Latin America, US Latino Communities, Islam and Iranian Influence

This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.


Key Facts

  • The first recorded presence of Islam in Latin America is attributed to an unnamed Moroccan who, under interrogation from the Inquisition, is recorded as reciting the shahadah in Veracruz, Mexico in 1662. (Karam, 2015)
  • Arab traders began to arrive in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero began in more significant numbers from the 1870s around which a small number of converts and communities grew.
  • Suriname has the largest Muslim population with 15.2%. Guyana is next with 6.4%. Some Latin American countries have Muslim populations of approximately 0.5 - 1% (Argentina, Panama and Venezuela), but the vast majority of Latin American countries have Muslim populations of between 0.1 – 0.4%.
    • The largest country in Latin America, Brazil, has a Muslim population of just 0.2%
  • Small but growing communities of Muslims exist in many Latin American cities.
    • Even Buenaventura in Columbia, one of the most violent cities in the world, has growing Muslim communities, including adherents to the Nation of Islam. (Brodzinsky, 2017)
  • In 2009 only 1% of Muslims in the US identified as Latino or Hispanic. In 2018 it was 7% - about 250,000 people. (IPSU, 2019)
    • Some Latinos in the US who convert to Islam do so for marriage.
    • 56% of Latino converts to Islam come from Catholicism. The rest are Protestant denominations or Atheist background.
    • According to Valerie Russ (2019), for many, the journey to Islam began through being inspired by Malcolm X.
    • A number of Latino converts have spoken about a shared history with Arab Muslims through the Andalusian Caliphate that covered much of Spain and was eventually destroyed in 1492.
    • An increasing number of US mosques are producing literature in Spanish.
    • Dedicated organisations such as the Texas-based da’wa group ‘Islam in Spanish’ are targeting Latino communities.
  • Iran has been active in Latin America for decades. For example, it has been supporting the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime with oil and weapons and using the country as a base from which to influence other parts of Latin America.
    • Up to 2012, Venezuela had received $15 billion in investments and loans. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, signed over 300 agreements with successive Iranian leaders. (Gabow, 2020)
    • The relationship is part of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ to what is seen as US/Western imperialism.

There can be little doubt that there is a growing movement of conversions to Islam in both Latino communities in the US and in the Latin American continent itself. Whilst the numbers are still relatively tiny, it is noticeable that the combination of ‘oppression’ and ‘shared history’ narratives are finding some traction amongst Hispanic communities. Indeed, the signs are encouraging enough for dedicated Spanish language da’wa organisations and materials to be organised. (Allaudeen, 2020)

What is driving this growth?

Cross-cultural marriage is certainly one factor. As noted above, there is a growing number of Latinos (women especially) converting to Islam because of marriage. (Espinosa et al, 2017) There has been a growing trend over more than a decade of Muslim men (frequently Arab Americans) seeking out Latino brides when looking for marriage partners outside of their own communities. Research by Andrzej Kulczycki and Peter Lobo (2013) found that 80% of US-born Arabs had non-Arab spouses with four out five Arab men marrying non-Arab women and three out of four Arab women marrying non-Arab men. However, there is no data which evidences the numbers of Arab men and women who are specifically marrying Latino spouses rather than African, Asian or Europeans. So it is not possible to quantify how much of a factor this dynamic is. However, it is clearly discernible enough to have some bearing on the growth dynamic being discussed.

The narratives of common ‘oppression’ and ‘shared history’ are also finding a resonance. Movements around Black civil rights and the founding of the Nation of Islam appear to have found empathetic ears for Latinos who have felt oppressed either by their own governments, (who were propped up by America in the Cold War period particularly) or by the Catholic church. When this narrative of conversion as protest or escape from oppression is coupled with the narrative of shared Iberian-Arab history through the Andalusian Caliphate, conversion to Islam (in this narrative) becomes a way of restoring a more healthy and natural relationship. In this conception of history, the Andalusian Caliphate is held up as a model of religious and cultural freedom before the oppression of Catholicism arrived.

