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Caribbean

Source:
The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Caribbean

    The Caribbean region, also referred to as the West Indies, includes the islands in the Caribbean Sea from the tip of the Florida peninsula to the northern coast of South America. Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Barbados, and 19 other islands comprise the West Indies. Muslims are part of many of the societies in the Caribbean region as small minority communities and as part of larger cultural groups.

    Although Islam provides a clear religious identity for individuals, Caribbean Muslims frequently define themselves by ethnic origin rather than by faith. Islamic peoples have lived in the Caribbean region since at least the beginning of the 1500s, when individual Muslims participated in various western European expeditions. Today most Caribbean Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who came to the region in the 1800s and 1900s. Muslims in the West Indies make up three distinct ethnic groups—South Asian, Arab/Syrian, and African.

    The majority of the Muslims in the Caribbean region have their origins in South Asia. They are descendants of thousands of indentured servants who came to the West Indies from British India after the abolition of the slave trade. The ending of slavery in the Caribbean, especially after the Act of Abolition in 1833 , created a labor shortage when former slaves refused to continue working on the plantations. Plantation owners found an alternative source of cheap labor in India and established a system of indentured servitude. Between 1845 and 1917 , more than 400,000 workers from India came to Trinidad and British Guiana (now Guyana), and smaller but significant numbers of workers arrived in Jamaica and other British colonies. Landowners in Dutch and French colonies also brought large numbers of laborers from South and Southeast Asia to work on their plantations in the Caribbean.

    The majority of the South Asian workers were Hindu, and they established large Hindu communities, especially in Surinam, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. However, a significant percentage of the immigrants were Muslim. In some cases, as in Trinidad, as many as one out of every five were Muslim. Muslims currently represent a significant minority group within every South Asian community in the Caribbean. By the end of the twentieth century, over 400,000 Muslims (including South Asians) lived in the West Indies, with the largest communities in Trinidad, Surinam, and Guyana. More than 100,000 live in smaller communities on at least a dozen islands, including Barbados, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.

    The second major grouping of Caribbean Muslims is historically identified as Syrian or Arab. This group descended from immigrants who came from eastern Mediterranean countries in the late 1800s. They came as individuals or with families and were entrepreneurs, typically working as peddlers, local storeowners, and merchants. Although they arrived in small numbers, they became an important part of the commercial elite in many societies. They played, and continue to play, an important role in the economic life of such countries as Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts, and Haiti. The majority of Syrian/Arab immigrants, however, were not Muslim. Most were Christian, either Orthodox or Catholic. Those who were Muslim established small mosque communities in many places.

    The third and smallest group of Muslims in the Caribbean region descended from African slaves. Although many of the enslaved Africans working on plantations were Muslims, the conditions of slave labor made it virtually impossible for them to maintain a clear Islamic identity. While reminders of their Islamic origins are still apparent in some aspects of Afro-Caribbean popular culture, few slaves remained visibly Muslim within the Caribbean societies of the 1700s and 1800s. An awareness of Muslim heritage, however, inspired many Afro-Caribbean people to convert to Islam in the 1900s. The development of Afro-Caribbean Muslim communities during the last century has been aided by interactions with African-American Muslim groups in the United States. Organizations in the West, such as Nation of Islam and the World Community of Islam, have worked to support the growth and expansion of Muslim communities in the Caribbean region.

    Although Caribbean Muslims view themselves as belonging to a global religious community, they define themselves primarily in terms of their ethnic and cultural heritage. In politics, for example, Indian Muslims are more likely to work with other Indians than with Muslims who come from outside the South Asian community. Similarly, Arab Muslims in the West Indies are more likely to emphasize their identity as Arabs and to participate in the local Arab/Syrian community.

    Ethnic differences sometimes create tensions between different Muslim groups, as happened in 1990 in Trinidad and Tobago, when a group called the Jamaat al-Muslimeen attempted to take over the government in an unsuccessful coup. The group consisted of Afro-Trinidadian Muslims and received no support from Indian or Syrian Muslims. Instead, the Jamat al-Muslimeen accused the Indian and Syrian Muslims of belonging to the economic elite that exploited people of African heritage.

    In the last decades of the twentieth century, a number of regional Muslim organizations emerged in the Caribbean region to unite Muslim communities and to dissolve ethnic and community boundaries. Muslims formed the Federation of Islamic Organizations of the Caribbean in 1977 and the Association of Islamic Communities of the Caribbean and Latin America in 1982 . Some communities established Muslim schools and attracted students from several countries. Although these efforts reflect a growing sense of the importance of regional connections for Muslims, the essence of Caribbean Muslim life today continues to be the religious associations linked to the various immigrant and ethnic heritages. See also Latin America.

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