San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, MEXICO –Forget the Inquisition, the bloody conquest of the New World, and the expulsion of Moors from Spain 510 years ago.
In a volatile corner of southern Mexico, history is being turned on its head. Muslims settlers from Spain are running a madrassa — or traditional Koranic school– on the outskirts of a pretty colonial town in Chiapas state, where they are determined to bring renegade Maya indians to Allah. The Spaniards hope eventually to circulate their own coins, minted with bullion in Dubai, and in effect return gold to the Americas. It’s enough to make one’s head whirl like a dervish.
There are whispers that Protestant Maya men are embracing Islam so each may frolic with four young Spanish wives in order to breed new warriors for a Holy War, right on America’s doorstep. (A few of the Spanish women have borne four children within seven years, and at least one has married a Maya.) Others accuse well-heeled Gulf Arabs of buying Mayan souls by doling out food, shelter, and jobs to derelicts. (An anonymous donor from Dubai purchased the property for the Da’wa Islamic school and workshops.) Such exaggerations alternately amuse or irritate Emir Mohammad Nafia, born Aureliano Perez Iruela, an urbane Andalusian humanities professor who founded this Sufi outpost in San Cristobal de las Casas seven years ago.
“The local media have been rather hysterical about what goes on behind our walls,” he says, stroking his carefully clipped beard. “We are misunderstood. The spiritual destruction of the Maya was even worse than the physical damage inflicted by Hernan Cortes. When 16th century priests broke the Indians’ spirit, decadence began. We want to rekindle the light and root out their misery. Insh’allah”
Hostility has dogged the Spaniards since the beginning. Ever since the 1994 Zapatista peasant uprising put Chiapas on the revolutionary radar and the self-styled Emir arrived with hopes of converting the rebels to Islam, his motives have aroused suspicion. The Jesuit-schooled Subcomandante Marcos had no truck with this Spanish Muslim, who hung out at Zapatista meetings to talk Mayan artisans into marketing their wares in an Islamic style souk. So Emir Nafia began recruiting among disaffected protestants who had been expelled from their San Juan Chamula village for rejecting Catholicism.
Since the 1960s, thousands of Protestant residents have been banished by this village’s Catholic leaders, known as “traditionalists” because they mingle traditional liturgy with pre-Hispanic Maya rites. The powerful village elders won’t tolerate religious dissent, blaming it for eroding an embattled Maya culture that has barely survived. Many of the protestant villagers abandon inherited land and take refuge in the regional capital, San Cristobal de las Casas, where new arrivals are frequent. Just this week, on 19 August, 50 Chamula Catholics armed with hunting rifles opened fire on Protestant families as they took their children to the first day of classes. Five were wounded, and intimidated families fled. Islamic missionaries are willing to offer them beds, meals, and job-training.
Sipping carrot juice in an arched courtyard, Emir Nafia, 49, explains how his recent radio spots and public workshops aim to allay the Mexican public’s misconceptions about Islam, “a religion of peace.” It’s considered a very exotic creed in Chiapas state, where scores of protestant evangelical groups jostle with the Roman Catholic church for converts among 800,000 indigenous Maya, most of whom don’t speak much Spanish. Dozens of zealous converts, mostly women who wear headscarves and introduce themselves with lyrical new Islamic names such as Aisha or Salija, live in a walled compound on the north side of San Cristobal beneath the shadow of a holy Maya mountain peak. Youngsters arrive at school every day for a bath and a snack of nutella on whole wheat bread before classes start. They recite the Koran by rote, sitting cross-legged and rocking in time on a green carpet. Most of the 50 students are the offspring of Protestant parents who forsook the Catholic church in San Juan Chamula and have been marginalized in the town for generations. There is a preponderance of single mothers among the Maya women who have embraced Islam recently.
“Oh, these Chamulas change religions like they change socks,” scoffs Abdias Tovilla, head of a Protestant church coalition in San Cristobal. “As long as a church is helping them, they are happy.” New recruits are eager to join the Islamic community of 300 believers, although there has already been a split within the Islamic Maya because some object to worship with music.
