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Islam and Arabs in Cuba

This is part of a lecture given by Daniel F. Rivera that took place at FIU, 12 November 2015.

Daniel Rivera

on 1 June 2018

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Transcript of Islam and Arabs in Cuba


danielrivera11@gmail.com &
Miami, Florida

Islam and Arabs in Cuba

Islam and Arabs in Cuba: A Historical and Contemporary Overview

Museum entrance

Museum Casa de los Árabes

Fidel Castro and PLO Leader Yasser Arafat
at the airport in Havana. Nov, 1974.
Fidel Casto and Muammar Gaddafi 1977

1991 the State is not longer strictly atheist
Crisis and Changes during "Periodo Especial" 1991-1997.

-1980 -Cuba universities were graduating hundreds of Palestinian students in varios fields, especialy medicine school, and pharmacy.

-1991, After the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban falls into a huge economic recesation. Cuba began to strengthen ties with many Arab and Muslims countries and begin join ventures in education and trade. Cuba opened embassies in Qatar, Turkey, Tunisia, and Jordan. Also it restablished relations with Iran and Israel.

-Between 1985-1990. The Cuban government changed its position towards religion. In 1991, Christians citizens could joint the Communist party, and as a results crucial changes were introduced in Cuban legislation.

- The Cuban Constitution of 1976 declared in article 54:

“The Socialist state, which bases its activities and educates the people in the scientific materialist concept of the universe, recognized and guarantees freedom of consciousness and the right of everyone to profess any religious belief and to practice, within the framework of respect for the law, the belief of his preference.

The law regulates the activities of religious institutions.
It is illegal and punishable by law to oppose one’s faith or religious belief to the Revolution, education or the fulfillment of the duty of work
, defend the homeland with arms, show reverence for its symbols and other duties established by the Constitution.”

-1992, article 55 of the Constitution was changed:

“The state, which recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of conscience and of religion, also recognizes, respects and guarantees every citizen's freedom to change religious beliefs or to not have any, and to profess, within the framework of respect for the law, the religious belief of his preference. The law regulates the state’s relations with religious institutions.”

The Cuban Revolution and Islam during the 60s and 70s

1959 After the revolution, the Cuban government restrited immigration.

The Cuban government adopted a marxist-lenninist approach to religion and restricted religious life.

The new Cuban government started developing close relations with various Arab and Islamic countries, and joined the Non-Aligned Movement 1961. In 1973, the Cuban government sent troops to fight along pro-communist factions in various Arab countries: Algeria, Iraq, Syria and South Yemen.

The Cuban government started giving scholarships to many students from the MENA region as a way of strengthening its relations with these Arab states. According to Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, "the scholarships can be considered to be one way in which the Cuban state has assisted the struggles of various independent and anti-colonial movements in the 1970s.

-Nationalisation and expropiations. As a result of the structural changes and nationalization of properties that were taking place in Cuba after the revolution, many wealthy Arab merchants and middle class decided to emigrate to the United States, or other countries. Others returned to their countries of origin. (Menéndez Paredes, Rigoberto. 2007. P: 90).

-Many Arab associations were banned due to strict revolutionary laws.
In 1979 was created la Unión Árabe de Cuba

- UAC is the resul of the merging of various Arab associations that were Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian.

-This association collaborates with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Department of International Relations and the Cuban Commmunist party.

-The association organizes meetings and lectures, and is one of the few libraries in Cuba with Arab books. This organization follows the cultural-educational mission of former Arab associations. The UAC is not a religious or political organization but rather a cultural-social-regional association.

Columbus discovers America and Claims Cuba for Spain.
1526- Slave trade began between Africa and the Americas
Between the 17th and 19th century Cuban population increased considerably due to industrial development and economic wealth. This allowed the middle class to build new homes that often followed Spanish-Mudéjar style, which are common in Seville and Canary Islands.

We can observe how in the 20th century, Mudejar architecture is still present in Cuban modern architecture

At the end of the Spanish colonial period (1898), we might conclude that Mudéjar, Moors and African Slaves might have practiced Islam when they arrived to Cuba but slowly due to the lack of religious freedoms and a well establish religious social infrastructure, they were unable to transmit these knowledge to new generations.

