 4 2003)–Inside the dusty compound behind the forbidding, no-nonsense walls of the Sheik Hamden bin Rashid al Makoum mosque and madrassa (Islamic training center), the faithful are summoned to prayer five times a day. Like good Muslims everywhere on earth, these Tzotzil Indian converts to Islam who live in community here study their Korans, eschew pork, honor Ramadan, and dream of making their hajj to Mecca. “There is only one God and his name is Allah,” announce the walls of the mosque just outside San Cristobal de las Casas, the throne of the Mayan highlands of Chiapas.

Islam, the fastest-growing religion on the planet, long ago expanded beyond the Arab world–indeed, only 18% of the world’s Islamic population of 1.3 billion believers are rooted in the Middle East. Muslims proselytize on the five continents today, and the deeply spiritual Mayan mountain villages of this impoverished, heavily Indian southern state are no exception. For the 40-odd Tzotzil Indian families that have grouped together here, conversion to Islam has been one more step on a long and complicated religious journey.

Most are natives of San Juan Chamula in the saw-toothed mountains above San Cristobal, an idiosyncratic Catholic municipality characterized by a fanatical devotion to its saints, and an intense thirst for posh–sugar cane alcohol–which saturates the local social fabric. Indeed, public and private drunkenness in the name of God is so pervasive that the San Cristobal diocese, then under the stewardship of liberation theologist Samuel Ruiz Garcia, pulled its priests out of Chamula 10 years ago. Unfazed, the elders hired an oft-tipsy, defrocked padre, Lorenzo Mijangos, with ties to the Greek Orthodox and National Catholic Church (the latter an ersatz entity established by anti-Catholics in the 1920s) to officiate at baptisms and weddings.

But since the presidency of leftist Lazaro Cardenas(1934-40), himself a Mason, who sought to break the chokehold of the Catholic Church upon Chamula by importing the evangelical Protestant Summer Language Institute to supervise the town’s education system, Chamula has been a hotbed of born-again preaching that has set the region on fire.

At the nub of this long-simmering religious feud is the trago–the mandatory imbibing of posh–to which the Evangelicals, hard-nosed abstainers, are adamantly opposed. Accused of violating Chamulan traditional uses and customs, the Evangelicos have been shot at, gunned down, burnt out, and forced into exile. Over the past quarter of a century, 30,000 Tzotziles have been expelled from San Juan Chamula for their religious beliefs. Most have moved just down the mountain and settled on the outskirts of San Cristobal in colonies like Nueva Esperanza (“New Hope”) and the notorious La Hormiga (“The Ant”), a born-again Christian casbah where drugs, guns, and stolen cars are the staples of economic life.

The Sheik Hamden bin Rashid al Makoum mosque sits at the foot of La Hormiga in the midst of a haphazardly arranged religious ghetto that features at least seven Evangelical congregations and templos like “The Strong Fort Pentecostal House of Prayer.” The Roman Catholic Church looks down its nose at such religious expressions, dismissing them as sectas (sects).

Chiapas is one of the least Catholic states in the Mexican union. Although nationally the Roman Catholics claim 90% plus of the general population, in Chiapas, only 67% profess allegiance– 23% list membership in one Protestant schism or another, and 10% more call themselves spiritualists, non-believers or members of non-Christian churches. The strength of the sectas here is mainly a matter of geographical propinquity–many spread across the border from Guatemala, where US missionaries have long found fertile ground–Guatemala has the highest per capita Evangelical population in all of Latin America, and even spawned the continent’s first Evangelical dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, who is deemed responsible for liquidating tens of thousands of Indians in the early 1980s.

Other non-Catholic Christian denominations with sizable numbers in Chiapas include the National Presbyterian Church, established in the 1920s–nearly 100 members of the church were convicted of perpetrating the massacre of liberation Catholics at Acteal, Christmas 1997.

In response to the Protestant assault on its hegemony over the saving of Indian souls, the San Cristobal diocese under Bishop Ruiz built its own Indian church, a virtual army of 9,000 catechists and deacons which practices rites and rituals rooted in Mayan tradition. During four decades at the helm of the diocese, Ruiz struck common cause with the Evangelical explusados against the renegade Catholics of Chamula, an echo of the old Italian Mafia parading that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In recent years, the most aggressive leaders of the Chamulan Evangelicals have been lay preachers Manuel Collazo and Domingo Lopez Angel, a pistol-packing ex-deputy for the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in the Chiapas congress–he has since been expelled >from both bodies. Both men are reputed to have a piece of the Hormiga action and were collared during a military raid in that rough-and-tumble colony in 1998 and imprisoned by then-governor Roberto Albores Guillen in the state’s maximum lockup, Cerro Hueco. Whereas Collazo won his freedom by pledging the votes of his followers to Albores’ then- ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in local elections, Lopez Angel was not for sale. Instead he holed up in his narrow cell with a Koran a local merchant had tendered him. Soon, like Malcom X in another dungeon, Domingo saw the light and accepted Allah as his savior. When the ex-Evangelical finally exited Cerro Hueco, he took his flock to Islam.

