Hugh Fitzgerald: A “Vibrant” Muslim Community South of the Border, Down Mexico Way


Last year, I filed away under “Mexico — Islam” one of many such stories to be found online about Muslim converts among the Mayans and Tzotzils of Chiapas. As it does not date, and the Muslims in Chiapas keep increasing, here it is:

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A trip to Mexico’s indigenous Maya heartland showed me how a vibrant Muslim community had sprung up in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

In the southern state of Chiapas, home to a lush mountainous landscape, I photographed members of a small Muslim community made up of hundreds of mostly indigenous Tzotzil men and women, many of whom converted to Islam from Catholic or other Christian denominations.

The Muslim men here are distinguished by their prayer caps, or kufis, and the women by their hijabs which take the form of traditional Maya shawls.

Locals say the conversions to Islam here began in the late 1980s, around the same time Mexico’s Zapatista movement  was gaining traction in Chiapas, as institutions including Christianity and capitalism came under increasing criticism.

According to the last census, some 83 percent of Mexicans are Catholic. And although Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Mexico’s 120 million population [actually, they make up only 1/10th of 1 percent], a disproportionate number are indigenous [sic] clustered in and around San Cristobal de las Casas, a highland city in Chiapas that mixes both Maya and Spanish identity.

“People gave us a weird look when we converted, they thought we were terrorists and were scared of us,” said Mustafa, a member of the nearby Ahmadi community. “But with the passage of time and our own actions, that opinion has changed,” he added.

Umar, an indigenous former evangelical pastor, converted to Islam in the late 1990s and now serves as a bridge between local Christians and Muslims.

“Ours is a monotheistic religion,” he said. “But we don’t worship saints.”

I later met 55-year-old Mohamed Amin who invited me to his home, offering me cookies and tea. He showed me where he prays five times a day and introduced me to his family. He asked me if I believed in God and I said no. That did not appear to bother him.

He went on to explain the main reason behind his conversion to Islam.

“I like to be clean and change my clothes,” he said. “This is a clean religion and that’s what originally drew me to it.”

What, in the first place, is the effect of such a news story, which has been getting significant coverage online? It feeds a narrative of Islam On The March, of Islamic triumphalism. Here we are, far from the ancient centers of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, far even from the latest centers of Islam in Western Europe, and yet here, in San Cristobal de las Casas, in Las Chiapas, in a remote region of rural — carefully described as “lush” — Mexico, we are brought news of local converts to Islam. We are further told, in loaded language, that these converts constitute a “vibrant community of Muslims.” No evidence is presented for this putative “vibrancy,” but it is insisted upon, and the word has its effect. These people who are converting have created not just a community, but a “vibrant” community, pulsating with energy, alive, energetic, vigorous, vital, full of vim and vigor, animated, sparkling, effervescent, vivacious, dynamic, stimulating, exciting, passionate, fiery — get the picture? Then, in unspoken contrast to this vibrant community of Muslims for which the reporter is also a cheerleader, there is the dead hand of the Catholic Church, handmaiden of political and economic reaction, working hand-in-glove with the capitalist class. No wonder that these conversions started in the 1980s, “around the same time [as] Mexico’s Zapatista movement was gaining traction in Chiapas.”

The implication is clear: support for the Zapatistas, and conversion to Islam, are two versions of the same movement for justice, two ways for the downtrodden indigenous Indians, those Mayans and Tzotzils, to demonstrate their disaffection. For the Indians are misled into believing that unlike (supposedly) Catholicism, Islam promotes social and economic justice. But does it? What kind of economic justice is there in Muslim countries ruled by grasping family dynasties? What kind of justice is there for non-Muslims persecuted in  Muslim lands? Or for non-Arab Muslims in Muslim Arab lands? Think of how hard the indigenous Berbers have had to fight for cultural and linguistic recognition in Arab-run Algeria. Think of the massacre of 182,000 Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s Arab soldiers, and the indifference of the other Arabs to this atrocity. Where is the social justice in Muslim countries that still have black slaves, as in Mauritania (600,000 slaves) and Mali (200,000 slaves)? And what about the horrific treatment of many foreign workers (not the Europeans and Americans, but those from third-world countries) in the Gulf Arab states? Theses workers routinely work 9-10 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their passports are kept by their employers, who can and do withhold pay for both real and made-up infractions. These employers can discharge and deport workers at will, and otherwise treat them as no Western employer would dare to do. Female domestic workers are especially ill-treated, some abused sexually by employers; some, too, have been murdered. Conditions have become so bad that after the latest dead Filipino worker in Kuwait was found in a freezer, the government of the Philippines threatened to prevent its citizens from working in Kuwait and other Gulf states. This is not economic or social justice, but no one is informing the Indians of Chiapas now being lured into the faith of Islam.

