restricted access 8. The Politics of Conversion to Islam in Southern Mexico
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8 The Politics of Conversion to Islam in Southern Mexico Sandra Cañas Cuevas The conversion to Islam among Mayas in southern Mexico is best understood against the backdrop of larger processes taking place in Latin America and more specifically in Mexico—namely, the crisis facing the Catholic Church and the increasing religious diversification of the population.1 In 1950 Catholics represented 98.2 percent of the population. By the year 2000 the percentage of Catholics in the country dropped 10.2 points, representing a total of 88 percent of the population. The last census carried out during the second half of 2010 reports that Catholics represent 83.9 percent, Evangelicals 7.6 percent, and other religions 2.5 percent, showing a considerable decline of 14.3 points in the number of Catholics over the course of sixty years. As official statistics reveal, this decline has remained constant for the last sixty years. At the same time, the statistics show a remarkable growth in other religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Mormons, and several other Christian churches. In addition, more people reported practicing “no religion” (4.6 percent compared to 0.60 percent reported in 1960). Interestingly, the rise in people reporting no religion, the diversification and growth of non-Catholic churches, and the decline of Catholics are more significant in the southern part of Mexico, including the state of Chiapas. While the most recent census does not show the presence of Muslims in Mexico, religious diversification taking place in the country includes the increase of Muslim converts.2 Origins of Islam in Southern Mexico Conversion to Islam among Mayas settling in the rural-urban fringes of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, began in 1995, with the arrival of a group of· 163 · 164 · Sandra Cañas Cuevas Spanish Muslim converts from Andalucía. The Zapatista uprising on January 1, 1994, was the starting point for the encounter between Mayas and Spanish Muslim converts. The converts belong to the Murabitun Movement, a da'wah (proselytizing, an invitation to Islam) movement originating in England in the 1980s.3 Interested in the Zapatista struggle, Spanish Muslim converts attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to spread the message of Prophet Muhammad among Zapatista-affiliated Maya communities. The Spanish Muslim converts believed that the Zapatista agenda shared important similarities with their own politico-religious agenda, namely, liberation from market and state oppression . However, for the Spanish Muslim converts this project could only be possible through Islam (Morquecho 2004). Despite this initial failure, Spanish Muslim converts were determined to continue their missionary project and settled at the rural-urban fringes of the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. This area has witnessed the development of several shantytowns predominantly inhabited by impoverished landless Maya peasants expelled from their original communities due to political and religious conflicts. These conflicts began in the early 1970s, when the lack of arable lands and paid jobs paved the way for increasing social differentiation within Maya communities, only to be aggravated by the presence of local corrupt leaders, known as caciques. The arrival of evangelical religions in the region played an important role in this context, becoming a means for Mayas to express their opposition to local leaders. However, in order to quell rising tides of social discontent, the caciques expelled Maya evangelical converts from their lands (Morquecho 1992; Robledo 1997). Spanish Muslim converts had more success among Mayas inhabiting these shantytowns, resulting in the conversion to Islam of approximately six hundred people in 1995 (Morquecho 2004). This conversion process to Islam took place amid the reproduction of “the old ways”; that is, the emergence of new corrupt religious and political leaders or caciques within the shantytowns , often tied to local evangelical churches. The majority of Mayas who converted to Islam did so more than fifteen years ago, in 1995, this being their second or third religious conversion experience. Before converting to Islam, they had belonged to the Presbyterian and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, respectively. Serial conversions are a common experience in the region. Throughout the centuries Mayas have organized to resist domination. In this process religion becomes an important source of support and a means to resist and contest oppression and marginalization (Reifler 1979). This conversion process took place in a national context characterized by The Politics of Conversion to Islam in Southern Mexico · 165 Mexico’s constitutional recognition in 1992 as a multicultural country, a constitutional change that recognizes the presence of ethnic groups with their own...