Published in USA Today here
HAVANA — As Cuban salsa beats pulsate along Obispo Street in the oldest section of this Caribbean capital, bearded men raise their hands to their ears and face east toward Mecca.
They whisper in union “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic). They recite verses of the Koran. They bend down and place their head, knees and hands on Oriental rugs.
Together, they represent a thriving group of Islamic followers in the most unlikely of places: communist Cuba.
As Muslims across the globe celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, which kicked off in early June, they are joined by a small but vibrant community of Muslims — about 10,000, based on their own estimate — who are blending Islamic values and Latin American customs in Cuba. They are now holding their daily prayers inside Cuba’s first mosque on an island more associated with Catholicism and Santeria.
“Islam has been important in Cuban culture since the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the island,” said Marta Linares Gonzalez, 60, who converted to Islam and picked the Islamic name Fatima. “He came with Moorish slaves, who are part of the Spanish culture.”
Shortly after Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, he instituted a communist government, complete with prohibitions on religion. Catholic churches were shuttered, religious schools of all kinds were forced to pack up and leave the island and everyday Cubans took to praying to God in private.
As the years passed, Cuba’s government started easing those restrictions. They allowed for a freer expression of Catholicism, the predominant religion on the island, and Santeria, the blend of African, Caribbean and Catholic beliefs that has become popular throughout Cuba.
In recent years, the Islamic faith has also taken hold.
Pedro Lazo Torres, known as the Imam Yahya, said there used to be so few Muslims in Cuba that they could hold their prayers inside someone’s home. As they grew, their prayers spilled out into the street. Torres is now president of Cuba’s Islamic League and says the number of Cubans asking to convert continues to increase.
He now operates out of a mosque that was inaugurated in June of 2015 thanks to funding from Turkey’s president, Recep Erdoğan. Located in Old Havana, the mosque sits next to an Islamic museum, known as The Arab House, and has brand new Spanish-Arabic copies of the Koran.
Torres said the Muslim population has grown in part because of students who travel to Cuba from Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Rwanda. After an earthquake hit Pakistan in 2005, hundreds of Pakistanis resettled in Cuba and were given scholarships by the government.
But for an island that sees little immigration, most Muslims in Cuba are converts.
“Ninety-nine percent of Cuban Muslims are converted to Islam and not descended of Arabs,” said Ahmed Abuero, the mosque’s religious leader.
That transition was a difficult one for Abuero, 48, who converted after reading Malcolm X’s biography 17 years ago.
“It was difficult at the beginning because I had to stop drinking alcohol, seeing women, playing, eating pork and drinking rum, things every Cuban does,” he said. “The night I converted to Islam, I could not sleep. I knew the following day my life would change forever.”
The gym teacher said the expansion of Islam is a difficult one in Cuba and throughout Latin America, a region with little understanding or exposure to the Islamic faith.
“We don’t have TV shows about Muslims or good news about Islam, so we chat with people to teach them about this religion,” Abuero said.
Some who live by the mosque have grown to accept their new neighbors.
“It is true that a lot of negative things are being said about Muslims in the world, especially the Middle East,” said Marlina Barbosa, 67, who rents out rooms in her Old Havana home to foreigners. “But it does not bother me to see Muslims in Cuba. Every one should be able to practice his or her religion in peace. We Cubans are very open.”
Abuero considers it part of his responsibility to teach people like Barbosa about the religion. Every Wednesday and Thursday, he walks around different neighborhoods of Havana with a group of Cuban Muslims, clothed in their traditional white dress, to teach curious souls about their religion.
“It is every Muslim’s duty,” he said.
Standing on the doorstep of the mosque, Carlos Manuel, 17, a nursing student who adopted the Islamic name Ahmed Abdel Salam, says he converted to Islam over a year ago.
“My three brothers are all Christians,” he said. “For now.”
Abuero hears that and whispers “Inshallah,” or “God willing.”