For reasons that I don't know, the Muslim population grew slowly at first, numbering only 26,000 as late as 1922. (Conversion to Christianity? Reverse migration? Undercounting?) After that, though, it began to swell. It's now about 68,000.
Most of the growth came from natural increase, but conversion played a role. In 1922, Indo-Trinidadians made up the overwhelming majority of Muslims. Today, they make up only about 85%, according to the Guardian newspaper. The remaining 10,000 are Afro-Trinidadian converts or their children.
And that's caused trouble. Trouble worthy of the phrase "beyond belief," trouble that would be downright hilarious in a comic opera way if it hadn't gotten 40 people killed. More below the fold.
In 1990, Islamic radicals tried to take over the Trinidadian government.
It might as well have been the Spanish Inquisition, or clowns, or guys in Nixon masks, it was that unexpected.
Trinidad had seen a coup attempt before. In 1970, part of the T&T Regiment rebelled and had to be defeated by the Coast Guard. (That attempted coup, in fact, inspired the writing of a genuine comic opera.) The 1970 mutiny, however, took place in the context the widespread civil unrest later known as the Black Power Revolution, and involved the usual suspects—you know, commies and guys in uniform. "We're the National Front for the Liberation of Judea! No, we're the Judean Front for National Liberation! Well, we're the National Judean Liberation Front!" That sort of thing. In fact,the mutiny was prompted by intimations that the government might order the Regiment into action against the Black Power demonstrators.
But Islamic radicals? That was new.
In the summer of 1990, 114 conspirators from the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen blew up the main police station, stormed the television station and parliament's headquarters in the Red House, took the prime minister hostage, and announced that they'd taken over the government. In response, the T&T Regiment stormed the television station and surrounded the Red House.
Here's an abridged account of what happened next from the leader of the 1970 rebellion, who had become a prominent journalist in the interim:
As had happened in 1970, the police would once more bungle everything and only come out to "play hero" when it appeared that they were safe. For example, when the bomb and resulting fire struck their HQ, everyone fled the building (one officer broke his leg when he jumped a wall). Attempts to re-organise them failed, and it was only late that might that some of them had positioned themselves in the Hall of Justice and the Clico building to provide some semblance of fighting back. It was on Day Two that the most senior police officer at the time gave the order for the policemen who were at the Hall of Justice to stop firing on the Red House so that negotiations could proceed. You should have heard the crude cussing he was subjected to, and that over the radio! Discipline had broken down.
Once the looting got underway on Day One, there was absolutely no effort on the part of the police or the military to stop it. Hordes of looters took control of downtown Port of Spain, and what we saw was a city burning as the police fiddled with their pistols and rifles. In fact, one scene I shall never forget was the sight along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, immediately opposite the San Juan area, where there were many warehouses. I passed there on about three afternoons, late, trying to beat the curfew. Parked at several points were police vehicles with cops armed to the teeth. And standing next to them were looters, complete with their booty (new stoves, TVs and other appliances) awaiting transport. It was an unbelievable symbol of how law and order had broken down.
After a couple of pointless shoot-outs, the plotters and their leader, Yasin Abu-Bakr nee Lennox Phillips, surrendered in return for a promise of amnesty. The Privy Council overturned the amnesty, but the government nonetheless refrained from arresting the plotters.
40 people died in the violence, and as of 2006 you could still spot the bullet holes in the Red House brickwork.
As you might imagine, the voters slaughtered the ruling National Alliance for Reconstruction after the amnesty became public —its vote share plummeted from 65.8% in 1986 to 24.4% in 1991, and the party was on life-support by 1996.
So where had the Islamic putschists come from?
Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, or the "Society of Muslims," emerged in 1979 for the same reasons that so many African-Americans in Philadelphia converted to a very conservative brand of Islam around the same time. (This is another way of saying that I don't have a clue why they emerged when they did.) The Muslimeens became, if you'll excuse the phrase, more Catholic than the Pope. They adopted much more "traditional" modes of dress than had heretofore been the case among Trinidadian Muslims: their women wore hijabs (even, occasionally, abayas) and their men wore jallabas—although the jallabas in style here could be mistaken for guayaberas if you don't look too closely.