Spanish culture assimilated various Arabic and Islamic elements -Transculturalism- in its vocabulary, and architecture (Aceite, Almohada, Azulejo, Sábila, o Tarraya) and architecture (Mudéjar art) that survived in Cuban culture.

Also in this period, a new wave of Arab immigration from the Middle East started to arrive to Cuba between 1869 to 1900. Around 800 people arrived from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt in this period.
"Islam along with Judaism were after Catholicism, the second and third monotheist religion introduced into post 1492 Americas."

"Islam brought by the enslaved West Africans has not survived. It has left traces."

Islam survived in the Americas due to the continuous arrival of Africans. Some Islamic practices survived among the children of African slaves, but this situation was exceptional.

Orthodox Islam disappeared, yet parts of the religion survived as a number of its traits were incorporated into other African religions. Candomble (Brazil), and Santeria (Cuba), are some examples. These practices introduced Islamic elements through the Youruba religion (first deity is called Orishalah, they pray on Fridays and their color is white).

A close study of the musical particularities of the blues confirm the hypothesis of being an African Islamic-derived type of music. For instance, the call to prayer song for West African muezzin influenced many non-Muslim Africans and it was incorporated in many of their songs. The song "levee Camp Holler" sang by African Americans is a google example of this influence:
Santero Obbaolorum, Pedro Cesar Alfonso Ferrer
Alan Lomax Recordings- Levee Camp Holler, recording 1947
1609 -Mudejars and Moors are expelled from Spain by Felipe III
List of Arab, Berber, Moors, and other Muslims slaves on the ship San Agustine. Habana, 1596.
-19o2. Cuba becomes independent under Tomas Estrada Palma but remains under US protection and influence.
-1899-1902. Begins the first wave of Arab Immigration. Between 1902 and 1919 over 10.000 Arabs arrived to Cuba. Mostly from Lebanon (Mount Lebanon), Palestine (Galilea) and Syria (Homs). They were Christians and Muslims as well.

-Arabs were encouraged to travel to Cuba due to favorable emigration laws (Immigran and Colonization Law 1906). The War of Independence took a heavy toll among young Cuban men and Cuba needed new workers labor to develops its commerce and industry.

-Arabs were called "turks" and "moors", regardless of their country of origin and faith. They mostly settled in urban center such as la Habana and Santiago de Cuba.
-1920 to 1931. After the end of World War I, a new wave of Arab immigration began to arrive. Cuba's sugar industry experienced a great boost and over 9,500 Arabs reached the Cuban shores.
-1931 to 1940's immigration declined due to the world economic depression in 1929; tougher immigration laws and World War II 1939-1945.

-1943 We have an idea of the number of Arab immigrants in Cuba. There were 30,000 Arabs: 22.500 Lebanese (75%), 4500 Palestinians (15%), and 300o Syrians (10%).

- These immigrants created varios cultural associations, magazines and journals in order to safeguard their cultural identity and to deliver support to other Arab fellows in need. A second generation of immigrant begins to emerge.

-Associations such as Comité de Liberación Líbano-Siria (1917). Unión Libanesa de Santa Clara (1930), El centro al-Ittihad (1930), Sociedad Damas Árabes de Cuba (1932), el Centro Palestino (1937), Sociedad Sirio-Libanesa (194o), Comité Panárabigo para la Liberación de Palestina (1947).

-Publications such as Le Cedre du Liban (1918), al-Faihaa (1931 ), La Unión Árabe(1932), and el Cercano Oriente (1944).

-The second generation of immigrant are more integrated in Cuba's society even though most, did not learn Arabic. Many Christians and Muslims Arabs adopted Catolicism or joined masonic lodges such as Shuhada' al-'Arab o Mártires Árabes (1933).
-The last wave of Arab immigration began in the 50's.

-Most of these immigrants were Shi'ite farmers and peasants from southern Lebanon. The left Lebanon due to economic hardships.

Information about this last wave of immigration is scarce.

