Two Women and a Mosque: A Convert Community Grows in Panama City

A Panamanian convert to Islam, Anais Gobea hopes to raise her two children in the faith. But she and her husband, who converted to Islam four months ago, have struggled to do this in a predominately Catholic country.

Her son attends a public school in Panama City, which consistently educates him on the tenets of Catholicism. “We try to teach him Islam, but school confuses him,” Gobea told me.

In a group of several Muslim children, he was asked to name the last Islamic prophet, and eagerly yelled out the wrong answer: “Jesús!”

Until recently, Gobea felt she had nowhere to go for consistent support. But in early November, she and several others hosted the inauguration of Al Haqq, the nation’s first mosque created with the primary objective of educating the growing population of native Panamanian converts to Islam. Most of these converts are women.

Existing mosques in the country’s major cities are tied to immigrant Arab and Indian cultures and reportedly can be exclusionary to outsiders. Al Haqq’s organizers hope the space can serve as a haven for anyone interested in Islam and facilitate unity among Panama’s fractured Islamic community.

Two black Panamanian Muslims, Josefina Bell-Munajj and Khadijah Jackson, have spearheaded this effort since 2005. In the meantime, they held religious classes for a small group of women in a room they borrowed from a local Muslim dentist. They started with ten people in 2011 and increased to thirty by the next year.

“We started feeling the urgency to get a new space because we were bursting out the room,” Bell-Munajj said.

I first visited the mosque in late October of 2013, when it was nearly ready to open.

Al Haqq — which means “the truth” in Arabic — occupies a small basement room in the neighborhood of Carrasquilla in Panama City.

“There’s still a lot we want to do,” Bell-Munajj warned as she let me in, pushing open the large sliding door at the entrance. The space was modestly decorated, in line with Islamic tradition, with an intricate wooden gate marking off a third of the room for prayer. In the back left corner, a print of the Ka’aba oriented the direction of prayer toward Mecca. Fifteen chairs in four crooked rows awaited that day’s gathering of eager students.

Bell-Munajj stressed that they use the term “revert” instead of convert to demonstrate their belief that all people are born Muslim, and some decide to come back.

I was born Muslim to two such reverts, who came back to the religion in their mid-twenties. Both raised Christian in West Indian families, they followed separate threads to the United States as teenagers and then to Islam, somehow meeting in the middle.

I grew up in a household with bookshelves that wobbled from the weight of books in both Arabic and English: copies of the holy book, scholarly Qur’anic interpretations, volumes and volumes of collected advice from Prophet Muhammad. I grew up Muslim in a series of mosques in New York. As a child in Brooklyn, I was surrounded by families like mine: black, Muslim, converts. But when my family moved to the suburbs, that support system fell away.

I had been taught repeatedly that Islam was colorblind, that everyone was born Muslim, that Allah was for everyone. But, a minority within a minority group, I always felt like I was living at the fringe of a more authentic religious experience. Islam belonged to a different part of the world; I didn’t appreciate the fact that black converts have played a crucial role in shaping it.

I left the religion halfway through college, for many different reasons and for no alternative in particular. Only then did I begin to understand the complex politics and power dynamics in play within Islamic communities. Looking back, I realize I needed to be around Muslims more vocal in their discussions of race, class and other potentially divisive factors, in order to feel more connected to the faith.

An estimated 85 percent of the world’s Muslims live outside of the Arab world. And so I was more intrigued than surprised to find a thriving population of Muslim converts while reporting in Panama. Especially since the Panama Canal was finished in 1914, the small Central American country has been a conduit for international travel and trade — the history shows in its demographic diversity.

Panama’s Muslim converts work to carve out space for themselves, in a country that doesn’t seem to know they exist. In creating Al Haqq, they hope to reinforce the foundation of their community and, in turn, their faith.

Most Muslims in Panama live in the major cities of Panama City and Colón, with smaller numbers in other provincial cities. The Panamanian government does not collect information on its religious composition, but a 2009 international report estimated the number of Muslims at around 24,000, comprising less than one percent of the country’s population. Most are of Lebanese, Palestinian or Indian descent.

