The Threat of Religious Radicalism in Guyana

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 15

The potential threat of radical Islamist infiltration in Latin America and the Caribbean is attracting increasing attention following the September 11 attacks. The region is already plagued by criminality. Local and international organized crime syndicates with a hand in the drug trade, money laundering, human and weapons trafficking, counterfeit goods and document fraud, as well as legitimate business interests, exert tremendous influence on regional affairs. Widespread corruption and poverty, institutional weakness and fluctuating levels of political instability also make the region ripe for infiltration by international terrorist organizations. Although largely underreported due to a lack concrete proof and widely varying assessments as to the true scope and nature of the threat, there is evidence that radical Islamist organizations have a presence in the region.

As a result, the region’s small but diverse and dynamic ethnic Arab and Muslim communities have come under increasing scrutiny by local and international security officials. Al-Qaeda’s documented international success in winning ideological sympathizers to its cause is one point of concern. Osama bin Laden’s ability to inspire sympathizers with no direct links to al-Qaeda to act independently and take action in furthering their own radical agendas through the use of violence in their home countries and elsewhere also raises alarm bells. Given al-Qaeda’s ability to lure certain Islamic converts to its cause, growing Muslim conversion trends in the region are also raising fears among some observers about the nature and intentions of Muslim converts.

Given this context, it is worth examining the nature of Islam and the outlook of Muslims in Guyana, one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse countries in the Western hemisphere. Little scholarly research or journalistic coverage exists on the subject. Despite its modest population, Guyana boasts one of the largest percentages of Muslims out of its total population in the Western hemisphere. It is also a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

It is important to note that there is no substantive evidence to date pointing to a nascent radical threat in Guyana. Guyana did make headlines, however, when local sources reported sightings of Adnan G. El Shukrijumah in the region in 2003, a known al-Qaeda operative whose whereabouts remain unknown. Many believe that Shukrijumah was born in Saudi Arabia to a Guyanese father and a Saudi mother, although some sources report that he was born in Guyana (Guyana Chronicle, March 26, 2003). U.S. and regional security and intelligence officials believe that Shukrijumah may have used a Guyanese passport to pass through one or both countries and elsewhere in the region as well (Guyana Chronicle, August 2003).

David “Buffy” Millard, also known as Mustapha Abdullah Muhammad, an Afro-Trinidadian Muslim convert and member of Trinidad and Tobago’s Jamaat al-Muslimeen wanted on charges of conspiracy to commit the murder of two former Jamaat members on the orders of Imam Yasin Abu Bakr, is believed to have been hiding in Guyana since 2003. He was recently arrested by Guyanese authorities and extradited to Trinidad to face charges (Stabroek News, May 7).

Islam in Guyana

Guyana’s sizeable Muslim community, estimated to number between 10 and 12 percent of the country’s population of nearly 800,000, boasts a long and rich history that stems back to the slave trade. West African Muslim slaves are believed to have been the first Muslims in Guyana. There is even evidence of popular slave rebellions led by Muslims. East Indians, who represent the vast majority of Guyana’s Muslim community, were brought to Guyana as indentured servants by British colonial authorities in the 1800s to satisfy local demands for labor following the abolition of slavery. Guyanese Muslims trace their origins to South Asia, in particular India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and are known locally as East Indians or Hindustanis. The majority of Guyana’s East Indian community, however, is Hindu and, to a lesser extent, Christian. Most Muslims are Sunni, while a minority belongs to the Shiite branch of the faith [1].

Guyana is also home to followers of the Ahmadiyya movement, a sect claiming to be Muslim that originated in India in the late 1800s and continues to count a small following in contemporary Pakistan and other parts of South Asia (http://www.aaiil.org). Many Sunni Muslims consider Ahmadis as heretics. Ahmadis have been the target of violent attacks by Sunni extremists in Pakistan and Bangladesh (http://www.thepersecution.org).

East Indian Guyanese Muslims are well organized. They also look to a host of religious associations, many of which maintain close links with their counterparts in India, Pakistan and parts of the Middle East, including influential centers of Muslim learning such as Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque and university (http://www.alazhar.org). These include the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT, http://www.gitgy.com) and the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana (CIOG, http://www.ciog.org.gy). GIT and CIOG and other groups organize religious schools, social services and charity, language training in Urdu and Arabic, publications and other programs.

Activism and Identity

Guyanese Muslims pay close attention to the issues affecting Muslims abroad, especially the plight of the Palestinians, and the conflicts in Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines and Chechnya, among others. Local organizations often host prominent Muslim scholars from South Asia and the Arab world as a means of encouraging solidarity and identification with the global ummah (the Muslim community). Guyanese Muslims also maintain close ties with the sizeable Guyanese community in the United States. Some groups such as GIT have raised funds for Muslim charities operating in the Balkans during the period of conflict and other regions.

