Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Muslims in Medellín: Identity on the Margin

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009   No comments

by Ari Iaccarino*

The title of the article might be self explanatory, but the impact Islam has on Colombians is less obvious. In fact, many people are unaware of life in Colombia besides the notorious reputation of cocaine, kidnapping, and Gabriel García Márquez. This essay, on the other hand, includes personal observations and comparisons between conventional Colombians and anything Islam or Muslim that has influenced the traditional Catholic country. The following is my personal journey as a “gringo” trying to learn about Islam in Colombia, while also getting to know more about Colombia through the Muslim community.

Abdullah ben Sadiq

In September of 2008 a friend of mine who knew of my travels to South America asked me if I knew of any Muslim communities in Colombia. Through a quick find on Google, I found the Centro Cultural Islámico Medellín, Mezquita de Medellin (Medellín Islamic Cultural Center, Mosque of Medellin). After establishing contact with the director, Julio César Cárdenas Arenas (or Abdullah ben Sadiq, his Islamic name), we met in a local mall.
Abdullah stood out from most Colombians because of his beard, and I was easy to spot because I was wearing shorts (not too many Colombian men have a beard without a mustache, and only gringos wear shorts in Medellín). He was born as a ´paisa´ (native people in the interior of the department of Antioquia), and raised in a Catholic family. During college at the University of Antioquia, he won a scholarship to go to Sevilla, Spain because he was studying Semitic languages, and in the process made a connection with members of the Muslim community. Abdullah graduated with a degree in philosophy, and is pursuing his masters in theology at the Pontificia Bolivariana University.
Abdullah and I talked for two hours about a plethora of subjects related to Islam, religion, politics, and his own transition to Islam. I asked Abdullah why he switched to Islam. He smiled and said “You just feel it in your heart. I felt it, I knew it was right, and that’s why I became a Muslim.” I also asked him about his position about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. He didn’t explicitly tell me his point, but said “If you see something bad happen, you are responsible for stopping it with your hand. If you can’t do it with your hand, use your tongue and speak out. If you can’t do that, use all of your heart and pray. I worry about my Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine, but we have problems in Colombia too. For this reason, I pray that everything will be okay in Palestine, but actively involve myself in bettering Colombia.” When it was time to go, Abdullah invited me to Arabic and Islamic studies classes every Saturday at the mosque. I told him I probably wouldn’t make it for Arabic, but I would definitely come for the later.