Nor will these Mayans and Tzotzils in Chiapas be learning about the persecution of Christians under Islam, of the Copts in Egypt, the Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq, the Maronites in Lebanon, the Catholics and Protestants in Pakistan, who are constantly under threat, with many leaving for the safety of the West. They won’t find out why other non-Muslims, too, have suffered under Muslim rule, over the centuries, including the 70-80 million Hindu victims of Muslim rulers in India. The destruction of so many churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples, artifacts (statutes, paintings, frescoes) will not be discussed, for that would only alarm Indians concerned with the preservation of their own historical heritage — ziggurats, jaguar temples, the Popol Vuh. No proselytizer for Islam will mention, much less connect the dots between, the destruction of tens of thousands of Hindu temples over centuries of Muslim rule, and the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2015.

We are given to understand that while Mexicans, not all of them Indians, are converting to Islam in other parts of Mexico, they are doing so with especial fervor, apparently, in San Cristobal de las Casas. And just how many Muslims are there in this land of 120 million? In 2010, the Mexican government counted 3,760 Muslims; the Pew Research Institute came up with a much larger figure, 111,000. Even if we were to ignore the official Mexican census figures, and accept the Pew figures instead, and rounded up that figure — to 120,000, in order to reflect an increase over the last few years, that would mean only one of every thousand Mexicans is Muslim (and not, as the reporter says, “less than 1%”). By way of comparison, in the Muslim state of Algeria, which has a population of 40 million, or one-third that of Mexico, by 2015 the number of converts to Christianity numbered 380,000. Isn’t that a figure that might be better known, so as to undermine Muslim triumphalism?

Judging by the report, it appears that there was nothing terribly profound about these conversions. There is the economic justice aspect, with the Catholic Church viewed as giving aid and comfort to the ruling landowner class, while Islam is presented by its proselytizers as the faith of the downtrodden. The report could have injected a note of skepticism, pointing out that almost all Muslim states have been ruled, for much or all of their histories, by despots, including ruling families whose members routinely help themselves, and their confederates, to much of the nation’s wealth. The most egregious are the Al-Saud, but the ruling families in Abu Dhabi (the Al-Nahyan), in Dubai (the Al-Maktoum), in Kuwait (the Al-Sabahs), in Qatar (the Al-Thani), in Oman (the Al Bu Said) help themselves on a smaller scale. Then there are the non-royal despots, such as the Al-Assads in Syria, Al-Sisi in Egypt, the late Qaddafi in Libya, the oligarchs of the FLN in Algeria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the corrupt mullahs who have diverted billions for themselves in Iran, Mahmoud Abbas and his two sons, who have managed to acquire a business empire worth $400 million. Turkey’s  Erdogan, from his 1,100 room palace, has acquired about 60 million dollars, quite a feat on an annual  salary of $58,000. His son Ahmet is worth $80 million; he is rumored to have had some help from his doting father. Pakistan’s politicians are in a greedy class by themselves, for a former president, Asif Ali Zardari, has accumulated a net worth of $35 billion, and a former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has $30 billion, remarkable sums given their official salaries. If this were known, perhaps those Mexican converts might be disabused of their belief that Islam stands for greater economic justice, as no doubt they were told by those converting them. The record shows quite otherwise. In the West, a government’s legitimacy depends on how well it reflects the will of the people, as expressed, however imperfectly, through elections. In Muslim lands, the legitimacy of the government depends on how well it expresses the will of Allah, as set down in the Qur’an. A ruler can be a grasping despot, as long as he is a good Muslim. This, too, is unlikely to have been explained to would-be converts in San Cristobal.

