Imam Yahya Pedro Lazo Torres is the president of La Liga Islamica de Cuba. A stately man in his 60s, I watched him greet neighbors and friends as he made his way over to the old townhouse, which served as one of only two fully operative mosques in the island-nation’s capital of Havana.
I was in Cuba to attend a two week spring term trip through my university and the partnering organization, Witness for Peace. Despite recent normalization efforts between the U.S. and Cuba and the re-opening of the embassies in both countries last summer, travel to the island was still operative of pre-normalization laws. When I told friends and family that I would be visiting a mosque in Cuba, many were wary – a result of reports, sometimes exaggerated, of state suppression of religion on the island.
Gradual shifts in state policy however, from active promotion of atheism in the 1960s to the eventual allowance of religious peoples’ membership in the Communist Party in the 90s have led to the opening of many religious communities today. Reverend Joel Suarez, founder of the Martin Luther King Center and the aptly named Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, who would also serve as our host, told us that religion had always been alive on the island. Until recently, however, most of it was kept underground.
The MLK Center and the mosque were both located in predominantly black neighborhoods. Association with African heritage through religion is not uncommon among Afro-Cubans and is often a means of resistance to the lingering effects of Spanish colonialism– what the great Cuban thinker Fernando Ortiz called, a ‘failed transculturation’, as well as the racialized economic imperialism of US American intervention in the past century. Imam Yahya would later explain how, while it is uncommon today, Islam has always been part of Cuba’s history, citing evidence of Muslims arriving as early as the 12th century, and then again during the trans-Atlantic slave trade in which 10-15% of slaves were Muslim.
It was fitting then, that Imam Yahya first learned about Islam from West African Muslims who arrived to study on the island after the revolution. He explained how these students, many of whom came to study medicine and benefit from the famed medical schools, were keen on bringing literature and copies of the Quran to share with Cubans. After accepting the new religion he developed a thirst for religious knowledge and began to study and learn on his own, despite minimal access to literature and scholarship.
Raul Castro’s meeting with Pope Francis last Spring was widely seen as a positive step towards opening these religious spaces, and his meeting a month prior with Turkish President Recep Erdogan included talks of building an Ottoman style mosque as well. An architect by profession, Ali described his own dreams for designing the first fully operative mosque on the island.
With what many view as hopeful signs for the religious faithful in Cuba, and for the burgeoning Muslim community in particular, only time will tell how these communities will respond to the exciting changes that are sure to come. For now, says Imam Yahya, “we follow God and his Prophet, and have trust in our faith.”
This article is written by Ahmed Mitiche