-Relations between Lebanon and Cuba continued after the revolution but were cool. Cuba argued that the Lebanese government was capitalist, conservative, bourgeoisie, pro-US and anti-Palestinian. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Cuban regime dennounced the genocide perpatrated by the Israeli militaty against the people of South Lebanon. (Damián J. Fernández, 1988. P. 91).

- Relations with Iran broke after the revolution. The new regime in Tehran was suspicious of Cuba's previous relations with the Shah (1975) and its relations with Iraq. (Iran and Iraq war 1980-1988). However, the regime adopted a pragmatic approach, it ended relations with Iranian's People party (IPP or Tudeh) and sought to restablished ties with the Ayallotahs.

In an intweviwe with Time magazine in 1979, Castro was asked about the anti-Marxist stance of Ayatollah Khomeini, he answered: "If the revolutionn improve the future of the people, it does not matter weather it is based on Marxist philosophy. [...] but look, we do not think there is contradiction between religion and revolution. I have said Marxist and Christian can be strategic allies." (Damián J. Fernández, 1988. P. 86).

Since then, relations between Cuba and the Islamic Republic of Iran has developed in matter of social welfare and health. (Haim Shaked, June 1999. P. 4).

- In the 1920's we observe a significant economic and social development within the Arab comunity. Their success and wealth helped them to integrate steadly in Cuba's modern society. Arab entrepenours established business connections with powerful families of the island (e,g, Gabriel Maluf, Julio Abislaiman Saade, or the Syrian from Homs the Kaba family).
Presented by Daniel F. Rivera
Research Felow, FIU
According Manuel Toussaint the persecution of religious minorities such as Mudejars and Moors in Spain led to a significant increase in immigration to the Spanish colonies.
The Spanish monarch Carlos I prohibited the immigration of Moors to the Americas but some groups managed to arrive (illegally), and most of them were forced to convert. (Menéndez Paredes, Rigoberto, 2007, p. 22).
-They became merchants and started small business (textiles), hotels, warehouses and factories since 1883.
-1914-1919. Arab Immigration to Cuba decreased as a consequence of First World I.
-This group of immigrants was very heterogeneous. Most of these Arabs were Syrio-Lebanese Christians Maronites, Greek-Orthodox, Melquites and Protestant (68%). Muslims (Sunni and Shi'ite) around 30%, and small group of Druze(2%).
-Muslims found it hard to mantain their costums and rituals, and they were unable to create Muslims associations or build mosques due to different reasons:

-It was hard to practice in a society that was mainly Western and Christian. There were variuos social tabus regarding Islam and Muslims.

-There was a lack of religious leadership that would guide, support and instruct an organized Muslim community. They were not many schools or religious centers where to learn the Arabic language and the Islamic thought.

-There was a lack of Muslim women and plenty of economic difficulties. Many Muslim Arab immigrants came alone and they did not have the necessary resources to initiate a family.

-Islam was practiced only in private households. Some Muslims communities in villages such as Cardenas maintained some rituals (burials) and they would also celebrate festivities such as Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (feas of sacrifice) .
First Wave of Arab Immigration to Cuba
The Presence of Islam During the Spanish Colonial Period
Mudejars, Moors and African Slaves
An Heterogeneous and Complex Arab Community
Activities, Associations and Publications
Shi'ite Muslims in Cuba
-The Muslim community of Cuba although it had its presence along Cuba's history it did not developed into an organized community of believers until the beggining of the 21 century.

-Many Muslims in Cuba are new converts who do not have strong ties with previous Muslims communties. Therefore, this recent wave of conversitions could be understood as the result of a period in Cuba's history where specific political, social and economic factors had played a critical role. Luis Mesa del Monte (2010).

