In a back street in the center of Old Havana, Sarah Caron discovered Cuba’s first Muslim prayer room, on premises renovated with assistance from Saudi Arabia. Here, Sarah Caron met Zakina, Shahida, Dannys and others, a small number of believers forming the discreet community of Cubans who have converted to Islam. The mezquita, or mosque, as they call it, is certainly noticed by Western tourists passing by. The standard view of Cuba is that religion means Catholicism, and it is the image conveyed by the many magnificent churches, such as the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and, in general, by the country’s Latin culture and traditions.
It is difficult to find any clear date marking the advent of Islam in Cuba, but one key moment was in 2005 when a massive earthquake struck Pakistani Kashmir, and Cuba sent medical teams to help. In recognition of this assistance, Pakistan initiated a program of scholarships for young people to study in Cuba, and when Cubans met these young Pakistanis in various provinces around the country, and in Havana, they discovered the Muslim religion, which led some of them to convert.
There are no accurate estimates of the number of Muslim Cubans as the government issues no official data. An American center of statistics gives the figure of 10,000; for the French media it is between 6,000 and 8,000; for the BBC it is closer to 4,000, and for one of the leaders of the local Muslim community, it is just under one thousand.
In Cuban society, which has been cut off from the rest of the world for around sixty years, converting to Islam is not only a spiritual revelation when discovering a new faith, but for many it is an opportunity to open up to a new world, a new language, new cultural traditions and new people to meet. However, as there are no muftis, mullahs, thinkers or spiritual leaders in Cuba, it is not easy for them to learn the religion and practice it. Followers pick up information they can find by whatever means available: word of mouth, through tales told by rare people who have traveled to Muslim countries, or sometimes through glimpses of Turkish television programs downloaded illegally and sold on flash drives on the black market.
In a country where corruption is prevalent, where revolutionary committees are still carrying out active surveillance of the population, and where there is virtually no access to the Internet (with only 5% of Cuban households connected), it is a real challenge to develop a proper religious community that is both honest and independent. This open attitude to Islam may be an opportunity for the government to be on good terms with countries willing to invest in Cuba, e.g. to build a “proper” mosque, but such diplomatic rapprochement may not please President Trump’s administration and those who see Saudi Arabia as a major source of radical Wahabi Islam, and may help put an end to the process of better diplomatic relations initiated by Barack Obama in his second term of office.
Vincent Jolly, reporter, Le Figaro Magazine