The messengers of Allah in San Cristobal are not Tzotzil Indians themselves. In fact, they are more akin to the Spanish Conquistadores of these lands, natives of Andalusia, itself a one-time Muslim enclave on the Iberian Peninsula. Esteban Lopez and Aurillano Perez appeared in San Cristobal in the early 1990s, carpenters and bread-makers whose intricate, natural grain loaves soon found a commercial constituency. Both are married to Indian woman and have many children. Their natural food restaurant, “La Alpujara,” occupies a choice corner of downtown real estate and provides jobs for Muslim Tzotzil youth.

But the Spaniards’immigration statuses are vague, admits a lawyer who sometimes defends them, and they are apparently only allowed to stay in Mexico because of their large families and business ties. The mosque was founded two years ago, soon after Lopez Angel’s conversion, but it has never been registered with the government’s Sub-Secretariat of Religions, as required by law.

The two are under constant surveillance from the authorities, reveals their sometimes attorney, Amado Avendano. The Spanish Muslims were hauled in by immigration agents during a 1995 crackdown on the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation(EZLN), and the Sheik Hamden mosque is reported to have ties to a mysterious, militant farmworkers group, the Lombardista National Agrarian Union, or UNAL, named for a long-dead Communist, whose leaders all have taken Muslim names.

With rumors flying wildly about the mosque’s ulterior motives, Lopez and Perez are understandably leery of interviews, screen their phone calls and are permanently out of town to the press. Several television hit pieces have tainted mosque members as “terrorists.”

Esteban Lopez is a serious, dark-bearded man who exudes suspicion on the morning he encounters a US reporter reading the messages on the mosque’s walls. He is accompanied by an equally serious companion who clutches a Koran and has come to Chiapas from the Mexico City Islamic Cultural Center to teach a class in the madrassa. Before they disappear into the compound, the reporter is able to ask a few questions.

What is the Tzotzil connection to Islam?

“The indigenas are connected to nature…they see God in their forests and their mountains–and Islam means `the natural way,'” Lopez instructs. “Christianity broke this connection to nature but Islam restores it heart to heart…Islam is the last and most complete message from God…it is for all people, all races, all men and women…”

What is the role of women in the mosque? “Our women are modest and keep their heads covered by a shawl–they are not veiled and we do not force them to wear the burqa…we are not the Taliban,” the Spaniard responds humorlessly.

In its two years of operation, the Sheik Hamden mosque has attracted 500 converts, mostly Indians, but many have fallen away. “There are many pressures,” Lopez gestures at the neighboring Christian churches.

San Cristobal’s Muslims have been particularly vigilant since the Sept. 11 terror attack on New York and Washington, allegedly by Islamic militants, and anticipate harassment by authorities and neighbors as the bombing of Afghanistan intensifies. Indeed, the Evangelical leader Manuel Collazo has accused the members of the mosque of being supporters of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist gang.

Although Mexico has traditionally been a safe port for immigrants from the Middle East, most Arabs who arrive on these shores are Christians. One example: the governor of Oaxaca, Jose Murat Casab, is the offspring of Iraqi Christians. The powerful Lebanese Christian community has consolidated great wealth and commercial power–Alfredo Harp Helu is the president of Mexico’s oldest bank (recently sold to Citigroup), and his cousin, Carlos Slim, owner of Telmex communications, the telephone monopoly, is the richest tycoon in Latin America, with a fortune of $8 billion USD, according to Forbes Magazine–Slim is related by marriage to an important Christian Falange family, thought to be responsible for the 1983 mass killing of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. By contrast, Mexico’s tiny Islamic community (5,000) is not particularly Arabic (half are Mexicans), with the largest congregation (400) grouped around the Islamic Culture Center in Mexico City (other centers function in Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Torreon).

Penelope is a middleclass international trade student who abandoned the Catholic Church because “it is a hypocritical institution.” “In Islam, I have found where I belong,” she tells the daily Reforma.

But Penelope may soon have to find a new place to practice her religion. The Mexico City Islamic Cultural Center has repeatedly had its windows smashed and receives daily death threat telephone calls in a spasm of bin Laden bashing. The center’s British-born Imam Omar Walton pleads for tolerance: “It is not fair to threaten all Muslims because of the actions of one man. Hitler was a Catholic but we do not condemn all Catholics…”

IslamOnline link