-The Muslim community is a minority in a country of 11 milion. They represents only 0.04% of Cuba's population.
Florida International

Syrian and Lebanese immigrant arriving in Argentina 1902
Neo-Mudejar architecture in Cuba
Islamic Architecture in Al-Andalus (Spain)
Sukarno and Fidel 1960, Havana

Fidel Castro with Ahmed Ben Bella 1962
"We will never forget all you did for our refugees in Morocco and Tunisia. We will never forget how you cared for our orphansand our wounded. Comrade Fidel Castro, the National Liberation Front of Alegeria has awarded only one medal of honor. We have awardede to you."
Ahmed Ben Bella, 16 Oct. 1962.
Fidel with Gamal 'Abdel Nasser, NY 1960
Then-Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein (center) stood with Castro (left) and Defense Minister General Raul Castro (right) on January 30, 1979, in Havana, Cuba, during Hussein's visit.
Hafez al-Assad and Fidel Castro in Havana on February 9, 1979
Centro Cultural Cubano-Árabe
1983 Museum Casa Árabe is inaugurated.
This museum includes the first oficial mosque of the island.

-It is a public and cultural institution dedicated to preserve Arab and Islamic memory in Cuba through expositions, conferences, music and dance workshops and academic events.

A Growing Community of Believers

- In 2014, the director of the Cuban Islamic League declared that there are 10 places of worship in Cuba and 4000 Muslims. There is the need for new places of workship according to him.

-New associations are begining to emerge such as "ahlu Sunna wa al-Jamaah", (trad. People of the Tradition and the Quran) in la Habana and directed by Abu Duyanah. This association works independently from the state, and has demostrated to be more convervative and critical with the gobernment's approach to religion and Islam.

-2015. Turkey is building a new mosque in la Havana and there are negotiations with Saudi Arabia to build another. In the midtime the Cuban government has accondionated a provisional space for Muslims.
Fidel Castro walks with Hassan Khomeine, grandson of Allatollah Khomeini in July 26th, 2001, during an anti-american rally in la Habana commemorating the 48th anniversary of the revolution.
The Creation of the Fist Muslim Association in Cuba

-1991-1999. Cuban embassies were open in Qatar, Turkey, Tunisia and Jordan.

-In 2002 The first muslim association (Cuban Islamic League) was created by a Cuba convert named
Pedro Lazoro Torres
that later on was known by his Muslim name, Iman Yahyia. It had to opperate underground. In 2007 was officialy recognzied by the state.

-Memebrs of this associaction were primarly black poor from urban areas but in recent times has become more diverse.

-The League has received great support from diplomatic missions from Nigeria, Argelia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran May 9, 2001.
Works cited
Amuchástegui, Domingo. Cuba in the Middle East: A Brief Chronology. Miami, Florida: ICCAS, 1999. Print.

Baldovín Ruiz, Eladio. Cuba : el desastre español del siglo XIX. 1. ed. [Akrón historia]. Astorga, León, España: Akrón, 2010.

Constitución De La República De Cuba. Habana: Ministerio de Justicia, 1976. Print.

Constitución De La República De Cuba: Actualizada Según La Ley De Reforma Constitucional Aprobada El 12 De Julio De 1992. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1996. Print.

Curtis, Edward E. The Call of Bilal : Islam in the African Diaspora. Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks. Chapel Hill [North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Diouf, Sylviane A.. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, 15th Anniversary Edition. NYU Press, 2013.

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. Education, migration and internationalism:
situating Muslim Middle Eastern and North African students in Cuba, The Journal of North. African Studies. 2010.

Fernández, Damián J. Cuba's Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press, 1988. Print.

Isis Márquez y Camilo Ernesto Olivera. “ISIS lucha por lo que le pertenece”. CUBANET martes, enero 6, 2015.

Luis Mesa Delmonte. Muslims in Cuba. Paper prepared for the “Islam in Latin America Workshop”. FIU. April 2010.

Menéndez Paredes, Rigoberto. Los árabes en Cuba. Coleccion Raíces. La Habana: Ediciones Boloña : Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad, 2007.

Musulmanes asisten a mezquita recién inaugurada en La Habana. matinoticias.com. Publicado 28 agosto 2015.

Prat Puig, Francisco. El pre barroco en Cuba : una escuela criolla de arquitectura morisca. [Barcelona: Diputació de Barcelona, 1995.

Ramadan 2014 Cuba. Cubanos por el Mundo. Youtube. August 3, 2014.

Uva de Aragón. Los Arabes en Cuba. Bohemio News. Nov 2009.
Works cited
Ramadan in Cuba 2014
American-Cuban TV, Martí, announces opening of new mosque
Full transcript