Da’wa is growing in its methodology and funding. Jan McGirk (2002), in a fascinating article about da’wa in Mexico City noted that the Imam that she was interviewing (Mark Watson, originally from the UK) was receiving funding from multiple sources for his da’wa programmes. She lists donors from a range of international sources: a mosque in Didsbury, Manchester (UK), an anonymous Saudi donor and a Muslim basketball player in the NBA as the principle funders. Watson has been active in da’wa for decades and he has had some success pushing a form of Iranian-inspired fundamentalism through rallies, videos and pamphlets. His success, whilst limited, is testament to long-term energy and resources that is being put into da’wa amongst Hispanics whether in the US or Latin America.

One of the primary funders of da’wa and most active socio-political forces in Latin America is Iran. Lindsay Gabow (2020) notes Iran’s activities in Venezuela particularly (as cited in the previous section), but Venezuela is by no means the only country in which Iran is active. Iran was close to Cuba and Nicaragua during the Cold War and built relationships with the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador. However, all of these relationships began to fade as Iran became isolated under sanctions and the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador chose closer alliance with the US. More recently however Iran has been fostering its relationships with socialist opposition parties on the continent. Bolivia’s opposition party has been using Iran’s Spanish language TV station (Hispan TV- which broadcasts widely over the continent) to broadcast anti-American messages. Key to Iranian da’wa and influence on the continent has been Mohsen Rabbani, who was Iran’s cultural attaché in the region. He helped to build a network of religious centres and clerics who have been supporters of Iran’s revolution as well as being adherents of fundamentalist Islam. One such adherent is Edwar Quiroga Vargas, who is a Peruvian human rights activist. He was invited to a conference of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA – founded by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez) where he heard about, and converted to, Shi’a Islam. Vargas subsequently travelled to Iran for three months studying under Rabbini and when he returned to Peru he founded Peru’s first Shi’a Islamic Cultural Centre. (Ottolenghi and Frai, 2017)

Stories such as Vargas’ highlight the extent to which the Iranian government has built its network in the region. So, whilst it is clear that Venezuela remains the key ally for Iran in the region, it is not Iran’s only outlet: it has retained significant ‘soft-power’ influence through its network of Shi’a Islamic centres.

The combination of increasingly bespoke da’wa, intermarriage, cultural empathy and Iranian targeting has begun to bear more significant fruit amongst US Hispanic communities and Latin American peoples. Although the numbers are still relatively small it is still significant enough to be noticeable. As such, it represents a challenge to Christian ministry amongst Latino peoples.

Allaudeen, Aqilah (2020) ‘US Latino Muslims speak the language of shared cultures’ 2nd July.
Brodzinsky, Sibylla (2017) ‘How Islam took root in one of South America’s most violent cities’ The Guardian 23rd January.
Espinosa, Gaston, Harold Morales and Juan Galvan, (2017) ‘Latino Muslims in the United States: Reversion, Politics and Islamidad’. Journal of Race Ethnicity and Religion Vol. 8, Iss. 1., pp1-48
Gabow, Lindsay (2020) ‘What’s Iran up to in Latin America?’ 8th September.
IPSU (2019) ‘American Muslim Poll: Predicting and Preventing Islamophobia’ Washington DC: Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
Karam, John Tofik, Maria del Mar, Logrona Narbona and Paulo Pinto, eds. (2015) Crescent over Another Horizon: Islam in Latin America, the Caribbean and Latino USA Austin: University of Texas Press
Kulczycki, Andrzej and Peter Lobo (2013) ‘Intermarriage among Arabs in the United States: Patterns, Causes and Significances’ Conference Paper, IUSSP General Population Conference, Busan.
McGirk, Jan, (2002) ‘Rival British-Born Mullahs battle for the loyalties of Mexico’s Muslims’ The Independent 11th August
Ottolenghi, Emanuele and Michaela Frai (2017) ‘Iran’s top export to Latin America: Radical Islam’ 4th August.
Russ, Valerie (2019) ‘More Latinos are becoming Muslims: “Islam is not as foreign as you think”’. The Philadelphia Enquirer 5th May.