On March 14th I went to the mosque for the first time, which is located in a red two-story building on the second floor, in a relatively quiet neighborhood in Belen. There were seven Colombians, mostly women, and Abdullah Cesar. We took off our shoes, women covered their heads, and we sat on the floor. Abdullah taught us by using a laptop and demonstrated geographical locations where Islam was most prominent, plus the history of the Prophet Muhammad. Much of the discussion was pelted by questions from eager Colombians, sometimes to the point of being too much.
One question inspired a discussion about violence in Islam, but specifically ‘Islamic’ rebels in the Middle East. Abdullah gave an example of how Western media and other sources have demonized Islam by constantly associating its entirety with armed groups. ¨We are taught that there is a separation between ¨church and state,¨ yet Álvaro Uribe [the Colombian President], has invoked the name of Jesus and the Virgin Mary during speeches, but nobody says that his ¨Catholic¨ regime is responsible for four-million people displaced by war¨ (the most in the world.) Nobody else says that the FARC, [las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the country’s oldest armed leftist group], are extremist Catholic rebels, even though most are disadvantaged Catholic peasants. Nobody mentions that the AUC [Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, the most prominent paramilitary group in Colombia], is made up of ultra conservative Catholics who kill homosexuals and prostitutes in the name of good Catholic values. And what do these groups fight for? Land rights (or land take-over), and political influence. Nobody says that these armed groups are extremist Catholics. So you see, even though it’s not the exact same, you could say Catholicism is a violent religion as represented by the armed groups who are mostly Catholics. It is very easy to manipulate religion, or Islam in the Middle East, with armed groups.¨ Abdullah ended class on that note, while everybody continued to digest the whole new concept of Western religious manipulation.
I came to the mosque the following Saturday to a slightly larger class. There were also a group of Pakistani men praying and cooking who hardly spoke any Spanish. They were devoting a year of their life to traveling around South America to teach Islam, and used their own money in the process. I introduced myself, and met a man named Azhar. Originally from Pakistan, he moved to the U.S. and lived in Boston. Now Azhar lives in Medellín with his Colombian wife and daughter and owns a Shell Oil franchise in the U.S.
Shortly after, we started class which mainly included listening to a Pakistani man’s explanation of Islam. The listening process involved three languages: Urdu, to English, to Spanish. The Pakistani man did not speak English or Spanish, so Azhar had to translate into English, while he did not speak Spanish very well, so Abdullah had to translate from English to Spanish for the class. The most impressive quote I heard though was “The best thing Allah created in the human being was the intellect.” I went to Catholic school for ten years, and never did I ever hear anybody stress the importance of human thinking in religion. But the thing that surprised many of the students was a very impassioned moment by Azhar. He began to explain the importance of interreligious cooperation and respect, “Because we are human beings before Muslims.” His voice started to shake, and then continued by saying that Islam best directs him towards living a good life and a spiritually fulfilling existence. Tears began to show, and he said “When you find that spiritual bond with yourself and the creator, it is so unbelievably beautiful. It is so beautiful that I could never fully express it to you through words.” Afterwards my girlfriend told me she almost cried too. “I have never seen passion like that in Catholicism.”

Abdullah invited us to jumu’ah the following Friday, with a discussion to supplicate the service. I decided it would be a great learning experience, so I left work early to go. When I arrived, I saw a woman mopping in the back of the mosque. We greeted each other, and I asked if Abdullah had arrived yet. She told me that he would be there soon, and asked me where I was from. I told her I was from the U.S., and she said she was Colombian. We began to discuss our mutual interest in Islam, and I asked her how she became a Muslim. Her son had been a Muslim for two years, and introduced her to the religion. “Why do you choose to be a Muslim and not a Catholic?” I questioned. “Because everybody is equal!” she said with a big smile.
I was surprised, since the basic stereotype is that women in Islam are severely disadvantaged and unequal. In fact, when I mentioned to a Colombian male friend of mine that I had been visiting the mosque, he said to me “That religion is shit. I don’t like how they treat women.” Yet there were female converts, so what about Islam is more appealing for Colombian women? In Colombia and much of Latin America, it is unofficially accepted if a man has extramarital relations or multiple girlfriends. In conversations with Colombian men, they ask me if I party, and if I’ve been “knowing” the women (while they make a fist and pounding motion to the other open hand). I tell them I have a girlfriend, and they tell me it doesn’t matter: “Cualquier mujer que quieres,” [Whatever woman you want]. On the contrary, at the mosque they ask me when I am going to marry my girlfriend, and never encourage me to “know” other women.
What else in Muslim culture might be appealing for Colombian women? Many people say that it is unfair that women have to wear extra clothing versus the men. Yet in Medellín there is an expectation that women wear less clothing than men, or material that accentuates their figure. Not only is there a pressure to blatantly show a feminine figure, but Medellín is also one of the plastic surgery capitals of Latin America. If you journey into the Poblado section of the city, there is a massive sign with a very white, barely clad woman that advertises laser and plastic surgery: “When men see a Paisa woman, they lose their mind. When they get to know her, they lose their heart.” In this sense, the Muslim alternative provides freedom from a machista culture that encourages sexual objectification and unnatural modification of the female form.
While I waited for Abdullah, I sat down on the floor and read a book that explained the last tenth of the Koran, plus other rules in Islam. A Pakistani man approached me and asked what I was reading. I showed him the book, and he wanted to know if I was Muslim. I told him I was a student of sorts. “Well, if you’re a student, you need to learn the shahada!” I had no idea what it meant, but he started teaching me words in Arabic. After 15 minutes of recitation practice, I asked the Pakistani for his name. “Mehboob! What’s your name?” I told him “Ari.” He shook his head and said “No, no, no. Now your name is Ali, like the great companion of the prophet! We’ll continue with your lesson afterwards.” Before I had any time to say anything else, the sermon started. There were close to 30 people in the mosque. Most were Colombian, but there were Pakistanis, Syrians, and Turks as well. Abdullah conducted the sermon in Spanish, while those who could not speak the language sat patiently and twitted their thumbs. After the sermon, a sturdy Afro-Colombian man sang the call to prayer. We stood in four lines, perfected by men who checked before prayer started. I had never been to jumu´ah before, and did not know what to say or when to bend down, but I followed along. A Pakistani man led prayer, and I was able to hear a sustained amount of Arabic for the first time in person. The whole service seemed beautifully sacred, collective, yet personal. Standing side by side with men from different nationalities and languages created the shared experience, while each person continued to form their own connection with Allah. It reminded me of Malcolm X’s account of hajj in his autobiography.

