The ongoing controversy surrounding the debate over illegal immigration and border security issues in the United States, specifically as it applies to the porous U.S.-Mexico frontier and the status of millions of undocumented workers and other migrants that enter the country each year from Mexico, continues to dominate headlines. Although the overwhelming majority of those entering the United States from Mexico each day are in search of opportunity, many observers worry that it is only a matter of time before al-Qaeda exploits this vulnerability for its own ends.
In assessing this threat, Muslim communities in Mexico have come under increasing scrutiny by U.S., Mexican and international security officials both as potential enablers for terrorist infiltration and as ideological sympathizers for the brand of radicalism characteristic of al-Qaeda. Muslim conversion trends in Mexico and Latin America have also raised concerns, especially given al-Qaeda’s successes in luring some Muslim converts to its cause. To date, however, these assessments have been way off the mark and in many respects divert attention away from the far more pressing threats at hand. A closer look at the nature of Islam and the outlook of Mexican Muslims may explain why.
Islam in Mexico
Compared to other countries in Latin America that are home to sizeable Muslim communities with longstanding ties to the region, Mexico’s Muslim minority is tiny. At the same time, it is one of the most diverse and dynamic in the region. Despite varying figures and scant data, only a couple thousand Muslims are believed to live in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. Nearly all are Sunni Muslims. Of this group, approximately half trace their origins to what is modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, mostly the descendants of traders and peasants who emigrated from the Middle East in the latter part of Ottoman rule. Mexico’s Arab Muslim community is assimilated in major urban centers such as Mexico City. Significantly, Mexico is also home to a much larger Arab Christian community, also originating from the Levant, which numbers in the tens of thousands. Both communities share close ties and feel a shared sense of pride for their common Arab heritage .
The other segment of Mexico’s small Muslim community is made up of Mexicans who converted to Islam in recent years. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, partially as a result of intermarriage and religious conversion. This trend is also evident elsewhere in Latin America, despite the longstanding influence of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, widespread and growing disenchantment with the Catholic Church is leading many Mexicans and others in the region to find spiritual solace elsewhere, including Islam.
One of Mexico’s longest running and most influential Muslim organizations is the Centro Cultural Islamico de Mexico (CCIM). Founded in 1995, the CCIM is a Sunni Muslim organization based in Mexico City. It is led by Omar Weston, a British Muslim convert who was born Mark Weston. It runs two mosques and an array of social welfare and education programs that include Arabic language training and a dawa (call) for conversion. It also has links with Muslim communities elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean (http://www.islam.com.mx). Despite some vague and unsubstantiated reports, there is no evidence implicating Weston and the CCIM to radicalism or terrorism.
Mexico is also home to a number of small Sufi orders led by two women, Sheikha Fariha and Sheikha Amina, the most prominent being the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order, a branch of the Halveti-Jerrahi Tariqat community of dervishes based in the Masjid al-Farah in New York City and other major U.S. cities. The group has branches in Mexico City, Curernavaca and Oaxaca (http://www.nurashkijerrahi.org). The group has been described as adhering to an unconventional blend of traditional Sufi mysticism and New Age ideologies . There is no evidence implicating these groups to radicalism or terrorism.
The Murabitun (the Almoravids, after the African Muslim dynasty that ruled North Africa and Spain in the 11th and 12th century) also has a presence in Mexico (http://www.cislamica.org). The group is a well-funded international Sufi order based in Granada, Spain that claims thousands of followers across the globe, including many European converts. It is also regarded as one of the most aggressive missionary movements in Latin America and a major rival of Omar Weston’s CCIM. It was founded in the 1970s by Sheikh Abdel Qader as-Sufi al-Murabit, a Scottish Muslim convert born Ian Dallas who was formerly a playwright and actor. Dallas is a controversial figure who, among other things, is a vocal critic of international capitalism and modern forms of finance. Although there is no evidence linking him or his organization to violence or terrorism, he has been accused of harboring pro-Nazi leanings and other radical ideologies. Othman Abu-Sahnun, an Italian Muslim convert and former ranking member of the Murabitun who had a falling out with the group, dedicates an entire website accusing his former leader of extremism, corruption and being party to alleged sinister conspiracies involving Freemasonry (http://www.murabitun.cyberummah.org).
In recent years, Mexico’s volatile and impoverished southern state of Chiapas, which is home to a predominately indigenous population that traces its ethnic and cultural lineage to the Mayans, has been the target of Muslim missionaries. The indigenous peoples of Chiapas are underserved and face severe discrimination in Mexican society. In fact, these circumstances are one of the main reasons why Evangelical and other Protestant Christian sects target them in search of new adherents, an ongoing trend in Chiapas and elsewhere in Latin America. In an effort to win over converts, Christian missionary organizations have been running social welfare and humanitarian programs for decades targeting Mexico’s indigenous communities. In doing so, they emphasize what they describe as the failure of the Roman Catholic establishment to cater to the spiritual and material needs of the people in the region, often with great success .