Though small, Panama’s Muslim community has grown increasingly ethnically diverse.

The first Muslims to come to Panama were African slaves brought over by Spaniards in the mid-sixteenth century to work in the mines.

Throughout the twentieth century, Panama received Muslims from Lebanon, India, Pakistan, and West Indian countries such as Jamaica. Each group worked to establish their own religious institutions and the support systems necessary to flourish as religious minorities in a Catholic country. In the 1960s and 70s, Lebanese immigrants collected money from their growing business enterprises to create their own mosque, cemetery and Arabic school in Colon.

Cultural differences among these ethnic groups mean they practice Islam in different ways. For example, women are not allowed to pray in the two large mosques in Panama City. Both are run by the community of Indian and Pakistani immigrants, whose interpretation of Islam dictates that women should pray in the home.

Bell-Munajj said she has to travel an hour and a half to a mosque in Colon to attend prayer services. But she cannot attend the lecture, which is often given exclusively in Arabic to a majority Arab audience.

She and Jackson want the new mosque to provide Spanish-speaking Panamanians with better access to Islamic teachings. They have provided their students with religious materials that have been translated from Arabic to English and Spanish.

Jackson said she thinks women have the right to attend the mosque. She has spent most of her life in the United States and is used to being part of a strong core group of Muslim women.

“There’s nothing in Islam that segregates women. Human beings do,” she said.

Being a Muslim woman in Panama can be difficult, especially for those who choose to wear headscarves and long overgarments signifying modesty in Islam.

Panamanian law prohibits discrimination based on religion. Structural Islamophobia, which results in frequent anti-Muslim legislation in the United States, is not visible in Panama to the same degree. In fact, several Muslims told me the Panamanian government does not discriminate against them at all for their religious beliefs, a statement corroborated by various international reports.

Instead, individuals unfamiliar with Islamic customs violate religious boundaries out of ignorance. Women who are more visible as Muslim bear the brunt of these aggressions.

While Bell-Munajj was running an errand at the bank recently, a guard asked her to remove her headscarf. She refused, since Islam prohibits women from baring their heads in public. “I told him, ‘Take off my scarf? No!’ And I just kept stepping.”

Others reported trouble getting high-level jobs in the government or banks unless they remove their headscarves.

Despite the clear drawbacks, being recognizable as Muslim is also a source of pride and connection for many women. At Al Haqq’s inauguration in November, I was one of few not wearing a headscarf until Jackson lent me a white cotton cloth to drape over my hair and chest.

Bell-Munajj said she enjoys the visibility. While she was shopping at the fish market in Panama City, a West Indian man parking his car called out to her with the Muslim greeting of peace: “Assalam Alaykum.” She hopes Al Haqq will draw people like him from the margins into a larger community.

Though Islam in Panama has a different history and context than in the United States, I saw my parents in some of the older black Panamanian converts. Many spent time in the United States during the formative social justice movements of the 60s and 70s, first becoming attracted to the politics of the Nation of Islam before moving toward mainstream Sunni Islam.

Abdul Kabir Malik is one of these converts. In the 1970s, Malik began holding Islamic classes out of his barbershop in Calidonia, a predominately black neighborhood in Panama City. He was one of the first Panamanian Islamic leaders in the country, and continued to teach for more than forty years until he had to sell the shop last year.

We met in a small mosque he runs in Panama City, belonging to the Shi’a sect of Islam. Few people attend its regular Thursday prayer services. Less than one percent of Muslims in Panama are Shi’a, according to a 2009 international report.

He is unhappy that the women are opening Al Haqq, instead of joining his mosque, because he believes it goes against religious teachings. “Islamic culture says that when men are around, women should support them.”

(Khadija Jackson counters that this interpretation of Islam is incorrect, that women are required to support their husbands but are encouraged to educate themselves and others.)

