Today begins Ramadan, the holy month of fasting in Islam. One of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, Ramadan calls for Muslims around the world to abstain from eating, drinking and sexual activity from dawn until sunset.
Argentina is rarely associated with Islam, yet it has the largest Muslim population in Latin America. According to estimates from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, in 2010 the country was home to nearly one million Muslims, representing 2.5% of the total population.
In the month ahead, many of Argentina’s Muslim residents will partake in the practice of Ramadan.
An overwhelming proportion of the country’s Muslim population is concentrated in the capital city of Buenos Aires, which is home to three mosques: the Al-Ahmad mosque, the Al-Tauhid mosque, and the Rey Fahd mosque, also known as the Palermo mosque.
Each of these mosques has different religious affiliations, reflecting the diversity of the Muslim community in Argentina, which includes Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, and Sufi Muslims, among others.
Dr. Noberto R. Méndez, a professor and investigator at the UBA and the UCAECE states, however, “it is worth clarifying that none of these mosques discriminate as to who can enter, be they Sunni or Shiite.”
Of the three mosques, Méndez observes that the Al-Ahmad mosque is “the most popular, because it is in the centre of what is known to be a neighbourhood with a high population of Arab descent”.
The Muslim Community in Buenos Aires
The Al-Ahmad mosque was founded by the Islamic Centre of the Argentine Republic (CIRA), an organisation started in 1931 by Arab Muslims.
According to Pedro Brieger and Enrique Herskowich in their 2003 article ‘The Muslim Community in Argentina’ published in ‘Todo es Historia’, when the Muslim community in Argentina began to grow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “practically all of the Muslim immigrants were of Arab origin”. Many of these early Muslim migrants came from Lebanon and Syria.
Today, Argentines of Arab decent remain a significant proportion of the Muslim population. As migration flows have shifted, however, the composition of the community is changing.
Méndez notes that the Arab community “in general… is shrinking, because the last migrants from Syria and Lebanon came to Argentina in the 50s.” Simultaneously, new migration waves – including those originating from West Africa, and particularly from Senegal – have increased the non-Arab Muslim population.
Alexis El-Sayer, a representative of the CIRA, calls his organisation the “institution that gathers all Muslims in Argentina” and the “official voice of the community.”
In a time when Muslim communities across the world face increasing discrimination, El Sayer states, “no discrimination exists [in Argentina] on account of being Muslim” and that “a Muslim in Argentina…can practice his faith in complete peace, without any inconvenience.”
The CIRA representative notes, however, that “there is a general lack of knowledge” about the Islamic faith and community.
Méndez also observes that with regards to discrimination against Muslims in Argentina, there is “almost none.”
Nevertheless, he observes that some members of the Muslim community feel that in the past, the population had to “make itself invisible in a discriminatory Catholic-majority Argentina and thus many converted … to Catholicism.” An oft-cited sample of this phenomenon is the conversion of former Argentine president Carlos Saúl Menem to Catholicism. Menem was a first generation Argentine born to Muslim parents who had immigrated from present-day Syria, and helped with the project to build the Rey Fahd mosque in Palermo, currently the largest in South America.
El Sayer also notes that in the wake of the 11th September attacks in the US 2001, “there was a strong current against us” and that “many Muslim people…did not want to say that they were Muslim.” Still, he feels that the community “has overcome” this discrimination.
At the same time, El Sayer observes that for Muslims in a predominantly Christian country, there can be challenges, such as fasting during Ramadan when the majority of people are not fasting, or fitting the five daily prayers into the workday.
“Fundamentally,” he says, however, “we try to have a respectful presence, because in this country, the truth is that Muslims have coexisted really well; they have not had any type of problem.”
Ramadan in Buenos Aires
The Ramadan fast runs from the dawn prayers through the sunset prayers. Practitioners are asked to refrain from eating, drinking, and participating in sexual activity during the daylight hours. The fast is traditionally broken at night with three dates.
Besides Ramadan, the other four pillars of the Islamic faith include the ‘shahada’, or the confession of faith; the ‘salad’, or five daily prayers; the ‘zakat’, or almsgiving; and the ‘hajj’, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
During the thirty days of Ramadan, the Al-Ahmad mosque will operate on a special schedule. The mosque opens early for dawn prayers, which practitioners typically practice at home during the rest of the year. During this month, the CIRA also provides a daily breakfast for all who come to the Al-Ahmad mosque in the morning.
For those practitioners who choose to remain home for dawn prayers, the CIRA will also be running a special Ramadan television program at the time of the pre-dawn suhoor meal.
After a short break, the Al-Ahmad mosque reopens mid-morning and remains open through the special Salat al Tarawih, an extra congregational prayer performed at night by some Muslims during the month of Ramadan.
This month, the CIRA will organise a variety of events and meetings with the intention of deepening the spiritual experience of Muslim community members and raising awareness among the non-Muslim community.
For example, the organisation holds daily meetings focused on faith and religious questions. Additionally, the centre typically hosts a visiting an Egyptian Mufti, or professional Koranic reader. The Al-Ahmad mosque is affiliated with the Al-Azhar mosque in Egypt. This spiritual leader stays throughout the month and often visits community members in their homes.
The largest activities for the month will occur on the last day of Ramadan, which is known has Eid Al-Fitr, literally referred to in Spanish as “el día de desayuno” or “the day of breakfast”.
On this day, the CIRA hosts a large celebration, attended not only by Muslims, but also by community members, civil society groups, government officials, and representatives from other religious communities attend. Above all, El Sayer states, the day is a “community day” in which 2,000 – 2,500 typically partake in festivities and all are welcome to share in the celebrations.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has even attended the Eid al-Fitr celebration. El Sayer notes that for the CIRA, this visit was “very important” and constituted “a recognition…of our existence within Argentine society.”
El Sayer emphasizes that a central focus of the CIRA is to remain “completely pluralist, completely open, in such a way that all groups would be represented.”