Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mohammed's religion in Haiti

In the wake of the rather bumbling apparent attempts by a Trinidadian-Guyanese quartet to blow up New York's JFK International Airport, I came across an interesting piece in the New York Daily News yesterday titled Radicalism heating up in the Caribbean.

While relatively sober and well-written, two passages in the article struck me, as someone who has a bit of experience with the Muslim community in Haiti.

The first, in the text of the article proper itself, stated that "in recent years, a surprising number of mosques have sprouted up in the capital, Port-au-Prince." The second was from an unnamed Caribbean “leader” stating that "We don't understand why there are so many mosques in Haiti."

I found these statements interesting because I have actually followed the rise of Islam in Haiti in some detail over the years, and, as I wrote to the author of the article, James Meek (who sent me a quite nice and open-minded reply), I would venture that the (relatively minimal) growth of the Muslim faith in Haiti is nowhere near as mysterious (or, as seemed to be suggested, threatening) as the “leader” believes that it is.

There are not really "so many" mosques in Port-au-Prince (at last count they numbered under a dozen in a city of two million plus), but, from my research, Islam largely began to take root in Haiti in a modern context with the large-scale return of the Haitian diaspora following the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, some bringing with them the Muslim faith that they had been introduced to in the United States and Canada. A number of these converts found further succor in the presence of Pakistani and Bangladeshi international forces in Haiti following the 1994 multinational intervention. The growth of Islam in Haiti is in fact a subject I dealt with in my 2002 article, for Reuters Mohammed's Religion Finds a Place in Haiti, which can be read here.

The Haitian Muslims I know are, for the most part, decent, lovely people (like Haitians are in general), though, of course, the one Muslim who managed to get himself elected député under the Aristide regime - Nawoon Marcellus (who threatened me on Haitian radio in early 2003) - turned out to be as unsavory as any Haitian politician I've seen. But one can’t malign an entire religion for the action of one or even hundreds of people any more than one could denounce the Catholic church because Aristide himself sprang forth from its pulpits or the United Methodists because they are U.S.President George W. Bush’s denomination of choice.

I remember, one day, as we listened to the muezzin issue the call to prayer in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood or Carrefour-Feuilles, a Muslim congregant who went by the name Racin Ganga, said to me that “Allah says that if a man kills another man it is as if he has killed all humanity… Islamic people should use the weapon of their love, because violence, as we've seen here in Haiti, will not take us anywhere."

That is a sentiment one would hope that people of many faiths could agree on.

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