Beginning the Dialogue: Reflections on the International Symposium
The International Symposium on the History and Legacy of the Muslims in the Caribbean, beautifully hosted at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre in Guyana from September 4-6, 2023, by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), the Government of Guyana and the University of Guyana, brought together academics, activists, and religious representatives to discuss Muslims in the region. Topics included the presence, identities, and practices of Muslims in Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Columbia and elsewhere. It reflected a partnership between the Muslim world as represented by the OIC and IRCICA with the Caribbean. The Symposium was marked most notably by the passionate speech made by Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali, President of Guyana, on the longstanding history of Muslims in the Caribbean beginning in the period of enslavement through the indentureship period and into our contemporary times.
His Excellency Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali, President of Guyana, and Director General of IRCICA, Prof. Mahmud Erol Kılıç
The symposium – the first of its kind in the region – significantly brought oral histories and lived experiences in conversation with scholarship. It shed light on a number of ways in which Muslim identity was and is sustained in the Caribbean – through a Lebanese village in Maicao in Columbia, the influence of the Libyan Charge D’Affaires to Guyana, Ahmad Ehwas, on Muslim identity formation in Guyana, economic development of the Javanese Muslims, and through celebrations like Tajdah and Muslim devotional music in Trinidad and Guyana. It highlighted the work done by activists in the region to establish mosques in Haiti, Guyana, and Trinidad. It drew attention to how Muslim youth are continuing to claim spaces, such as Trinidadian Muslim youth participation in cricket. Most significantly, it challenged what is often the erasure of Muslim identities and experiences in the documentation of the Caribbean region.
While the import of this being the first conference of its kind in the region cannot be understated, the tension that unfolded between the politics of identity and religion in Guyana versus the academic discussion of Islam in the Caribbean is critical to note as it informed much of the conversations of the symposium. In spite of the limited number of in-person attendees from within the country and region, there was still great diversity of perspectives reflected both in the papers as well as the discussions. The conversations brought a number of key matters in the region to the foreground: politics between religious organizations, the need for access to Muslim banks, mental health challenges amongst Muslim youth, and more. It highlighted areas of interest for the region and drew attention to heavily understudied topics, such as race, ethnicity and gender, for which more robust conversations are needed. The symposium particularly highlighted the need to explore nuances of Muslim identities and experiences in the region, such as ethnic tensions that coloured much of the twentieth century, gender politics that continue to play out today, Indigenous identities and partnerships, intersectional discussions of how multiple expressions of these identities work together, and more.
Participants of the conference with His Excellency Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali, President of Guyana, and Director General of IRCICA, Prof. Mahmud Erol Kılıç amongst others.
These areas of discussion are necessary for a holistic discussion, but without undermining the strengths of the individuals who have built communities and reimagined their Muslim identities as states established themselves in the post-colonial period. Further dialogue is particularly necessary not just to document this legacy, but to support the ongoing work of Caribbean scholars and peoples in addressing contemporary challenges of the region. Discussions of experiences related to gender can inform ongoing work in the region to address domestic abuse, for example. Understanding the nuances of religious identity formation in the region can support better awareness of how youth are reimagining their identities as Muslims in the Caribbean. Reflecting the dynamics of ethnic relations in the twentieth century offers the possibility of understanding how multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-racial spaces like Guyana and Trinidad evolved and where lessons can be learned for how to move forward in a good way.
These future conversations cannot be centred on the perspectives of foreign scholars and activists, however, but require partnerships with communities in the region and ideally their leadership and voices centered in the discussion. That extends beyond leaders of the religious organizations – albeit who play an important role – and into the individuals of the organizations and outside of them, and particularly youth and women.
Participants of the Conference
The symposium began a process of bringing issues on the minds of those in the region to the foreground and giving those issues a voice. It was very much a starting place for what needs to be a much broader, more robust, regionally representative, and more inclusive dialogue on the legacies, diversity of identities and practices, and successes and needs of Muslims in the Caribbean. It challenges locals, scholars, activists, and faith practitioners in the region to connect the discussions at the symposium with the contemporary Muslim experiences, make meaning of the findings, and chart a path forward.