In a volatile corner of southern Mexico, history is being turned on its head. Muslims settlers from Spain are running a madrassa — or traditional Koranic school — on the outskirts of a pretty colonial town in the state of Chiapas, where they are determined to bring renegade Maya Indians to Allah.

There are whispers that Protestant Maya men are embracing Islam so each may frolic with four young Spanish wives to breed new warriors for a Holy War, right on America's doorstep. Others accuse well-heeled Gulf Arabs of buying Mayan souls by doling out food, shelter, and jobs to derelicts. Such exaggerations alternately amuse or irritate Emir Mohammad Nafia, born Aureliano Perez Iruela, an urbane Andalusian humanities professor who founded this Sufi outpost in San Cristobal de las Casas seven years ago.

"The local media have been rather hysterical about what goes on behind our walls," he says, stroking his carefully clipped beard. "We are misunderstood. The spiritual destruction of the Maya was even worse than the physical damage inflicted by Hernan Cortes. When 16th-century priests broke the Indians' spirit, decadence began. We want to rekindle the light and root out their misery. Insh'allah"

Hostility has dogged these Spaniards since 1994, when the Zapatista peasant uprising put Chiapas on the revolutionary radar and Emir Nafia arrived with hopes of converting the rebels to Islam. Nafia's motives have aroused suspicion; the Jesuit-schooled Subcomandante Marcos had no truck with this Spanish Muslim, who hung out at Zapatista meetings to persuade Mayan artisans to market their wares in an Islamic-style souk. So Nafia began recruiting among disaffected Protestants who had been expelled from their San Juan Chamúla village for rejecting Catholicism.

Since the 1960s, the village's Catholic leaders — who mingle traditional liturgy with pre-Hispanic Mayan rites — have banished thousands of Protestant residents. The powerful village elders don't tolerate religious dissent, and blame it for eroding an embattled Maya culture that has barely survived. In mid-August, 50 Chamúla Catholics armed with hunting rifles opened fire on Protestant families as they took their children to the first day of school. Five people were wounded, and the intimidated families fled, abandoning their inherited land and seeking refuge in the regional capital, San Cristobal de las Casas. New arrivals are frequent, as Islamic missionaries are willing to offer them beds, meals, and job training.

Sipping carrot juice in an arched courtyard, Nafia, 49, explains how his recent radio spots and public workshops aim to allay the Mexican public's misconceptions about Islam, "a religion of peace." It's considered a very exotic creed in Chiapas, where scores of Protestant evangelical groups jostle with the Roman Catholic church for converts among 800,000 indigenous Maya, most of whom don't speak much Spanish. Dozens of zealous converts — mostly women who wear headscarves and introduce themselves with lyrical, new Islamic names such as Aisha or Salija — live in a walled compound on the north side of San Cristobal beneath the shadow of a holy Maya mountain peak. Youngsters arrive at school every day for a bath and a snack of Nutella on whole wheat bread before classes start. They recite the Koran by rote, sitting cross-legged and rocking in time on a green carpet. Most of the 50 students are the offspring of Protestant parents who forsook the Catholic church in San Juan Chamúla and have been marginalized in the town for generations. There is a preponderance of single mothers among the Maya women who recently have embraced Islam.

"Oh, these Chamúlas change religions like they change socks," scoffs Abdias Tovilla, head of a Protestant church coalition in San Cristobal. "As long as a church is helping them, they are happy." New recruits are eager to join the Islamic community of 300 believers, although there has already been a split within the Islamic Maya because some object to including music in worship services.

San Cristobal de las Casas is familiar with religious revivalism and revolutionary fervor. Ski-masked Zaptista rebels are based nearby at a jungle lair dubbed La Realidad (Reality), and hundreds of anti-globalists choose San Cristobal to search for themselves. Many seek radical street cred by rubbing shoulders with the pipe-smoking revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos or his Indian disciples in outlying Zapatista villages that spurn Mexican law.

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Juan Gómez, now "Yahya" shows a prayer rug outside his home.

Because of shared rhetoric, anti-globalists in San Cristobal cybercafes might feel surprising affinity for the Da'wa Mission Muslims, even though the Muslims appear to be conservative. The group renounces the international banking system on religious grounds. Their radical proposal of using E-dinars online until their own gold-based currency is in circulation has raised some fears among authorities that such a system could be misused for money laundering.

Tourists occasionally mix with the Maya Muslim converts, who help run a trendy espresso bar and pizzeria, called Las Alpujarras, which offers no pork or alcohol. The restaurant accepts payment in Mexican pesos, and although the cooks and waiters pray to Mecca five times daily, service is swift. There is also a bakery and a carpentry cooperative organized by the Spanish Sufi settlers, and many of the 60 convert families live on a rough-hewn compound alongside the idealistic Islamic settlers from Granada. Their school program, which is not yet accredited, includes sewing classes for young neighborhood girls.

Considerable friction has arisen because the Spaniards tout their Mediterranean diet of wheat bread, tomatoes, and olive oil as far superior to the corn tortillas and beans that sustain the poor Indians of the region.

Ibrahim Anastasio Gomez, a Chamúla cook and Islamic convert, says learning to eat mutton on ceremonial occasions was the most daunting Muslim custom for the locals. The Chamúlas tend small flocks, shearing them periodically for wool, but devouring a sheep is akin to gobbling the family pet. "It was very difficult," he admitts, wrinkling his nose in distaste. Besides eating mutton, they dance at mystical Murabitun gatherings every Thursday night, chanting along to recordings by a Scottish sufi named Shaykh Abdelqadir al Murabit. The reclusive Sheikh, born Ian Neil Dallas, lives outside Inverness and has been excoriated in the Scottish press for alleged past links with the neo-Nazi National Front. Under several aliases, he has been active in South Africa, Morocco, Chechnya, and the South of France.

Another local staple the Spanish Muslims spurn is paper currency. Esteben Lopez Moreno, who calls himself Idris, keeps a four-gram gold dinar and a smaller silver dirham, weighing nearly three grams, carefully wrapped inside his wooden shack. The commune's sole Arabic speaker, who leads the schoolchildren in daily recitation of the Koran, explains that these special coins are minted to their prophet's exact specifications, and are backed by gold bullion held in Dubai and London. The Spaniards hope eventually to circulate their own coins, minted with bullion in Dubai, and in effect return gold to the Americas.

To avoid promulgating what the sect calls "capitalist usury" by paying interest on promissory bank notes, the Spanish sufis are eager to promote the use of their own hard currency in 22-karat gold. Yet they usually compensate local workers with room and board, pointing out that the Koran also authorizes charity payments with grain or fruit, if there are no coins with intrinsic value. They abhor money market fluctuations as evil. Murabitun pamphlets promise that their pan- Islamic money system "will bring about the end of the kafir dominance without recourse to terrorism or even war. "

As Shaykh Dr Abdalqadir as-Sufi, (or Mr. Dallas) writes: "It `the money system` will follow the self-destruction of ... globalism, firstly through the mathematically impossible end-result of bank interest on debt, but inescapably through moral collapse ... the coming self-destruction of the globalist rulers, as their sons increasingly murder their teachers and their fellow pupils. Already, the plane crashing into the skyscraper has become the weapon of choice of the new generation, faced with the nihilism of their parents."

Behind those guarded walls of the Islamic compound in revolutionary Chiapas, there is a radical anti-globalist plot. It is easy to dismiss these Murabitun as devout cranks, until one remembers that Spanish conquistadors fought here five centuries ago for three ends: god, glory and gold. What goes around comes around.



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