San Cristobal de las Casas is no stranger to religious revivalism and revolutionary fervor. Ski-masked Zaptista rebels are based nearby at a jungle lair dubbed La Realidad (Reality), and hundreds of gap-year anti- globalists choose San Cristobal to search for themselves. Many seek radical street cred by rubbing shoulders with the pipe-smoking revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos or his Indian disciples in outlying Zapatista villages that spurn Mexican law. Because of shared rhetoric, anti- globalists in San Cristobal cybercafes might feel surprising affinity for the Da’wa Mission Muslims, even though the Muslims appear to be so conservative. The group renounces the international banking system on religious grounds. Their radical proposal of using E-dinars online until their own gold-based currency is in circulation has raised some fears among authorities that such a system could be misused for money laundering. For now, though, the sect’s distinctive gold and silver coins are used in Mexico only as jewelry or mementoes.
Tourists occasionally can mix with the Maya Muslim converts, who help run a trendy espresso bar and pizzeria, called Las Alpujarras, which offers no pork or alcohol. They do accept payment in Mexican pesos. Though the cooks and waiters pray to Mecca five times daily, service is swift. There is also a bakery and a carpentry cooperative organized by the Spanish Sufi settlers, and many of the 60 convert families live on a rough-hewn compound alongside the idealistic Islamic settlers from Granada. Their school program, which is not yet accredited, includes sewing classes for young neighborhood girls.
But New Age faddists passing through tend to get easily get distracted. Many young backpackers, decked out in amber amulets and freshly tattooed with arcane Mayan hieroglyphs, end up nibbling magic mushrooms and looking for portents around them. Born-again Maya Muslims are pointed out as a post-Millennial anomaly. What’s more, the missionaries who teach them Arabic and arrange their pilgrimages to Mecca are neo-Sufis from Granada, the last redoubt of the Moors.
Ibrahim Anastasio Gomez, a Chamula cook and Islamic convert, says learning to eat mutton on ceremonial occasions was the most daunting Muslim custom for the locals. The Chamulas tend small flocks, shearing them periodically for wool, but devouring a sheep is akin to gobbling the family pet. “It was very difficult,” he admitted, wrinkling his nose in distaste. Eventually his father, an erstwhile preacher, plus four brothers changed their names and their religion, too. Besides eating mutton, they dance at mystical Murabitun gatherings every Thursday night, chanting along to recordings by a Scottish sufi named Shaykh Abdelqadir al Murabit. (The man has a certain flair: he once played a bit part in Fellini’s film, 8 1/2. ) There’s little contact with more mainstream Mexican Muslims in the federal capital or further north in Torreon, where families with Lebanese roots have built a mosque. The reclusive Sheikh, born Ian Neil Dallas, lives outside Inverness and has been excoriated in the Scottish press for alleged past links with the neo-Nazi National Front. Under several aliases, he has been active in South Africa, Morocco, Chechnya, and the South of France.
Considerable friction has arisen because the Spaniards tout their Mediterranean diet of wheat bread, tomatoes and olive oil as far superior to the corn tortillas and beans that sustain the poor Indians of the region. Another local staple they spurn is paper currency.
Esteben Lopez Moreno, who calls himself Idris, keeps a 4.25 gram gold dinar and a smaller silver dirham, weighing 2.975 grams, carefully wrapped inside his wooden shack. The commune’s sole Arabic speaker, who leads the schoolchildren in daily recitation of the Koran, explains that these special coins are minted to their prophet’s exact specifications, and are backed by gold bullion held in Dubai and London.
To avoid promulgating what the sect calls “capitalist usury” by paying interest on promissory bank notes, the Spanish sufis are eager to promote the use of their own hard currency in 22 karat gold. Yet they usually compensate local workers with room and board, pointing out that the Koran also authorizes charity payments with grain or fruit, if there are no coins with intrinsic value. They abhor money market fluctuations as evil. To me, these dinars resemble the glittering gold coins that gypsies in Granada jangle on their hip belts. They are more than pretty, Idris tells me. Murabitun pamphlets promise that this pan- Islamic money system “will bring about the end of the kafir dominance without recourse to terrorism or even war.”
As Shaykh Dr Abdalqadir as-Sufi, Mr Dallas writes: “it will follow the self- destruction of… globalism, firstly through the mathematically impossible end-result of bank interest on debt, but inescapably through moral collapse… the coming self-destruction of the globalist rulers, as their sons increasingly murder their teachers and their fellow pupils. Already, the plane crashing into the skyscraper has become the weapon of choice of the new generation, faced with the nihilism of their parents.” Behind those guarded walls of the Islamic compound in revolutionary Chiapas, there is a radical anti-Globalist plot. I’d like to dismiss these Murabitun as devout cranks, until I remember that Spanish conquistadors fought here five centuries ago for three ends: god, glory and gold. What goes around comes around.