After prayer, we set up a large green mat to eat. It was a great opportunity to know other members of the community. I met a 19 year old half Syrian – half Colombian, a fruit and vegetable vendor, clothes distributor, merchants, and university students. It was also an opportunity to take a break from bland Colombian food and indulge in Pakistani cuisine. One of the Pakistani men noticed my enthusiasm when I ate, and asked me if I liked the food. I told him I loved it, and he said “I don’t blame you. I don’t like Colombian food. It’s what we give to sick people back home.”
When everybody finished, we cleaned up and headed out to get coffee. It wasn’t until I left that I realized how different the outside conventional Colombian world can be compared to the mosque. Inside the mosque, it is a quiet, sober atmosphere where words are spoken with respect. In the exterior though, you can see Colombians drinking at two in the afternoon and neighbors having implicit competitions of who can play salsa, meringue or Reggaeton louder than the other. Another defining characteristic of the mosque is the aspect of touch between men and men, plus women and men. Colombian culture is very machista, in that men have to act very manly, and manly men don’t hug; they shake hands. It’s different in the mosque though. When I enter, men exchange hugs and big smiles. After my first long conversation with Mehboob, I actually received a hearty kiss on the neck when I left. Between friends and acquaintances, Colombian men and women kiss on the cheek to greet and depart. At the mosque though, men and women do not touch, even if they are a couple. Even the regular interactions on the street between Colombian couples confused some of the Pakistani men. One Pakistani man saw a couple holding hands and kissing on the street, and he asked a Colombian Muslim what the special occasion was.