We learn in passing that there is an Ahmadiya community in San Cristobal de las Casas. As many know, the Ahmadis have tirelessly conducted campaigns of outreach and conversion in the West, but not in Muslim countries, where it would be too dangerous for them to try to convert anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, to Ahmadi Islam. An “Ask-A-Muslim” or “Open Mosque” event in the U.S. is most likely to be put on by Ahmadis. Their brand of Islam is indeed more appealing, especially since they reject violent Jihad except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. According to their belief, Jihad can be divided into three categories (the description is shamelessly taken from Wikipedia): “Jihad al-Akbar (Greater Jihad) is that against the self and refers to striving against one’s low desires such as anger, lust and hatred; Jihad al-Kabīr (Great Jihad) refers to the peaceful propagation of Islam, with special emphasis on spreading the true message of Islam by the pen; Jihad al-Asghar (Smaller Jihad) is an armed struggle only to be resorted to in self-defense under situations of extreme religious persecution whilst not being able to follow one’s fundamental religious beliefs, and even then only under the direct instruction of the Caliph.”

But while they proselytize for Islam, this does not affect their low standing with “real” Muslims. The Ahmadis, of whom there are only ten to twenty million in the world, or about 1% of the world’s Muslims, are regarded with hostility by mainstream Muslims, because their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, claimed to be the Promised Messiah. In Pakistan, they are prohibited by law from claiming to be Muslims (and on their official papers are listed as non-Muslims); they have been subject to persecution and murderous attacks by Muslims, mainly in Pakistan, but also in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the U.K. What, one wonders, would these Mayan and Tzotzil converts think of Islam if they knew how how the Ahmadis proselytizing among them are treated by the mainstream?

Indeed, what do these converts know about the treatment of women in Islam, as set out in the Qur’an and Hadith? Would they be surprised to learn about the practice of polygyny? To discover that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man, or that a daughter inherits half that of a son? Would they have been told that a Muslim father has the power of life and death over his daughters? That a Muslim husband can beat (lightly) a disobedient wife? Do you think these Mexican Indians were told before converting about how, as Muslims, they should no longer take Christians (or Jews) as friends, “for they are friends only with each other”? No one will have told them that they must love fellow Muslims but to disavow, that is hate, for the sake of Allah, all non-Muslims, the doctrine known as Al-wala’ wa-l-bara.

What will they have learned about the 109 Jihad verses in the Qur’an? Anything? Nothing? What will they have been told  about verses in the Qur’an that command not just jihad warfare, but the need to “strike terror” in the hearts of the Unbelievers?

They will  have been told nothing about any of this, not before conversion and likely not afterwards for a long time. There is an art to converting people to Islam. They must not be told too much early on, but only the least offensive parts and that, slowly, they can be introduced step-by-step to the rest. They may have learned nothing about Muhammad’s marriage, and consummation of that marriage, to Aisha when she was nine years old. They may not have learned about Muhammad’s attack on the Jews of the Khaybar Oasis. They will have learned nothing about Muhammad’s taking the Jewish girl Saafiya as his sex slave the very evening of the day that he had her husband, father, and brother killed. They will not find out about how Kinana of Khaybar was tortured, on Muhammad’s orders, until he revealed where some treasure was hidden, and then, also on his orders, put to death after having given up the secret. They will learn nothing about  Abu ‘Afak, Asma bint Marwan, and Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, who, because they had mocked him, were killed by followers of Muhammad — and Muhammad was pleased.

When it comes to the Qur’an, they will almost certainly have been told about 2:256 (“There is no compulsion in religion”), but not how this verse is not just abrogated but is contradicted by Muslim practice. For apostates from Islam can be killed, which constitutes compulsion, and non-Muslims, subject to conditions, as dhimmis, so onerous that they have caused tens of millions to convert to Islam, and this too constitutes “compulsion.” They will all so have been informed about 5:32 (which superficially seems to condemn killing, but read carefully, with 5:33, actually provides rules for when killing is licit). They will not have been told about 9:5, 9:29, 3:151; 8:12, 8:60, 47:4, or another 100 jihad verses. They will not learn that Muhammad said “war is deceit,” or that his last words were apparently “I have been made victorious with terror.”