Malik said constant conflict among Muslims is dangerous for the community. Islam is supposed to transcend ethnic and cultural differences, he said, but individuals only want to teach those that look like them.

“People in ignorance will harm you, even if they love you,” he said.

I saw a similar level of frustration when interviewing black converts in Colón, more than an hour away from Panama City, where the Muslim community is starkly divided along race and class lines. Lebanese Muslims work predominately as businesspeople in the lucrative Free Trade Zone, one of the largest free trade ports in the world. In the city center, many residents are descendants of West Indian laborers on the Panama Canal throughout the twentieth century. The city has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country.

Every year, a group of black Muslims in Colón hosts an event to celebrate Eid-ul-Udha, a holiday that marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. They invite all the children in the neighborhood, regardless of religion. This year, dozens of children circled around a hired clown, who tied together balloons to entertain them. Several children took turns reciting the first several verses of the Quran in Arabic. Not all of them came from Muslim families, but had learned from constant exposure to the religion.

Although Centro Islamico Cultural is the largest mosque in the city, the organizers said they would feel uncomfortable hosting the event there.

Outside, I spoke to a group of several men, who registered their disappointment that Al Haqq was beginning in Panama City instead of Colon. But they acknowledged that Muslims in Colon — predominately black men —have been too immersed in power struggles and personal conflict to organize a space of their own.

“We permitted our program to go to the drain,” said Luis Poyser, who has been an activist and politician in Panama’s black Islamic movement for decades.

But Walid Handauz, an Arab leader in the mosque, said no tension exists between Arab and black Panamanian Muslims. Opinions differ on interpretations of the religion, but ultimately everyone is Muslim. “We try to gather everyone in one basic road,” he said.

A year ago, the mosque began holding weekly classes for the growing group of Muslim converts in Colón.

And recently, other established Panamanian Islamic institutions have started reacting to the demographic shift in the country’s Muslim population.

Panama City’s Jama Mosque is the oldest mosque in Central America, according to Ahmad Bhattay, one of its leaders. More than 500 people attend Friday prayer services every week, most of them Indian. But the number of Panamanian converts is rapidly growing.

Bhattay said about two or three new converts come to Jama Mosque every week. Six months ago, the mosque began offering classes in Spanish — instead of just in Urdu — to accommodate the growing demand.

There is no discrimination in the Muslim community in Panama City, Bhattay said. “Maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, there was.” People move fluidly, attending events at whichever mosque they prefer.

Others tell a different story. Samima Patel converted to Islam twelve years ago and is married to an Indian man. Though Jama Mosque is more inclusive of converts now than before, she doesn’t feel completely welcome in the Indian community.

Her husband’s family has trouble accepting her and even tried to delay the couple’s marriage.

A common perception exists of converts as less knowledgeable or authentic Muslims than those in the immigrant communities. My father struggled with this when teaching at mosques in New York. Although he had studied Arabic and Islamic fundamentals for more than a decade, his students, of all ethnicities, continually undercut his authority in favor of less knowledgeable Arab students.

Bell-Munajj said many new Muslims seek her out as a fellow Panamanian Muslim, but after a while move on to join the more established Arab community. “I think they still can’t accept the fact that black people have knowledge to teach them,” she said.

Jackson agreed. In her travels outside of the country, she has encountered people who don’t know black Panamanians exist, let alone black Panamanian Muslims.

And Panamanians are not accustomed to seeing Panamanian Muslims.

Because of her light skin tone and the headscarf she wears daily, Bianca Chanis said she is often mistaken for someone of Arab descent. But she is proud of her Panamanian roots and her journey to Islam.

Chanis had trouble finding a Muslim community when she first became interested in the religion more than three years ago. She made a Muslim friend online and his spiritual explanations made more sense than her Catholic upbringing. “My thought was that I wasn’t alone,” she said.

Later, she found Jackson’s information and began studying with her. Al Haqq will definitely fill a major void in Panama City, Chanis said.

“This is the first time we have a place for Panamanians,” she said. “And everyone’s welcome.”