Discovering the small and little known Muslim community in Costa Rica
Very little is known about the Muslim community in Costa Rica, a small country in Central America with a population of about five million.
Sergio Moya, Professor and Coordinator of the Centre of the Middle East and North Africa Studies (CEMOAN in Spanish) of Costa Rica’s National University explains that the emergence of communities only began in the late 20th century.
Although there are no official estimates, Moya believes that the Muslim community in Costa Rica is probably the smallest in Central America, with about 400 to 1,200 Muslims, a number which varies considerably depending on who you ask.
"The Muslim community, being so small, is quite cohesive. We have not identified any hostility or problems between the communities in sectarian terms"
Next door neighbour Panama, with a slightly smaller population, has at least 15,000 Muslims.
Moya and CEMOAN colleagues are currently wrapping up the only field study about the Muslim communities in Central America.
“It is about filling a void in the academic studies about Islam in the region. There is practically nothing available,” he explained.
“The study revealed similarities within the region, but each country has its traits. Overall, there is a majority of Sunni Muslims in the country. However, in Costa Rica, we observed a peculiar and unique migration of the Khoja Shias,” said Moya.
He points out that Costa Rica is the only country in Central America 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 Shias often go to the same mosque, Mezquita de Omar, the main one in the country.
The Omar Mosque and Cultural Muslim Centre of Costa Rica is a small building located in the country’s chaotic capital, San Jose.
There is heavy traffic and it is easy to get lost on the way there, as Costa Rica is notoriously difficult for moving around, due to lack of signs for directions.
Towards the end of the street, the Centre’s architecture stands out from its surroundings. A couple of palm trees to one side give it a tropical flair.
A group of members of the Islamic Centre’s board shared their experiences of being Muslim in Costa Rica with The New Arab.
Sitting in a circle, socially distanced on a very hot day, the first to speak is medical doctor Abdulfatah Sasa, 81, one of the founders of the Centre and mosque.
He arrived nearly 50 years ago from Palestine, but now describes himself as “more Tico than Gallo Pinto”; a common local saying meaning he is more Costa Rican than the country’s typical dish of rice and beans.
His Spanish is excellent, with only a light accent to remind you that he isn’t a native speaker.
In the early 1990s, he gathered with 14 people in his house. All Muslims, they shared a vision of building the country’s first mosque. They assembled the money they could to buy a lot of land with an old house, where they prayed and gave talks about Islam to locals.
A year later, they built a house to welcome an Imam to teach them about Islam. They travelled to Panama to ask the Muslim community there for financial support to build the mosque, which was finally completed in 2002.
"The Cultural Centre spends a great deal of time and effort in educating those interested in Islam. Prior to the pandemic, they would frequently visit schools and open the mosque’s doors to students. They have now gone remote, giving classes and lectures about their culture, language and religion via Zoom"
Dr Sasa, a detailed storyteller with impeccable memory shared an anecdote of when former President of the Republic, Luis Guillermo Solis, called him directly to ask for a favour.
It was 2016, during the peak of the humanitarian crisis of African migrants stuck on the border with Panama trying to reach the United States when Solis relied on him to assist with cultural sensitivity.
Tensions were high as the government struggled with such large numbers of asylum seekers.
“The President asked me to go that day to the border with Panama to help the Red Cross and Migration Police in dealing with Muslims. I flew 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 conscious about how to handle Muslim migrants arriving through the border,” he added.
The conversation changes to Islamophobia in the country, and Badr Alchiekh, 43, smiles as he chips in. After leaving Syria, he moved to Spain, where he met and married a Costa Rican woman, and has been living in Costa Rica for thirteen years.
“Honestly, I have never had any problems or negative comments about my religion, and I have had a lot of interactions with people, of all social classes," he begins.
"I don’t think xenophobia exists here in Costa Rica, at least not with the people I have met. There may be some comments here and there, like anywhere in the world, but very rare. People get scared with what they read in the news… The Islamic State group, terrorism, Syria. But when they get to know you, and we talk, it’s all good. That’s the good thing here in this country, it’s calm. I have never experienced Islamophobia, and I don’t think anyone else has in the mosque.”
However, Roberto Calderon, 50, a teacher and a Costa Rican Muslim convert tells a different story.
Calderon came from a Catholic family and had thought of becoming a priest. After growing more uncomfortable with religion as a teenager, he had a faith crisis. One day, some photocopies in Arabic he saw at a bookstore sparked his curiosity, so he started investigating Arabic culture and Islam. He admits it was hard to find information in the beginning, but one thing led to another and he began to practice Islam.
“People don’t know a lot about Islam and make jokes. You know, it’s the culture. There isn’t any bad intention, they just do it for laughs. It can be annoying, but you know it is not hate,” he said.
This type of mocking (or “Chota” as it is known locally) is very common, almost a sort of ‘friendly bullying’ to anything that is deemed different.
Costa Rican converts probably experience more Islamophobia than born Muslims, especially from their close family and friends, as they often have a harder time understanding and accepting their change of faith.
This was supported by Moya, who explained that this affects women more.
“This makes it somewhat complicated for converts to exercise their religion… You can sugar coat it, decaffeinate it and call it joking, but in reality, they are expressions of Islamophobia,” Moya explains.
This is one of the reasons why the Cultural Centre spends a great deal of time and effort educating those interested in Islam. Before the pandemic, they would frequently visit schools and open the mosque’s doors to students. They have now gone remote, giving classes 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