I ended up coming to the mosque three days in a row. One day for jumu’ah, Saturday for class, and Sunday just because Mehboob told me to come. We spent the day going over the shahada, he taught me masah (I was soaked because of how many times he corrected me), and then the corporal positions for salat. I also acted as a translator between the Colombians and Pakistanis, who could only really say “¡Hermano! Cómo estás!?” [Brother! How are you!?]. After wed finished tea, Omar, a Colombian Muslim, asked the Pakistani men if they wanted to go to his brother-in-law’s house for five minutes. Mehboob said sure, as long as they were back in time for evening prayer.
The contrast between the three men dressed in Muslim attire and the Colombian community was quite apparent. While we were driving to Omar’s friend’s house, we heard a person shout “Obama!” Omar started to laugh and said “Yeah, people get confused between Osama and Obama; they think they’re from the same family!” When we got out of the car, eyes were immediately on the three men. Stepping out of a house or car and into the public view is a more of an intense experience in Colombia than in the U.S. Colombians orient towards a collective culture by spending a lot of their time outside of the house with neighbors, friends, and family, so the whole community stared at us.
We proceeded to walk through an alley, and little children continued the dazing process. We arrived at Omar’s brother-in-law’s house, and a small parade of nine youngsters and women looked at us through the door. While I translated for Mehboob, he asked the group if they wanted to be Muslims. One woman replied “I don’t even know what a Muslim is!” I wasn’t surprised. One time I had tried showing my class that learning English was easier than other languages, and I wrote “Koran” in Arabic. I told the students what it meant, and if they knew about Islam or Muslims. “Yeah, aren’t they like Jews?” replied the brighter student of the class. With only .2% of the population listed as Muslims (as of 2004), it’s not surprising if Colombians have never heard of Islam.
After a few minutes of talking at Omar’s brother-in-law’s house, Mehboob was insisting that we leave as soon as possible so we could pray on time. Although Omar is a Muslim, you can never take away the Colombian quality of being perpetually late. “Yeah don’t worry, we’ll get there!” As we drove away, Omar asked us if it was okay if we stopped by somewhere close to tell his dad to come with us to the mosque. Mehboob was visibly frustrated, but said sure. When we finally arrived, we were joined by Omar’s father-in-law, brother-in-law, and uncle-in-law. Omar’s father-in-law smiled a lot and said he loved coming to the mosque, although he admittedly that he only came sporadically. Omar’s uncle-in-law though was the most interesting. He was originally from the rural countryside of Colombia, and had only been in Medellin for two months. He was dressed like somebody from the country, with long light jeans and a trademark mustache.
It was hard conducting the group talk after prayer. An Afro-Colombian man led the discussion in Spanish, while the English speaking Pakistanis tried to follow along. The speaker had a powerful and charismatic voice, enough to make the non-Spanish speakers move their heads and pay attention. The man spoke about the strength of Islam and that it is our duty to deconstruct stereotypes of Muslims while providing truth. He then mentioned Westerners’ perceptions of women in Islam: “People say ‘Oh those poor women! They have to cover themselves! They must be oppressed!’ Brothers, there is no law in Colombia that says they have to cover themselves. Our sisters freely choose to cover themselves because they have the fear of Allah in their hearts. They have respect! They choose to wear the hidjab…” He then went on to make a comparison between Colombian Muslim women and conventional Colombian women. “Our women are like private cars: they are special and reserved for one person. Their women are like taxis!” I unintentionally let out an “Owwwww” like I had just seen somebody get punched in the face. Omar looked at me with his head nodding and said ¨It’s true!¨
We finished the day with Mehboob and other Pakistanis asking ¨Who’s coming to Pakistan in four months?¨ Omar’s father-in-law was excited and said he would like to go, along with his uncle-in-law from the country side. They also asked me. ¨Alí, you’re going, right?¨ I told them ¨Sure, why not,¨ knowing that I wouldn’t go. It was interesting though seeing two completely different worlds, languages, and cultures slowly merging into one religion: Islam.

Johnny Get Your Koran

Every time I go to the mosque, I always see Johnny Ochoa, or “Alí,” (his Muslim name). Alí is a tall, sturdy 34 year old Colombian guy who buys and sells clothes. He always gives me a big smile, firm hand-shake, and a massive hug. It wasn’t until a month later that I finally asked Alí how he became a Muslim. His journey as a convert is similar to many Colombians: curiosity mixed with dissatisfaction in the previous religion (usually Catholicism):

It was in the Guajira department, around 1997. I was taking a break on the second floor at work, and I heard the adan, or the call to prayer. I was pretty interested, and a few days later I visited and met a man named Tarek, a member of the Wayúu indigenous community. He taught me more about Islam, and I began to identify myself with the religion…
You believe in a religion since you’re a kid. They take you by the hand to church, because their parents did the same. It’s basically a family tradition. I started to reflect about it, and question my own thoughts about faith, in terms of the short journey we’re allotted here on Earth. So I made the decision to follow something that I identify with, something more personal for me. I guess I never identified with being Catholic, maybe it’s my genes. God knows why better than I do. Either way, I’ve been a Muslim for about 11 years now.