They will not learn that Unbelievers were offered three choices by triumphant Muslims: conversion, death, or the status of dhimmi, that required them to pay the Jizyah, and endure other onerous requirements, in order to be protected from the Muslims themselves. They will be told that Muslims have a special relationship with the other two “Abrahamic faiths,” and that Muslims revere both Moses and Jesus as prophets, but not told how, for example, both figures are quite different in their Islamic versions.

One Tzotzil gave as his main reason for converting to Islam that by doing so he could better “keep clean and change my clothes.” That gives you some idea of how theologically profound was the conversion process. And those who have endured life in a Muslim society may question this misguided belief connecting Islam and cleanliness. Wudu (the pre-prayer ablutions) aside, the hygiene is not impressive. Unfortunately, as with “prison conversions,” sometimes the practical consequence is that the convert, as he slowly is allowed to learn more, is not necessarily repelled, but may sink ever deeper into the morass of Islam.

It would be interesting to know why the three converts mentioned felt they had to take Arabic names — Mustafa, Umar, and Mohamed. Indeed, that could prompt a conversation on all the ways that Islam is a vehicle for Arab supremacism. A Muslim must prostrate himself five times a day in the direction of Mecca, in Arabia; he should make the hajj, to Mecca, at least once in his lifetime; he should ideally read the Qur’an in Arabic; many Muslims take Arabic names as more appropriate to the faith; some have even given themselves false Arab lineages, as with the many Pakistanis who call themselves “Sayids,” indicating descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

One hopes that the Christians in Mexico, most of them Catholics, will not merely observe whatever inroads are being made by Islam, but will mount a campaign to counteract the proselytizers. No need to wait until the few become many. The Christians need to identify those communities where conversions to Islam are being made, as in San Cristobal de las Casas, to send out teams of Christians who have prepared themselves and can speak knowledgeably about Islam, and thereby to push back against the previously unopposed proselytizers for the Prophet. They should address precisely those questions of social and economic justice, and the preservation of a cultural heritage, that are of most concern to the Mayans and Tzotzils, and that are being misrepresented by proselytizers for Islam. These Christians should meet with those recently converted, or who seem to be on the path to conversion, and stage what might be called an early intervention. They should hold up for careful study a representative sample of the more than one hundred Jihad verses in the Qur’an, explain such concepts as dhimmi and Jizyah, compare the claim that Islam furthers economic justice with the reality of rich and poor in Muslim societies, examine the differing treatments of women in Islam and Christianity, and convey the contents of a dozen of the most disturbing episodes in the life of Muhammad, as reported in the Hadith. Finally, these well-informed students of Islam should present aspects of Islamic history that the converts almost certainly would not have been told about, including the vast Arab slave trade involving as many as 80 million black African victims, the killing of 70-80 million Hindus under Muslim rule in India, the false “convivencia” of Islamic Spain, the dismissal of  anything from the Time of Ignorance (as, e.g., all of Mayan culture), and the ways in which Islam has been a vehicle for Arab supremacism, with particular attention to how non-Arab Muslims — such as the Kurds, Berbers, and Sudanese blacks — have recently suffered under Arab rule.

As part of a campaign of counter-Da’wa, it would be useful if a conference of ex-Muslims could be held, and widely covered, in Mexico City. This requires planning, money for security, and publicity. Even more useful would be a Spanish translation and publication of Robert Spencer’s The History of Jihad, with some far-sighted Maecenas, individual or institutional, willing to purchase and distribute free copies of this indispensable history,  not just in Chiapas but all over Mexico — indeed, all over South America.

Then perhaps Umar, Mustafa, and Mohamed, having been given much to think about from the Qur’an, and Hadith, and Islamic history, material which had been skipped over by those who had converted them (for the proselytizers always start with the least offensive matters, only gradually revealing, in an ideological dance of the seven veils, the most troubling aspects of the faith), might rethink their allegiance to Islam, shed those names so redolent of Arab supremacism, and find a way back to Christianity which, considering the apparent alternative, hasn’t done so badly after all.

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