By Charly Menendez Castillo
HAVANA TIMES – Abu Duyanah, (Manzanillo, 1984) a Cuban writer, poet, literary critic and journalist, converted to Islam in 2010. He is the president of the Cuban Association for the Diffusion of Islam, made up of groups on the island which are trying to conserve the most orthodox teachings of Islam, something that has resulted in abuse and persecution by the Cuban government’s religious authorities and officials.
What is the Islamic landscape in Cuba like, after 30 years with a Muslim presence?
Islam in Cuba is always changing, it is never easy, but we have managed some good things for our community, in spite of the Government’s resistance.
HT: What have you achieved for example, and what do you mean by resistance?
Abu Duyanah: Thanks to Allah, we have managed to have a presence in every province and on the Isle of Youth. Some of our brothers and sisters have left Cuba to study in Islamic countries and others have gone to holy places in Saudi Arabia. And, this all began after we founded the Cuban Association for the Diffusion of Islam in 2012.
This doesn’t mean to say that we have done all of these things, but when we haven’t been directly involved, we have had an influence, placed pressure, so to speak. Here, many people have made it their business to make Muslims believe that they will never be able to go to Mecca to make the pilgrimage or to study, and we managed to get some members of our group to go and do both of these things.
In 2008, the Government created the poorly-named Cuban Islamic League, which is an organization to control Islam and prevent it from spreading. However, what happened was that after we proved that it was possible to go and study and make the pilgrimage, the Islamic League began to do the same thing, with the government’s full support of course. I imagine that somebody from the State pulled on the president of the League’s ears.
With regard to the Government resistance we face, it’s the same that every Cuban who isn’t a Communist faces.
HT: What is the Cuban Islamic League?
AD: The Cuban Islamic League was created (allegedly) so as to bring together, serve and represent Muslims in Cuba, but up until now, not a single one of three objectives has been fulfilled. They aren’t aware of Muslims’ problems, especially if they come on behalf of the government. They don’t accept Muslims within their ranks and they don’t have a single foreign Muslim on their payroll, so to speak.
There are two things we need to bear in mind: first of all, it is an organization that is registered as part of Cuba’s Church Council, and in the introduction to the statutes of Cuba’s Church Council, it says that it was created to recognize and worship Jesus, and this is something that goes against the very principles of Islam.
It doesn’t make any sense for an Islamic organization to belong to a Christian organization, but these are the things that are happening in the shadows of a Government that denies human beings their most basic rights.
On the other hand, the Office of Religious Affairs was created, which belongs to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Thus, we can deduce that the League was conceived to brush Muslims aside, in the best of cases. A group of Communists telling a Muslim how to practice their faith is completely inconceivable. To put it in simpler terms: the League is a government tool, a puppet of Communism.
HT: Is there a division between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Cuba? How do they interact with Cuban society?
AD: There is a division, but that happens all over the world, and not only with Muslims. There are divisions between Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Communists, and in every religion and lifestyle on this planet. In Cuba, each group, Sunnis and Shias I mean, does their own thing. But, on a personal level, we get on with Shias very well and we always advocate for a healthy and peaceful coexistence.
The thing is, here in Cuba, good people from both groups make a great effort to prevent perverse characters from sowing any kind of discord. We are aware that more than one Muslim would like to turn Cuba into the next Syria or Iraq, and that’s something that wouldn’t be good for us, and I personally believe that Cuba needs a change, it needs to come out of this rut.
With regard to our interaction with society, we do everything we can, we are always willing to contribute to what is good and we are always ready to teach about Islam. The biggest problem we have in this regard is that people are afraid of getting involved “in things that might bring them problems”. Cubans need to defend the truth, they need to learn to defend what is good and stand up to what is bad, for our collective wellbeing and the wellbeing of our nation. And, there are many bad things here in Cuba.
HT: I understand that you don’t recognize the mosque in Old Havana.
AD: That’s a complicated matter. There isn’t a mosque in Cuba, despite the Government and the League claiming that there is. A mosque is a place that promotes Islam and the wellbeing of Muslims. It is a sacred place, built as Allah’s home. It should never be a place where Muslims or Islam are attacked or harmed. A mosque should never be built by Islam’s enemies, nor should it be built to glorify any human being, or political/ideological regime.
In 2015, the Arab Museum belonging to the Historian’s Office in Old Havana, was extended to the pavement opposite, where the Car Museum once stood; this is where the so-called Abdala Mosque now stands, but it is a place that doesn’t meet the most basic requirements to be considered as such.
Let me tell you that back in the Prophet’s day, Islam’s enemies, from a group of people who said they were Muslims, built a place and wanted it to be considered a mosque. Allah revealed in the Quran that this wasn’t really a mosque and the Prophet ordered that it be razed to the ground.
This place in Old Havana belongs to the Government, its administrator is a member of the Communist Party, who was put there by the Arab Museum, and everything that happens there suits the Government’s interests. You can’t talk about Islam freely there and pro-government propaganda is disseminated. It was built and renovated by workers who weren’t Muslims, despite there being Muslim engineers, architects, designers, bricklayers and restorers in Cuba, as well as many devote followers of Islam. I’m telling you, Cuba doesn’t have a mosque. This is just one of the many spectacles the Government puts on to make it look like religious freedom is respected in Cuba.
HT: And to finish off, did the Government have anything to do with you stepping down as your group’s leader in 2015?
AD: That’s a tough question. We Muslims suffer from the stigma of terrorism and this is something that we find very hard to disprove, especially because Cuba has suffered a lot of terrorism. In 2014, we were accused of belonging to Iraq’s Islamic State, can you believe that.
Government officials are always putting pressure on anyone who isn’t Communist, but in this case, it was I who insisted that my group find a new leader because I was expecting twins and they were going to be born, and this isn’t a game here. Plus, I know that there are many brothers in my group who are ready to guide us.
On the other hand, Communism and Islam are incompatible in many aspects, but that isn’t as important as the fact that both Communists and Muslims here on the island are Cubans and we live in Cuba, an island surrounded by water. We would like both groups to be able to coexist one day without fear of being persecuted, attacked, or wiped out by the other. We especially believe that Cuba would be a better country if religious followers were able to take part in the national project. There is too much of a witch hunt here in Cuba, covered up in legal processes and bureaucracy.
Jose Marti, who I believe to be the best Cuban intellectual when it comes to a national project, said: “An irreligious people will die, because nothing in it encourages virtue. Human injustices offend virtue; it is necessary that heavenly justice guarantee it.” And, Marti was a man who studied Islam in great detail.