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A separate peace in Chiapas

28 December 2006

 Who knew?  I’ve always known that outsiders oversimplify the causes of dissent in Chiapas… seeing it as some simple “government v. Indian” thing, or in some reductionist Marxist sense of “Good poor working people” v. “Evil capitalists.” 

Both interpretations, it seems to me, are based in the (frankly) racist idea of the “Noble Savage.”  It presumes all Indians are the same, and that they were somehow “pure” before evil western ways crept in. 

I seldom see anything from outside Mexico on the role religion has played in the disturbances.  Evangelical Protestantism, based on individual salvation (and, presumably, a sense of having to succeed on your own merits in both this, and the next, world), has created as much dissent in Chiapas as anything. 

Mexican Presbyterians have been around longer (Benito Juarez once suggested importing Prebyterian missionaries, because Presbytherians — having accepted that God already made the decision of who gets saved and who doesn’t — just stick to work.  Of course, Juarez also realized that Mexicans have a hard enough life, and need the drama and color of the Catholic Church, so never pushed the idea). 

At least half of Chiapas is NOT Catholic — with their long sense of community, and consensus (maybe the Quakers should have evangalized in Chiapas), changing religion is a serious matter.  We just don’t see — because it doesn’t make sense to us — how much of the troubles between and within communities in Chiapas have been caused by religion.  Presbyterians don’t want to pay for the village fiesta in honor of the local saint, and the Catholic village’s water rights are being infringed upon by the Baptists in the next village… and so it goes. (Lyn wrote about missionaries in Mexico earlier this year, here)

Of course there are serious economic values at stake in for the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, but they aren’t a monolithic “tribe” … they’re several different groups, made up of individuals capable of making their own decisions on what is best for themselves.  This community seems to have taken a radical way out… (my translation, from Indígenas de Alá… en el corazón de Chiapas” by Santiago Fourcade  in today’s Milenio).

Allah’s Indians… in the heart of Chiapas

“Precisely at nine, we pray. The Fox Hour starts at ten.” So easy-going Javier Labo explains his community’s difference from that occupied by the ex-President. Now known as Hajj Suleimán, the 41 years old is a leader within the Islamic Community of Mexico, the indigenous Chiapas muslims that are the talk of the continent.

Their story begins decades ago, when dozens of Presbyterian families were violently driven out of San Juan Chamula. Settling near San Cristóbal, the Colonia Nueva Espanza has remained a symbol of the religious disputes raging among traditional indigenous Catholics, but several years ago one aspect of the dispute has changed.

Here, Allah is God. More than 300 Tzotziles and Tzeltales embraced Islam in a region better known for iron-fisted ecclesiastical control.

It’s not difficult to see the results of that revolution, said Javier, as he led me through the streets of his neighborhood. He greeted a group of 12 Spanish muslims with a bow.

For us, Islam is not just a religion,” Suleimán explained. “It impacted the development of our basic projects. It’s a lifestyle we hope incalcates a return to our roots, while rooting out usury and capitalism.

We have faith in Allah. He is our guide on this path, though the pure teachings of the Prophet. For several years we were sustained only by the vision of our Emir Nafia, and now we’re enjoing the fruits of our labor.” Suleimán referred to the community’s leader, Eureliano Pérez Iruela, a Cordoban follower of the Sufi sect of Islam, who arrived in the early 1990s to organize the future Islamic Community of Mexico.

Many have accused the Chiapan Muslims of being dangerous or divisive. But while the community continues to complain that their rights are regularly violated, no one underestimates the accomplishments of this small community.

Every day, isolated from the hypocrisy and religious prejudices of the majority, about fifty children study basic material, as well as taking physical education and ballet classes.

Our intent is to give a sound basic education,” says Ana ‘Aisha’ López, the school’s director, while asking me to remove my shoes before entering the carpeted building. “He we bring all ages of children, from different educational levels. For now, we only have muslim children, but we hope to open to doors to anyone.”

“Yes, the children spend part of the day reciting the Koran in Arabic,” she said as we passed kitchens and classrooms. “but respect, order and cleanliness are the fundamentals. We are stricter than other schools, and have nothing to hide from the world.”

The Sufi school is in a building the sect constructed. It includes a pizzaria, a bakery, a carpenter shop and an ironworks. [Mexican churches are “religious associations” (A.R.) and cannot own business], but these enterprises can contribute to the association.

“No, it’s not easy. We’ve been persecuted, sued and accused of all kinds of things. The Catholic Church has helped us defend ourselves, but the Evangelicals and Presbyterians have been stirring the waters, seeing us as a religious target [for conversions], and the government continues to keep a close eye on the area.”

“We’re satisfied with our work,” said Suleimán. “We not destructive. Now, we accused of everything, even being [Basque separatist] ETA sympathizers.”

Emir Nafia’s second in command, Esteban López, now known as Hajj Idris, led me through the carpentry and ironwook shops, the fruits of the the Muslim community’s vision. There, young indigenes learn the a trade, while creating traditional wooden articles that are sold in San Cristóbal.

The role of the workshops is fundamental to education. The are organzied heiracharially, with the young apprentices learning from the masters, while they absord the importance of commerce and the old ways,” Idris said, adding, “ We’d like to step away from the banking system and it’s funny money. The goal is to achieve a free market with the workshops turning a small profit that would allow the collective to opt out of the credit system.”

The indigenous converts are convinced they made the right decision. While it has been years since the first five families converted to the Sufi sect, everyone I spoke with said they feel they are Muslims, and are satisfied with their decision.

There is no god by Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. Outside this commity, that phrase written on a wall would suggest something shady. There are hundreds of muslims in the heart of Columbian evangelical country, too. A group of Spanish Muslims recently launched international protests over the treatment of the Tzotlil community. Allah akbar!

“It’s hard at the beginning, but with time, the light of Allah changes everything. For sure, people with more stuff are going to have a hard time – too many years of habits to unlearn.” 23-year old Raúl was referring to the youngest Chiapan muslims.

Born in San Cristóbal, his Chamula family fled persecution in San Juan. “My friends all talk about religion, but its a lifestyle decision I’ve taken. It’s not important that I don’t have tortillas, beer or pork. Here, I’ve developing a manual skill and I’m enjoying it.”

Like the others in the workshop, he was carving a Koranic precept on a piece of wood, one he knew by heart.

(SOMEBODY ship Raúl some vegetable shortening. Doing without tortillas because of the lard in the masa — it took me a few minutes to figure it out — sounds needlessly cruel and unusual!)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 December 2006 9:06 pm

    it is not “noble savage,” but “leave people the hell alone to work their own shit out and don’t think you are so enlightened that you can bring some fancy ruling class govt to fix things for them.” something like that, i think.

  2. 28 December 2006 9:33 pm

    I like your version better, but I’m not sure European Marxism (or, Baptist versions of salvation, or Islam, for that matter) are any less foreign intrusions. Of course, these people have a right to decide what’s best for themselves, and if they want to accept some fancy ruling class theory, it’s not up to us to decide.

  3. 30 December 2006 3:18 pm

    Makes me think of the Hindu presence I was once surprised to run across in Tepoztlán, Morelos.


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