Embracing Islam amid the changing religious landscape of Cuba comes with its challenges
Cuba is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable states in the world. The country provides free healthcare and education, and anti-gentrification laws mean that Cuban locals still live in the tourist districts (think social housing projects in Oxford Circus). Streets are named after Latin American revolutionaries and there is even a monument of Ho-Chi Minh. For the activist, there is much to revel in.
There is, of course, the danger of romanticising Cuba. No state is perfect. There are many who have fallen through the cracks of state protection and they are overwhelmingly Afro-Cuban. Institutional racism is still rife and the ‘Cuban Dream’, the less popular cousin of its American counterpart, is still far from being realised.
Historically, one of the starkest critiques of the Cuban state has been its lack of religious freedom. After the Cuban revolution (1953-1959), Cubans of faith were barred from joining the Cuban Communist Party and the state promoted atheism. However, this has changed markedly in recent years and there has been a shift in how religion is practised and perceived, a phenomenon never more noticeable than when Pope Francis visited the country in September 2015. With a population comprised of followers of Catholicism and various Afro-Cuban faiths, Cuba is now much more open to religious plurality and freedom of worship. One of the faiths experiencing a growing popularity in the country is Islam.
In a country where Wi-Fi internet access may only be enjoyed in public spaces, and despite a general lack of awareness concerning Islam, there are an estimated 6,500 Muslims in Cuba. In apparent response to this, in June 2015, the Mesquita Abdullah mosque in Cuba opened its doors. Located in a former car museum in the centre of Old Havana, the mosque is funded by the Saudi Arabian government. The space is generously adorned with the essential resources needed to function, as well as beautiful calligraphy on the walls.
The vast majority of Cuban-born Muslim families came to Islam through their interactions with medical students from Muslim countries, from Chad to Pakistan. An old-fashioned exchange of ideas has and is taking place across the country on the topic of God and the spiritual.
I spoke to some of the Cuban Muslims attending the mosque to hear their stories, to ask how they became Muslim, and to understand the benefits and challenges of practicing Islam in Cuba.
Pedro Lazo Torres (Imam Yahya)
Can you tell us about “Cuban Islam” and what that looks like?
“We founded the Islamic League of Cuba, which is a religious foundation, in February of 2007. This was the moment we were granted approval from the government.
There is no Pakistani, Arabic, Chinese – [Islam] is a message for all mankind. For that reason, the message reached Cuba as well. Our conversion was inspired by the holy example of the Prophet Mohammed, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, despite all the negative messaging that the world tells us about Islam. Our logic and rationale attracts us to Islam. We, the Cubans, have now created the first religious institution relating to Islam.
Around the Caribbean, there are a number of countries, like Guyana and Barbados, which have also created their own Islamic institutions. In 500 years of Cuban history, there were no Islamic institutions. We are perceived as a communist country where the freedom of religions doesn’t exist, but in Cuba this is not the case.
With regards to other faith communities, we have a strong Jewish community here in Havana and we have a good relationship with them. We have excellent relationships with the Catholic and Protestant community too.”
How difficult is it to acquire knowledge about Islam in a country where global communications are difficult?
“It is difficult, but as the Qur’an says, after difficulty comes ease. For example, I appoint the younger Cuban converts to Islam for the next generation, and when the opportunity comes we will send them to study abroad in places like Turkey. At this moment in time, we don’t have the right channels to reach universities. The problems with communication and the internet makes it difficult for us to apply for things. This is a problem for all Cubans, but especially Cuban Muslims. We need a lot of support worldwide to try to have access to allow our community to grow.”
Alexis Sanchez Tamayo (Akil)
Could you tell us about your personal journey in converting to Islam?
“Around 11 years ago, I was searching for information on Islam and looking at the example of many different Arabian leaders like Gamal Abdul Nassar and Yasser Arafat. Beyond that, I found the steadfastness of the Arabian people [was] based in their beliefs in Islam. I had a personal friend who was a Muslim and gathered information on Islam from him. After that I took my shahada (testimony of faith) in 2005.”
What are the main challenges of being Muslim in Cuba?
“The main difficulties we find in practicing Islam in Cuba is closely related to culture. Our culture is quite far from the fundamental basics of Islam. Things like halal food, acquiring proper knowledge, these things make it difficult. Mainly, it’s having a public place to perform our prayers in Cuba. Alhumdulilah, now we have this place, but at that time we only had houses.”
What about Muslim women in Cuba – do they face any difficulties?
“They face more problems. The sisters, when they take that step, face problems in their families and their schools. There is an inward and outward change sisters wish to take and this causes issues in society. There are stories of many sisters being criticised for how they express their faith.”
Allen Garcia (Amir Ali)
Can you tell us how you became Muslim?
“I played the guitar on the streets for money [for] my wife and kid. I came from Santiago and asked God to change me, my intentions. The Prophet said it is all about intentions. I tried to commit suicide and ended up converting in hospital. I saw a man called Isa praying in the hospital and spoke to him about what he was doing. After this, I took my proclamation of faith.”
How have friends reacted to your conversion?
Friends of other faiths have congratulated me. They saw I was calmer and they saw me change, they said, “I respect you, you respect me.”
Mosque Abdallah is located on Calle Oficios, No. 18, Havana, Cuba.
Photography: Sharaiz Chaudhry studied Middle East Politics at university before pursuing traditional Islamic studies. He is a keen amateur photographer and is interested in socio-political and international affairs.
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