MEXICO – A growing number of Mayan indigenous people are converting to Islam, mixing the Islamic beliefs with their traditions and history.
“We had a bad image of Muslims [sic], but now we see that they are very kind people, and above all, they are caring and respect others,” Roberto, a Mayan Muslim, says in a documentary by the online media company Zoomin.TV Latinoamérica, Global Voices reported on Tuesday, September 5.
The Mayan people live in the Southern Mexican state of Chiapas, known for having a diverse population of people from various ethnic and faith group.
Recent media reports showed the Tzotzil communities from San Cristobal de las Casas have witnessed a rise in conversions to the Islamic faith.
In a time when indigenous groups are already targets of racism and discrimination, these recent conversions to Islam have brought to the surface debates surrounding the complexity of identity as well as a rise in online attacks from those who fear what these changes might mean in Mexico.
“They think that [we use the headscarf because] we have something on our heads. One example of things they say is that they have lice,” Mayan Muslim Soraya says.
“Every time that I go out wearing the headscarf…no-one asks questions, but they give you looks… they say to me that it is bad, that I’m a terrorist,” another Muslim, Layla, added.
Despite these problems, members of other faith groups and residents of San Cristóbal recognize that Tzotzil Muslims are peaceful members of the community and are figures that combat stereotypes about Islam.
While the Mayan Muslims in Chiapas have been receiving extra attention as of late, the Tzotzil reversion to Islam has been underway for some time.
It started in the mid-1990s when a group of Spanish Muslims embarked to Latin America to spread the word; their leader was Aureliano Perez, who is now known by the Maya-Muslims as Emir Nafia.
He offered the Zapatista rebels fighting under Subcomandante Marcos, whom Perez supported, an ideological-religious alliance.
Though Marcos was hesitant to enter the pact, the Tzotzil Indians, who made up the majority of the Zapatista rebels, were quite open to Islam and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
The number of Muslims in Mexico surged from just 1,421 in 2000 to 3,760 in 2010, while in Chiapas it grew from 45 to 110 in that decade.
Experts believe that there are now 300-500 Muslims in Chiapas.
The growing number of Muslims has been worrying the Catholic church, which sees itself losing control in the city.
Chiapas is the least Catholic state in the world’s second-biggest Roman Catholic country after Brazil.
While 82 percent of Mexico’s population of 120 million people are Catholic, only 58 percent identify with Catholicism in Chiapas, according to the 2010 census.