Alí’s learning is also interesting, in that his first mentor happened to be a member of the Wayúu (a group of indigenous people who live in north eastern Colombia and north western Venezuela). His experience is another testament to the diversity of Muslim memberships in Colombia.
I then asked Alí how the change to Islam affected the way he interacted in Colombian culture, but specifically his love life.

When you live in the West, you can’t change what’s already there. You can enjoy the word “love” in all sense of the word in Colombia; there’s no limitation. But, if I want to have a serious relationship with somebody, I need to be honest with her and tell her who I am. I would need to follow Islamic rules in my marriage. But suppose I was living in an essentially Muslim country, my love life would be guided by the norms there. Essentially, it’s all cultural adaptation. I was born here, my parents and grandparents are from Colombia, and they gave me their idiosyncrasies and culture. I’m a Muslim, but I’m also Colombian, and in Islam it is prohibited to discriminate against other cultures. I need to learn, respect, tolerate, and act like a believer inside of my own culture.

Alí’s acceptance of his cultural inheritance and surroundings inevitably influences his life as a Muslim, yet he feels he can sustain his spiritual obligation without denying his nationality and the customs that are included. Even though he “culturally adapts,” he does mention that if he were to marry, he would apply Islamic rules to one of the most intimate parts of his life. Alí’s journey is a compliment of two strong personal forces in his life, beginning with his original Colombian identity, afterwards his Muslim conversion, and eventually learning how to live as a Colombian Muslim.


One day after jumu’ah, I asked Abdullah about the Pakistani men who left to continue traveling throughout South America. We joked about how some of them would make absurd burping noises, or clear their throat like a cannon. “I have to admit though, it is amazing that they are dedicating this amount of time away from their families for their religion,” I commented afterwards to Abdullah. He replied “I think they’re in the right place to be doing it though.” I asked him why, and he said “There are three things here that would incline people towards Islam. One, a lot of people here are disillusioned with the Catholic Church and the Pope. How can somebody in Italy live in a palace and try to dictate spirituality, while there are people dying of hunger and violence here in Colombia? Second, many people don’t believe in the Trinity because they don’t understand it, and even more aren’t aware of its political invention. Thirdly, there are people who don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God like the priest told them. One of the Pakistani men was talking about me to his fellow traveling partner, and said ‘I’m Muslim by chance, but Abdullah is Muslim by choice.’ People here are making the choice to be Muslim without force, monetary incentive, or cultural inheritance. For all these reasons, I think Colombia is ready for Islam.”
I’m happy I’ve made the choice to learn about the religion and the Muslim community in Medellín. There’s a saying here: “Todo es plata.” Everything is money. Because everything is money, and many people don’t have it, they’ll do anything to get cash. Stealing, begging, ‘religious contribution,’ or selling orange Tang as real orange juice is not unusual here. In some instances I’ve been told not to trust anyone because many people have had good friends or family steal from them. When I go to the mosque though, nothing is about money. It is time purely devoted to study, spirituality, and connecting with fellow members. Nobody asks members for money, nobody charges to teach about the religion, nobody sells religious books (they give them away). Essentially, nobody discusses money for items and services that would lead somebody to form a closer connection with their god.
Besides the pleasure of finding existential sanctuary free of terminal materialism, the opportunity to hear diverse stories that demonstrate contrasts and similarities between cultures and people helps me to understand a country that is only infamous for drugs, violence, and magical realism. Religion makes communities, but communities inevitably adjust their spiritual and religious lives to what has already been in their own country. Whether it’s Abdullah’s admittance that Colombian Muslims need to worry about repressive violence in their own country, or Alí’s coexistence with his Colombian and Muslim identities, these people and their ideas are representative of a small but noticeable population.


* Ari Iaccarino (Marlboro College, Marlboro, VT) is a native of Davenport, IA; he has spent extensive time in Colombia studying motivation in the English classroom.
** For more information about the mosque in Medellín, please visit:

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