Things went back to normal after the coup, but it left an undercurrent of tension that hadn't existed before. The next imbroglio occurred in a much more civilized manner—and involved an Indo-Trinidadian family with nothing to do with the Muslimeen—but in a newly-charged atmosphere.
Trinidad is, as I said before, both very British and very religious. That means that the state openly funds religious schools, and students in all schools wear uniforms. Trinidadian being multi-religious, the government recognized Hindu and Muslim schools. As of 1986, however, there were few Muslim schools: the 10 Islamic primary schools enrolled only 1.8% of primary school students, rather less than their ~6% proportion in the population. The lack of Muslim schools, however, wasn't due to discrimination. Rather, the best schools tended to be Catholic, and families of all religions commonly sent their children to them ... Muslim Indo-Trinidadians particularly so.
So in 1994, the state-supported Holy Name Convent refused to allow Sumayyah Mohammed, an Indo-Trinidadian, to wear her hijab to school. A Muslim organization sued. The precedents flew thick and fast, and lawyers on both sides cited Brown v Board of Ed, Wisconsin v Yoder, Tinker v Des Moines School District, and Mississippi Employment Security Commission v McGlothin. (I guess that’s an example of American soft power in action. Or perhaps not. Can anyone explain how international case law works?)
Sumayyah won her case, but on the grounds of "sincerity of belief." That, in effect, put the burden of proof on anyone who wanted to wear religious garb to school. As a result, not a whole lot changed.
I should point out here that a lot of Trinidadian schools prohibit dreadlocks along with hijabs, so it's not just a matter of anti-Muslim discrimination. It's also a matter of anti-Rastafarian discrimination. But Rastafarians never blew up a police station or held the prime minister hostage, which means that cases involving dreadlocks attract little attention whereas ones involving hijabs receive lots.
Now, there's not much open tension between Muslims and non-Muslims. I haven't heard anyone badmouthing Muslims, and while Indo-Trinidadian Muslim females generally dress indisguishably from their countrywomen (or hide in cellars), Afro-Trinidadian Muslim females in the East-West Corridor towns still wear hijabs and—on occasion—abayas in public.
But events keep pushing this tolerance. In 2005, for example, four bombs went off around Port-of-Spain, injuring 25 people. Jamaat-al-Muslimeen members in Arima were caught red-handed by the police assembling explosive devices, and Yasin Abu Bakr, the Muslimeen leader, was arrested and released.
The aim wasn't terrorism—it was extortion. The model is Abu Sayyaf, not Al-Qaeda. Jamaat-al-Muslimeen and its leader stand accused of everything from arms smuggling to extortion aimed at Muslim Indo-Trinidadians. The most recent straw was a sermon where Yasin Abu-Bakr vowed to declare war on wealthy Muslims unless they increased their contributions to "charity." No points for guessing which charities would count.
Abu-Bakr is now facing sedition charges, and the government is trying to confiscate US$5 million in property from the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen. Which still hasn’t kept rumors from flying that the PNM is somehow in hock to the Muslimeen, who regularly delivered a good chunk of Muslim votes in a divided electorate.
The main thing to keep in mind is that racial tensions are orthogonal to religious ones, because the “radical” groups are almost entirely composed of Afro-Trinidadians.
Of course, because Americans are
pussies afraid of their own shadows don’t like other countries’ Muslims concerned about international terrorism, we're now involved. Four morons with vague plans to magically cause 40-miles of jet-fuel pipelines in Queens to explode happen to have links to Trinidad and the Muslimeen. If you clink the link, you'll find what may be one of the few upsides of the disgusting way in which our pathetically cynical president handled the scandals at the Department of Justice: Alberto "Fredo" González was too busy defending his job to cause any lasting damage to Trini-American relations. (Hopefully, his successor will be halfway competent, and refrain from screwing things up.)
The big question, I think, is whether the activities of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen — which is really just a wannabe organized crime syndicate, a sort-of cut-rate Mafia — will go down as an aberration in Trinidad’s long history of tolerance (regardless of its future in organized crime) or whether the past and future activities of Mr. Abu Bakr et al will create lasting communal tensions.