The growth and increasing visibility of Colombia’s Muslim community has elicited a variety of reactions over the past couple years, ranging from outspoken resentment to a relatively high number of new conversions to the religion.
According to a paper published by Florida International University researcher Diego Castellanos, the first Muslims to arrive in Colombia were Arab immigrants fleeing political repression in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century.
Since then, the Muslim community has passed through different phases of growth and diversification, occasionally bolstered by the arrival of new immigrant communities, such as the large numbers of Lebanese nationals who fled their home country in the 1960-70s and settled in Colombia, predominantly along the Caribbean coast, which has since become known for the Arab influences in its culture.
The recent construction of the first mosque in the history of Bogota, Colombia’s capital and largest city, gives testament to a growth in urban Muslim populations four decades in the making. Built 16 years ago, the mosque in the northern city of Maicao is the second largest in South America.
While these developments have lead to tensions between Colombia’s Muslim minority and the overwhelming Christian majority, recent years have seen a rising number of Colombians converting to Islam.
According to Castellanos, this process started slowly in the 1980s but kicked off in the late 1990s, now being the main driving force of the growth of the Muslim community, with Colombian converts now representing the second largest demographic within the Muslim community after Muslims of Middle Eastern and North African descent.
The estimated total number of Muslims in Colombia varies from at least 10 to 15,000 to what some Muslim sources claim to be as many as 40 or 80,000 people.
According to the Imam of the Muslim community of Medellin, Ahmed Dasuki, Muslims encounter the Colombian society and culture with respect and tolerance.
This means that even though Muslims do not take part in the Christian traditions of Colombia, they neither want to change the behavior of the majority non-Muslim population, nor would they want to convince them to convert. Instead, people should find their own way to Islam, the Imam said.
“If you want to convert, that’s good. If you don’t want to, that’s also fine. The mosque is open to anybody who can come anytime and however many times he wants. We can only teach the Muslim traditions to the people who come to learn the Muslim traditions.”
Islam is based on the concepts of dialogue and coexistence, according to Dasuki, meaning, for example, that while the consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited within members of the community, Muslims should not try to keep others from drinking.
Islam, he explains, has particular respect for its monotheistic relatives — Christianity and Judaism, both active in Colombia, though Judaism to a much lesser extent — even though it claims to be the last and ultimate revelation of the three.
Still, Dasuki recognizes the difficulty of Muslim life in a predominantly Christian society, especially in regards to raising children. The questions all immigrant communities struggle with in regards to assimilation become amplified due to the religious and moral divide.
“We do live in a very difficult society, with all the clubs, the debauchery and the ‘free love’ which is totally forbidden in Islam,” Dasuki told Colombia Reports.
Ultimately, Dasuki believes the Quran — the Muslim holy book — does not obligate anyone to adhere to its practices, but says that Muslim parents hope to instill traditional values in their children, in the interest of their wellbeing and not out of a sense of obligation.
“Of course we hope that our children will pick up our traditions and follow our footsteps, because in the end it is for their own good.”
The process by which subsequent immigrant generations loose sight of their ancestral traditions in favor of the dominant culture is well understood. Less clear is why Colombian natives would convert to a religion that stands in such contrast to the strongly Catholic traditions of their native country.
While there are no official figures for the number of people who have converted to Islam throughout Colombia, converts are believed to represent a large part of urban Muslim communities.
The Imam estimated that they make up for at least 90% of the Muslim community of Medellin, while the Muslim community of Bogota claims that “there are 10 Christians converting to Islam every day,” as quoted by national newspaper El Espectador in July 2013.
Dasuki feels that the main reason why people convert to Islam is that they are searching for “a good path” toward spiritual enlightenment and a healthy lifestyle, one that Islam can offer in part because of how different it is from traditional Colombian Christianity.
According to Jusuf, a Medellin native whose name was Jose before he converted 8 years ago, Islam helped him to get away from a life of drugs and alcohol
He told Colombia Reports that his introduction to Islam stemmed from his interest in Arab music, and begin learning Arab at Medellin’s Muslim culture center so that he could understand his favorite songs.
According to him though, it was God that told him to convert to Islam, adding that he had always been a religious person, “a good Catholic”, before God intervened and showed him “the path of light,” as he put it.
Jusuf told Colombia Reports that his parents always respected his decision, even though they were suspicious in the beginning. It wasn’t until they saw his “change for the better,” however, that they started to truly support his decision.
“Probably the hardest thing was the prohibition of pork, because they are used to buying and cooking with pork,” Jusuf said. He stated that once they understood that one has to follow all the rules of Islam at once, they started to adopt their behavior to their son’s new religion.
“So when my mother understood that, she began to serve me my Mondongo [traditional Colombian soup made of pork offal] before she added the pork.”
According to him, his friends and colleagues also came to accept his new religion step-by-step, even though he received some misunderstanding in the beginning. “People understood it and respected my decision because they could see my commitment,” he said.
For the most part, Muslims have managed to co-exist with Christians within Colombian society. In cities where there is a strong Arab immigrant presence, Arab customs have even blended to certain degrees with the local culture. Arab food, for example, is considered one of the specialties of Barranquilla, a city on the Caribbean coast.
In some cases, however, there has been a strong backlash to the expansion of the Muslim community.
In one recent example, a racist flyer was issued in Bogota in 2013 ahead of the parade inaugurating the Colombian capital’s first-ever mosque, calling Muslims “dangerous terrorists” who kill women and children in places like Nigeria and Syria.
Referring to the Bogota flyer, Dasuki said that “a person who has something against the Islam should able to say it, but he should say it directly, so we can explain to him what the Islam is.”
The Imam said that while the Muslims respect Colombian culture and traditions, they also demand respect for theirs.
He called on mutual respect and blamed general ignorance about Islam for fueling these kinds of resentments. “These people confuse Islam with certain sects. Religion is Religion, while a sect is a derivate from a religion.”.
Much of the international media attention devoted to Islam and the Muslim world focuses on violence and extremist “terrorist” activities, which also helps explain why Muslims in Colombia and elsewhere are often met with vitriol and suspicion.
A recent Miami Herald report, for example, highlighted a ring of suspected Lebanese and Lebanese-descended money launderers in Maicao, whose activities allegedly support the activities of the Hezbollah army in Lebanon, generally considered a terrorist organization.
While acknowledging that these kind of groups exist, Dasuki called extremist factions “misguided,” pointing out that they only represent a small fraction of the more than one-and-a-half-billion Muslims worldwide, and that to conflate the entire religion with a number of largely political groups would be a mistake.
This is a sentiment Colombians, also judged internationally for the longstanding violence and narcotics stereotypes associated with their country, can perhaps relate to, another thing to be shared between two cultures that have grown alongside one another and together for some time now.