Guyanese Muslim organizations feel empowered when it comes to influencing Guyanese foreign and domestic policy. CIOG has gone so far as to call on the Guyanese government to cut ties to Israel and has undertaken projects in Guyana on behalf of a number of influential Arab and Muslim charities based in the Middle East [2]. It is also a vocal critic of corruption and racism in Guyanese society (Stabroek News, April 11).

CIOG and other organizations organized protests against the controversial publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in European newspapers and called on all Muslims to do whatever they could to defend the honor of the Prophet. CIOG also lent its support to small Muslim organizations in the Caribbean in their efforts to stage protests, including Grenada’s Islamic Foundation (Caribbean Net News, February 13). Guyanese Muslims in general also maintain close ties to Muslims elsewhere in the Americas and are active in regional events such as the annual Caribbean Muslim Forum (http://www.centralzakah.org).

Despite theological and ideological disputes and rivalries, Muslim organizations in Guyana in general have a history of tolerance and unity. For instance, Guyanese Muslims were in consensus in their protest of the findings of the 2002 census that omitted the percentage of Muslims out of the total population. Some saw this as an intentional move on the part of the government to downplay or ignore the growing Guyanese Muslim community. Guyana is home to a small but reportedly growing community of recent converts to Islam from among East Indian Hindus, Christians and Afro-Guyanese (Stabroek News, October 19, 2005).

Muslims united in 2005 to protest the opening of a bar and restaurant serving alcohol opposite a mosque. The owner’s decision to include halal (permissible) meals was seen as an irresponsible provocation against the Muslim community and a break from what one local source calls Guyana’s unwritten tradition of respecting the sanctity of places of worship (Guyana Chronicle, October 20, 2005). A number of leading local Muslim organizations, including the Muslim Youth League of Guyana (MYL), Guyana United Sadr Islamic Anjuman (GUSIA), Guyana Islamic Forum (GIF), among others, have also set aside their ideological differences in issuing joint statements condemning the use of violence and terrorism following major terrorist attacks such as the bombings in Madrid (http://www.indocaribbeanworld.com, March 24, 2004).

Guyana’s complex ethnic composition and often tense race-based political landscape pitting East Indians versus Guyanese of African origin have also influenced the outlook and identity of Guyanese Muslims. East Indians comprise approximately half of Guyana’s population while Afro-Guyanese represent a little over one-third. Indigenous Amerindians and others of mixed ethnicity make up the rest of the population. As a result of their common origins and plight as indentured laborers, most Guyanese Muslims tend to identify closely with their East Indian Hindu and Christian kin (Stabroek News, October 19, 2005). In many respects, East Indian ethnic identity trumps sectarian affiliation. Significantly, the same trend can be found in other parts of the region that are home to sizeable East Indian Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities, namely Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname.

In April 2004 Muhammed Hassan Abrahemi, an Iranian Shiite cleric affiliated with Guyana’s International Islamic College of Advanced Studies (IICAS) in the capital Georgetown, was abducted by armed assailants. Abrahemi’s decomposed body turned up buried in a shallow grave approximately a month later just outside of Georgetown. Guyanese police and Iranian investigators who assisted in the search have not uncovered the motive for the crime. Targeted kidnappings for ransom by violent street gangs is a serious and growing problem in crime-ridden Guyana, but local authorities report that no demands for ransom were ever made. Some sources suggest rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims may have played a role in prompting the attack, however, no conclusive evidence has surfaced supporting these claims. Nevertheless, the incident did raise concerns among Guyana’s minority Shiite community and Tehran. Some Shiite Guyanese accused the government of being indifferent to the interests and concerns of Guyanese Shiites in order to placate the much larger and more influential Sunni Muslim community (Caribbean Net News, May 4, 2004).

Conclusion

Despite a lack of hard evidence implicating extremist elements operating in Guyana, many observers worry that radical ideologies will find resonance among Guyanese Muslims and others in the region. In many respects, these concerns mirror growing fears of al-Qaeda’s ability to inspire Muslims and potentially others across the globe to its cause. By all accounts, the potential threat of radicalism in Guyana should be seen in this context and not as a unique case. Nevertheless, Guyana’s porous borders and growing problem with violent crime remain a concern, especially as its security and intelligence capabilities are overwhelmed, thus presenting a potential opening for radical Islamists to gain a foothold.

Notes

1. Raymond Chickrie, “Muslims in Guyana: History, Traditions, Conflict and Change,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (Vol. 19, No. 2 October 1999).

2. See Raymond Chickrie, “History of Politicking of Islamic Organizations in Guyana,” http://www.guyana.org/features/Guyana_Islam_org.May2006.pdf.