Cuba is in the news these days as relations between the U.S. and Cuba are improving and economic and political bulwarks are beginning to crumble. President Obama said his aim was to "end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance [U.S. and Cuban] interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries."
Religion has featured in the story as it has continued to develop. Amidst stories about the Pope's role, the Jewish diaspora, and Catholic resurgence what of Cuba's small, but faithful, Muslim population?
As Religion News Service reported, "A personal appeal by Pope Francis played a key role in finalizing a deal to open relations between the United States and Cuba for the first time in 53 years. The pope wrote a personal letter to President Obama this fall — something he’d never done before — and a separate letter to Cuban President Raul Castro....That resulted in a major U.S. policy shift toward Cuba, including a prisoner swap between the two countries that freed American Alan Gross on Wednesday (Dec. 17)."
In the midst of the shift in relations and the potential loosening of democratic and economic policies within Cuba, there has been talk of religious liberties as well. CNN reported that Cuba's first Catholic church to be built since 1959 is set to break ground soon in the "the isolated town of Sandino."
Would this perhaps preclude the construction of Cuba's first mosque?
For some Muslims in Havana, there is "the Arab House." Owned by a wealthy Arab immigrant who has lived in Cuba since the 1940s it was built based on Andalusian architectural designs. It includes an Arabic museum, an Arabic restaurant, and the place is used by Muslim diplomats for jummah (Friday) prayers, but is off-limits to Muslim converts in Cuba. Outside of the Arab House, private homes are the sole places Muslims can gather for prayer in Cuba.
Over the years, various investors from Qatar to Libya and private organizations such as the Muslim World League, have attempted to supply funding to the Cuban government with the attendant promise to build a public mosque for Muslims to gather at and pray toward Mecca in. However, no attempt has been successful.
The latest effort has come from Turkey's Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV). Working with local Cuban Muslim community leader Pedro Lazo Torres (a.k.a. Imam Yahya) and said to have backing from President Recept Tayyip Erdogan, this plan too has failed.
For years now Imam Yahya has led prayer (salat) from his home in Havana. He hoped that with Turkish backing, and promises to significantly fund the project, the mosque might come to serve the estimated 1,500-4,000 Muslims in Cuba.
To give mytho-historical weight to the project, President Erdogan told the 1st Latin American Muslim Religious Leaders summit (in Turkey) that "America was discovered prior to 1492." Indeed, Erdogan claimed that Muslim sailors reached the Americas in 1178. He then made his most audacious, and talked-about, claim -- that Columbus included the sighting of a mosque off the coast of Cuba in his memoirs. He said, "we speak about this with my Cuban brothers. And a mosque will suit that peak very nicely."
While historians, anthropologists, and scientists overwhelmingly challenged, or even refuted, Erdogan's claim, the Turkish President doubled down and insisted that, "an objective writing of history will show the contribution of the East, the Middle East and Islam to the science and arts."
"As the president of my country, I cannot accept that our civilization is inferior to other civilizations," Erdogan said. Certainly, his attempt to build a mosque in Cuba and to rally Latin American Muslim leaders around him is an attempt to buttress his brand of Islamist politics, what some, such as Asef Bayat, are calling "post-Islamist." By supporting Latin American Islam and offering funds to build mosques in places such as Cuba, Erdogan might be attempting to present Islam as a global brand made up of multiple cultures, languages, and histories.
Still, he has a long way to go. Especially in Cuba.
For his part, Imam Yahya was disappointed at the news that Cuba rejected the plans for his country's first mosque. He expressed dismay at the decision, noting that Russia was granted permission to build an Orthodox church in the country and now Catholic churches are again being constructed, but Muslims in Cuba still have no official place of worship.
Plainly, it is not easy to be Muslim in Cuba. With antagonizers calling Muslims such as Torres a "terrorist," being teased for wearing the thobe (an ankle length garment, robe) in the Caribbean heat, or trying to avoid pork in a nation in love with "the other white meat" things are made only more difficult without an official masjid to gather in.
And yet, as relations thaw between the U.S. and Cuba and Catholics stake out their claim in the island nation, Torres and others are hopeful that it means propitious things for Cuba's Muslims. For now, they continue to gather ismillah ("in the name of Allah") and along with their obligatory prayers toward Mecca offer up ua (supplications) that Islam might grow in Cuba -- mosque or no mosque.
*UPDATE: The first publicly mosque is now open in Havana. Sponsored by Saudi dollars with input from several other Muslim majority nations (including Turkey's Diyanet) it is located at Calle Oficío, No. 18 on the corners of Obrapía & Obispo. It was opened in 2016.