Muslim missionary groups, especially the Murabitun, which is led by Aurelino Perez in the region, and Omar Weston’s CCIM, use similar tactics in an effort to win over adherents in Chiapas. In addition to providing much needed social welfare and humanitarian aid, the Murabitun argue that Catholicism represents a vestige of European imperialism that is directly responsible for the destruction of Mayan culture. Likewise, Catholicism is seen as a tool of the state that is to blame for the poverty and plight of the indigenous peoples. The anti-capitalist message of the Murabitun in particular also resonates with some of the impoverished locals. Murabitun discourse even emphasizes what it describes as the close cultural and ethnic links between the indigenous peoples of the region and the Muslim Moors who once ruled Spain. Therefore, conversion to Islam represents a reversion to their original identity, essentially an assertion of cultural and ethnic identity long suppressed by European colonialism. The Murabitun went as far as to engage Subcommandante Marcos and his Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), following the group’s armed rebellion in Chiapas in 1994, in an effort to gain support (http://www.ezln.org.mx).
The number of indigenous peoples who have converted to Islam is believed to number in the hundreds. Significantly, the majority of indigenous peoples converting to Islam are among those who previously converted to Protestantism and other sects. Although religious affiliation in Chiapas tends to be more pluralistic relative to the rest of Mexico due to the influence of indigenous beliefs and customs, Mayans who turn away from the Catholic Church often face discrimination and violence. Many have even been expelled from their homes by violent gangs and are now known locally as the expulsados (the expelled). For example, many of the Muslims of Chiapas trace their lineage to the Tzotzil Mayan village of San Juan Chamula. A large segment of this community was expelled decades ago for adopting Evangelical Christianity. They now reside in Nueva Esperanza, an impoverished section of San Cristobal .
In addition to the Murabitun, Muslim missionary activity in San Cristobal has been attributed to the efforts of a group known as the Mission for Dawa in Mexico, represented locally by Esteban Lopez Moreno, a Muslim convert from Spain who is also linked to the Murabitun . Organizations such as the Murabitun and other Muslim groups line up alongside Pentecostals, Jehova’s Witnesses, Mormons and other proselytizers in the hunt for new adherents. Under these circumstances, impoverished locals will often convert to a new faith based on which congregation could provide the most benefits. Many, however, take their newfound faith seriously. With the financial support of local and international groups, Mayan Muslims made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2005, the first group from Chiapas to do so .
Reports pointing to possible terrorist links with Muslim missionaries in Chiapas have surfaced in the Mexican and Spanish media. Spanish authorities have raised suspicions about possible links between Spanish members of the Murabitun living in Chiapas and radical Islamists in Spain. Other reports have even linked the group with Basque separatist movements such as ETA. Othman Abu-Sahnun is a proponent of this theory (http://www.murabitun.cyberummah.org). Mexican authorities have also investigated the activities of the Murabitun due to reports of alleged immigration and visa abuses involving the group’s European members and possible radical links, including to al-Qaeda . Despite these allegations and extensive media hype in Mexico and other Spanish-language press, no concrete evidence has surfaced to date substantiating such claims.
U.S. policymakers and security officials should continue to worry about border security and the potential for al-Qaeda infiltration into Mexico. Given the evidence to date, however, any potential inroads by al-Qaeda into Mexico is not likely to come through ties with Mexico’s Muslim community—and this includes local converts or otherwise. Washington would be better served by concentrating its resources to confront Mexico’s weak institutions, corruption, the influence of drug and other criminal gangs and poverty that may be exploited by al-Qaeda as a means to a greater end, as they have all too often in other parts of the world.
1. Luz Maria Martinez Montiel, “The Lebanese Community in Mexico: its Meaning, Importance and the History of its Communities,” The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1993).
2. Natascha Garvin, “Conversion and Conflict: Muslims in Mexico,” International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World Review [Netherlands], Spring 2005).
3. Thelma Gomez Duran, “Muslalmanes en Chiapas,” WebIslam: Islam en Latinoamerica, No. 132, July 20, 2001.
4. Bill Weinberg, “Islamic Sect Targets Chiapas Indians,” Native Americas Journal, August 28, 2003.
5. “Los musulmanes del sureste mexicano,” Univison, October 4, 2004.
6. Dawn, January 28, 2005.
7. Natascha Garvin, “Conversion and Conflict: Muslims in Mexico.”