Saturday, June 03, 2006

Mexico's Muslims

In the latest issue of Jamestown's Terrorism Monitor there's a fascinating article by Chris Zambelis on the background and history of Islam and Islamic radicalism in Mexico. Although Mexico's Muslim community is a tiny one, Zambelis notes that
it is one of the most diverse and dynamic in the region. Despite varying figures and scant data, only a couple of thousand Muslims are believed to live in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. Nearly all are Sunni Muslims. Of this group, approximately half trace their origins to what is modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, mostly the descendants of traders and peasants who emigrated from the Middle East in the latter part of Ottoman rule. Mexico's Arab Muslim community is assimilated in major urban centers such as Mexico City. Significantly, Mexico is also home to a much larger Arab Christian community, also originating from the Levant, which numbers in the tens of thousands. Both communities share close ties and feel a shared sense of pride for their common Arab heritage.
The other part of Mexico's small Muslim minority is composed, Zambelis writes, of Mexicans who have become disillusioned with Roman Catholicism and have converted to Islam - though this is only one of several religions which have acquired new adherents in the country in recent years.

The article gives a short survey of the different Muslim groups in Mexico - the CCIM (Centro Cultural Islamico de México), a Sunni Muslim organization led by a British Muslim convert; some small Sufi orders; and a few Muslim missionary groups in Southern Mexico, notably Chiapas, where Mayans who have turned away from Catholicism are often threatened with violence and reprisals. In the South, Islamic missionaries compete with Pentecostalists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants and other religious groups which are all working to essentially the same agenda. Zambelis sees little evidence of links between the Muslim missionaries and radical Islamic organizations such as al-Qaeda, links that have been much hyped in the Mexican and U.S. Spanish-language press and media. In conclusion, he observes:
U.S. policymakers and security officials should continue to worry about border security and the potential for al-Qaeda infiltration into Mexico. Given the evidence to date, however, any potential inroads by al-Qaeda into Mexico is not likely to come through ties with Mexico's Muslim community—and this includes local converts or otherwise. Washington would be better served by concentrating its resources to confront Mexico's weak institutions, corruption, the influence of drug and other criminal gangs and poverty that may be exploited by al-Qaeda as a means to a greater end, as they have all too often in other parts of the world.
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