Guyana is another story. Left behind by the modern world, this remote, underdeveloped South American nation is only now beginning to emerge from a decade of ruinous economic policies brought on by its late socialist-inspired president, Linden Forbes Simpson Burnham.
According to recent figures, Muslims comprise nearly 15 percent of Guyana’s estimated 800,000 inhabitants – not many people for a country the size of Great Britain. Hindus account for another 40 percent of the population and Christians about 30 percent. The remainder is comprised of Amerindian tribes inhabiting the country’s vast jungle to the south.
In fact, until the mass suicide in 1978 of 911 American cult members at a remote jungle settlement called Jonestown, few foreigners had even heard of Guyana. It was Hamilton Green’s job then to keep Jonestown off-limits to the hordes of journalists who fell on the isolated nation.
Green, who converted to Islam in the early 1960’s, became prime minister of Guyana in 1985 and is now, at age 53, the country’s most powerful political leader after President Hugh Desmond Hoyte. Educated at Queens College in Georgetown, Green is the author of a book on his country’s colonial history called From Pain to Peace: Guyana 1953-1964 .
“We believe that the first Muslims came [to Guyana] from the west coast of Africa,” he told Aramco World . “They were Fulanis, very devout and committed Muslims, who came as slaves. Both the Dutch and the British ensured that the slaves were neither allowed to practice their native religion nor speak their native tongues.
“When I was a boy, partly because of the effectiveness of British propaganda, we assumed that Islam was something that belonged to Indians alone. Being a Muslim meant being an Indian.”
Asked what led him to embrace Islam, Green replied, “In the old colonial days, to gain access to public positions in the social service, and for social mobility, one had to be a Christian. In fact, many parents of today’s Christian families converted as a prerequisite of acceptance.
But I saw myself as an Afro-Guyanese. I recognized that my earliest ancestors who came to Guyana and the West Indies were not Christians. I took a personal objection that I was railroaded into a religion the choice of which I had nothing to do with, and I chose the religion of my ancestors.”
Besides Green, other top-ranking Muslim officials in Guyana are Attorney General Mohammed Shahabuddeen, Army Chief of Staff Norman Masud McLean and a judge of the High Court, S.Y. Mohammed.
Al-Haj Naseer Ahmad Khan is a close friend of Green’s and president-general of the Islamic Missionaries Guild International. His office, decorated with religious posters from Saudi Arabia, is located above a Chinese restaurant across the street from Georgetown’s crowded, noisy Stabroek fruit and vegetable market.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, Muslims came here as indentured laborers to work on the sugar estates. They were drivers and foremen in charge of the field gangs,” he explained. “My great grandfather built the first masjid here at a place called Filadelfia on the east bank of the Demerara River.”
Today, he said, 133 mosques dot the countryside. In Georgetown itself, the Muslim community’s new showcase mosque is the Masjid Dar al-Salaam, whose modern concrete design contrasts sharply with the graceful wooden construction of Georgetown’s older buildings.
The mosque houses the Muhammad Anwar Memorial Library and the Guyana Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at – a religious organization – and is only 10 blocks from historic St. George’s Cathedral, the world’s second-tallest wooden structure.
Other superlatives are not quite so flattering. Though Guyana’s 90-percent literacy rate is among the highest in South America, yet its per-capita income of $570 makes it the third poorest nation in the western hemisphere, after Haiti and Bolivia.
Morever, tourism to Guyana is virtually nonexistent, and prices for the nation’s three major exports – rice, sugar and bauxite – are at all-time lows, sparking inflation. Last year, one US dollar bought 4.25 Guyanese dollars. Today, a US dollar can fetch 20 Guyanese dollars on the open market. Guyana’s gross external debt is estimated at US $1-5 billion, or nearly $1,875 per inhabitant.
“The biggest problem in Guyana now is paying our debts,” Khan said. “Since the advent of the new president, though, I think we’ll have a little more breathing space.”
In Guyana, all religions enjoy freedom of worship, and Muslim government employees can take two hours off for Friday prayers. Mosques are generally free to conduct childrens’ religious classes without government interference.
At the Ruimveldt Jamaat Madrasa outside Georgetown, for example, 13-year-old Shavrena Rashid, her nine-year-old sister Shabane and 20 other Muslim children study Arabic and religious subjects for two hours every afternoon. These classes are crucial to the growth of Islam in Guyana, for there are few local Muslims who can read, write or speak Arabic fluently.
Some differences do exist between Guyanese Muslims and their counterparts in other Caribbean countries. In Guyana, for example, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is an official public holiday – but not ‘Id al-Fitr. The reverse is true in Trinidad. And some Guyanese Muslims have been criticized for supporting former President Burnham’s socialist policies.
If Guyana represents a cultural oddity wedged into the remote northern coast of South America, then neighboring Suriname is even more varied in its isolation. Often called a “little United Nations,” this Dutch-speaking country a little larger than Georgia and half the area of Norway is home to Hindus, Portuguese, Chinese, Jews, Amerindians and Bush Negroes.