Muslims have settled in rural Mexico and converted at least 500 locals, mostly indigenous Mayans, to Islam in the impoverished state of Chiapas. The conversions are still ongoing but began in the 1996 as Europeans arrived in the aftermath of civil conflict in the region.
Deep in southern Mexico, one does not expect to find Islam. Mexico is a very Catholic country although protestants, Jehovah Witnesses, and Mormons have made significant inroads there. Islam arrived in Chiapas brought by activist Europeans who came to rebuild the troubled communities.
The first arrivals came in 1996 just as the government started peace talks with the Zapatista rebels. Many locals were converted to evangelical Christianity, at the urging of missionaries from the U.S. and Europe, but Muslims quickly followed and spread a different message beside the Bible. Local converts explain that the Muslims and their families that settled in Chiapas have brought opportunities as well as faith to the people.
Among the opportunities are work–for a price. People who convert to Islam are frequently given jobs, which means a stable income. It is mostly Spanish-Muslims that have settled and established restaurants and carpentry shops, and are responsible for most of the conversions, although the sect’s spiritual leader is reportedly a Muslim from Scotland.
In a popular move, the some of the Muslims have proceeded to align themselves with the Zapatistas, and echo their message of rebellion. With this, the Muslim outsiders quickly became insiders amongst the impoverished people. They have spread a message that is anti-capitalist, anti-government, and that people ought to return to the traditional life of Mohammed.
The traditional life appeals to many who say such ways are also the ways of their ancestors. While acknowledging such ways are primitive, several converts simply say they are more comfortable living in that way and that modern western practices are unnatural for them.
Many complain that evangelical Christianity does not offer enough. Wanting community, and more than just the Bible, newly arrived Muslims have satisfied the people’s desires where evangelicals did little by comparison.
The indigenous Mayan people of Chiapas are ripe for conversion. They have been largely dissatisfied with their treatment at the hands of the government who they accuse of seizing land and aligning with wealthy interests at the expense of the native peoples. They claim such abuse has always been.
Associating Christianity with the establishment, and with their native religion long extinct and impractical, many are more than willing to take up the Quran and listen to a different message.
In the village of San Cristobal de las Casas, local Muslims have built a mud hut for a mosque and they gather there regularly to pray. Local Muslin immigrants have even paid to send converts on pilgrimages to Mecca.
Mexican-Muslims say they are happy with their conversions. They claim their community is close-knit and relatively free of vice. Such benefits are doubtless attractive to the poor and often troubled people of the region. For now, there are only 500 converts in the region, but with ongoing strife and a continuing influx of Muslims, those numbers are likely to change.