Islamic Sect Targets Chiapas Indians

"There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet."

So says Ibrahim Gomez, a young Tzotzil Maya man dressed in an impeccable, freshly-pressed suit and tie. This is the standard dress of the evangelical Protestant leaders in San Cristobal de Las Casas, the central city of the Chiapas Highlands. The "evangelicos" promote their sects as a positive alternative to the tradition-based Catholicism increasingly associated with poverty and oppression. But Gomez doesn’t represent any of the numerous Protestant sects targeting the local Indians for conversion. He represents a new addition to this contest for Indian souls - the Mission for Dawa in Mexico, an Islamic sect recently founded by missionaries from Spain.

The Maya Muslim converts are mostly exiles from the nearby Tzotzil village of Chamula who now live in San Cristobal, having already been expelled by their village patriarchs, or caciques, for their earlier conversion to Protestant sects. The poor barrio of Nueva Esperanza, on the north side of town, was founded by Chamula "expulsados" some 20 years ago. It is a warren of alleys, with each section clustered around a church - Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Jehova’s Witnesses, Mormons, each with their own small development program. The Mission for Dawa in Mexico has the newest and one of the largest compounds, on the main road that cuts through San Cristobal’s outskirts, overlooking the barrio. "ISLAM IS THE FINAL MESSAGE," reads the compound’s outer wall. Nearby is the mission’s carpentry workshop, which provides the converts with work and skills.

"Islam is the pure form to worship the only god," says Gomez when asked why he and his family converted from Presbyterianism to Islam. "Evangelism doesn’t harvest the fruit. Many evangelicals in Chamula don’t take responsibility for their families. The search continues. Some families have gone from Presbyterian to Pentecostal. But Islam is the seal of the prophets. Mohammed was the last, and he includes all the others."

Gomez claims there are 300 Muslims among the 10,000 expulsados in San Cristobal, mostly in Nueva Esperanza. Traditionally marginalized, these expulsados are a growing political power in the city. In the 2000 elections, for the first time the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party political machine was voted out. Populist Mayor Enoch Hernandez of the local Social Action Party was elected largely with the support of Nuevo Espernaza.

Dawa means more or less what evangelism means in the Christian tradition - spreading of the word of God. Esteban Lopez Moreno, secretary of the Mission for Dawa in Mexico says the group was founded six years ago. He says they chose to work with the Indians of Chiapas because they are fitra - an Islamic term meaning the primal, natural, and uncorrupted form of life. "The Indigenous recognize Islam as the truth," he says.

Adds Ibrahim: "The Indigenous are searching for God. This is our natural gift." Ibrahim is married to Yanna Lopez Rejón, a young convert from Spain, with whom he has just had a baby.

The Mission leaders say they have been misrepresented in the press. Last June, AP reported that several foreign missionaries working for the Islamic group had been ordered to leave Mexico because they lacked proper documents. The report cited Javier Moctezuma Barragan, assistant secretary of the National Immigration Institute, as saying the missionaries - including Basque converts to Islam from Spain - had never applied for status as a religious organization. He also reportedly said authorities began investigating the group following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But the written request that they leave was based only on immigration violations, not terrorism concerns. Moctezuma Barragan did not specify how many missionaries had been asked to leave.

Lopez Moreno denied that any members of their group had been expelled. But he did say that the Mission’s leader, Aureliano Perez Yruela, was out of the country. Press reports improbably claimed that Perez was deported by Mexican immigration authorities in 1998 for his links to both the Zapatistas and the Basque separatist group ETA. Lopez Moreno noted that one AP account had spelled Perez Yruela’s name wrong, rendering it "Orihuela."

Wire reports also linked the Mission to the Murabitun World Movement, a Sufi sect based in Morocco. The Murabitun movement takes its name from the Moorish dynasty which controlled Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries (also known as the Almoravids), and the rhetoric on their web site speaks of a "post-modernist platform" to unite all Muslims and rebuild an Islamic Caliphate in Europe. It boasts that in a "Christian West of unprecedented darkness" the Murabitun has established "ribats" or outposts "at highly significant points throughout the world." Their website reads: "Throughout a post-Christian West of unprecedented darkness, the Murabitun are springing up like the dragon’s teeth and have established communities centered around ribats, or outposts, at highly significant points throughout the world... Our power which threatens all who come into contact with us is not drawn either from ideology or structural organization but from complete submission to the Divine Creator." It warns: "Our power...threatens all who come into contact with us."

But Lopez Moreno denies that Abd al-Qadir al-Sufi is the group’s leader: "Al-Qadir has not visited us; we have official contact with him. We just consider him an extraordinary analyst."

He also refutes any implication of terrorist sympathies. "There is nothing Islamic about terrorism," he says. "It is un-Islamic. Suicide is forbidden in Islam. Think about the attacks in New York - you don’t see the eyes of the people in the towers. It is madness. The same with the Palestinians who tie explosives to themselves. So-called fundamentalism was introduced by English and North American imperialism to undermine Islam."

Esteban is certain that Islam has a big future in Chiapas. "This movement is much more important than the Zapatistas," he says. "They are only about tearing things down. We are about building a life based on the truth."