Costa Rica’s Little-Known Muslim Community

Nestled in the heart of Central America, Islam is unlikely to be associated with the small tropical country of Costa Rica. Yet, as The New Arab finds out, it is home to dedicated practitioners who tell us about their faith, their journey and their lives.

Very little is known about the Muslim community in Costa Rica, a small Central American country with a population of around five million.

Sergio Moya, professor and coordinator of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CEMOAN in Spanish) at the National University of Costa Rica explains that the emergence of communities only began at the late 20th century.

Although there are no official estimates, Moya thinks the Muslim community in Costa Rica is probably the smallest in Central America, with around 400 to 1,200 Muslims, a number that varies greatly depending on the person in question. who you ask.

“The Muslim community, being so small, is quite cohesive. We have not identified any hostility or problem between the communities in sectarian terms”

Neighboring Panama, with a slightly smaller population, has at least 15,000 Muslims.

Moya and his CEMOAN colleagues are currently completing the only field study of Muslim communities in Central America.

“It is about filling a void in academic studies of Islam in the region. There is hardly anything available,” he explained.

“The study revealed similarities within the region, but each country has its characteristics. Overall, there is a majority of Sunni Muslims in the country. However, in Costa Rica, we observed a particular and unique migration of Khoja Shias,” Moya said.

Omar’s Mesquite Entrance Hall [Carla Rosch]

He points out that Costa Rica is the only Central American country with a Khoja community.

“The Muslim community, being so small, is quite cohesive. We have not identified any hostility or problems between the communities in sectarian terms,” he explained.

Sunnis and Shiites often attend the same mosque, the Mezquita de Omar, the main one in the country.

The Omar Mosque and Muslim Cultural Center of Costa Rica is a small building located in the country’s chaotic capital, San José.

The committee that governs and manages the mosque [Carla Rosch]

Traffic is heavy and it’s easy to get lost along the way, as Costa Rica is notoriously difficult to get around, due to the lack of directional signs.

Towards the end of the street, the architecture of the Center stands out from its environment. A few palm trees on one side give it a tropical touch.

A group of Islamic Center board members shared their experiences of being Muslim in Costa Rica with The new Arabic.

Sitting in a circle, social distancing on a very hot day, the first to speak is doctor Abdulfatah Sasa, 81, one of the founders of the Center and the mosque.

Mesquite Prayer Hall of Omar or Musalla [Carla Rosch]

Arrived nearly 50 years ago from Palestine, he now describes himself as “more Tico than Gallo Pinto”; a common local saying meaning it is more Costa Rican than the country’s typical rice and bean dish.

His Spanish is excellent, with only a slight accent to remind you that he is not a native speaker.

In the early 1990s, he met with 14 people in his house. All Muslims, they shared the vision of building the country’s first mosque. They collected what money they could to buy a piece of land with an old house, where they prayed and gave lectures on Islam to the inhabitants.

A year later, they built a house to accommodate an Imam to teach them Islam. They traveled to Panama to ask the Muslim community for financial support for the construction of the mosque, which was finally completed in 2002.

“The Cultural Center devotes a lot of time and effort to educating those interested in Islam. Before the pandemic, they frequently visited schools and opened the doors of the mosque to students. They are now distant, giving courses and conferences on their culture, language and religion via Zoom”

Dr. Sasa, a meticulous storyteller with an impeccable memory, shared an anecdote of when the former President of the Republic, Luis Guillermo Solis, called him directly to ask him for a favor.

It was 2016, at the height of the humanitarian crisis of African migrants stuck at the border with Panama trying to reach the United States, when Solis leaned on him for help with cultural sensitivity.

Omar’s Mesquite Minbar [Carla Rosch]

Tensions were high as the government grappled with so many asylum seekers.

“The president asked me to go that day to the border with Panama to help the Red Cross and the migration police to deal with Muslims. I traveled with a Muslim nurse and a government minister. We talked with them about how to treat Muslims, especially women, and about food.

“The government was aware of how to handle Muslim migrants arriving through the border,” he added.

The mosque has built up an important collection of Islamic texts, in Arabic and Spanish [Carla Rosch]

The conversation turns to Islamophobia in the country, and Badr Alchiekh, 43, smiles as he joins in. After leaving Syria, he moved to Spain, where he met and married a Costa Rican, and has lived in Costa Rica for thirteen years. .

“Honestly, I never had any problems or negative comments about my religion, and I had a lot of interactions with people, from all social classes,” he begins.

“I don’t think xenophobia exists here in Costa Rica, at least not among the people I’ve met. There may be comments here and there, like everywhere in the world, but very rare. People are afraid what they read in the news… ISIS, terrorism, Syria. But when they know you, and we talk to each other, it’s all good. It’s the good thing here in this country it’s quiet I’ve never experienced Islamophobia, and I don’t think anyone else has in the mosque.

Architecturally, the mosque adopted many of the same features as mosques of the Al-Andalus period [Carla Rosch]

However, Roberto Calderon, 50, a Costa Rican Muslim teacher and convert, tells a different story.

Calderon came from a Catholic family and had thought of becoming a priest. After becoming more uncomfortable with religion as a teenager, he had a crisis of faith. One day, Arabic photocopies he saw in a bookstore piqued his curiosity, so he began to investigate Arabic culture and Islam. He admits it was hard to find information at first, but one thing led to another, he started practicing Islam.

“People don’t know much about Islam and make jokes. You know, it’s the culture. There is no bad intention, they just do it for fun. It may be annoying, but you know it’s not hate,” he said.

The mosque has now grown to the point where it now hosts several classes and education on Islam for Costa Rican Muslims and the wider community. [Carla Rosch]

This type of mockery (or “Chota” as it is known locally) is very common, almost a kind of “friendly bullying” towards anything deemed different.

Costa Rican converts likely experience more Islamophobia than native Muslims, especially from close family and friends, as they often find it harder to understand and accept their change of religion.

This was supported by Moya, who explained that it affects women more.

Wearing the headscarf makes women more visibly Muslim. Many misconceptions and stereotypes are attached to it.

“It somewhat complicates the exercise of their religion for converts… You can sugarcoat it, decaffeinate it and call it a joke, but in reality, these are expressions of Islamophobia,” says Moya.

This is one of the reasons why the Cultural Center devotes a great deal of time and effort to educating those interested in Islam. Before the pandemic, they frequently visited schools and opened the doors of the mosque to students. They have now gone remote, giving lessons and lectures about their culture, language and religion via Zoom.

Carla Rosch is a freelance journalist and analyst currently based in London, with a solutions journalism approach.

Follow her on Twitter: @carla_rosch

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