Fear and Islam In Trinidad

Trinidad and Tobago’s Muslim community is believed to be the largest in the Caribbean. It is part of the country’s religiously plural society, widely seen as free of extremist sentiments. Yet, guns and crime in the country, occasionally involving Muslims, have security officials concerned and Muslims feeling unfairly targeted. The growth of Salafism – perceived to be a violent strain of Islam – also draws parallels to a violent Muslim group that attempted to overthrow the government in 1990.
Print | 1 April 2012

Khalil Karamath, a Muslim businessman in Trinidad, is accused of weapons, ammunition and drug possession. [TRINIDAD EXPRESS]

Agents of Trinidad and Tobago’s Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau knocked on the door of the sprawling Valsayn home of a construction mogul in August 2010 to execute a warrant in a fraud investigation. Instead, officers stumbled upon a cache of military-grade weapons and illegal drugs. In a country wrought with violent crime, the officers quickly radioed for reinforcements from the Organised Crime, Narcotics and Firearms Bureau. Officers remained late into the night searching the house, identifying 18 weapons, including pistols and Kalashnikov rifles, 980 rounds of ammunition and 981 grams of marijuana. They arrested six suspects, including the 22-year-old heir to the family business, Khalil Karamath.

About 85 mosques serve the Muslim population of Trinidad and Tobago. [ABRAHAM MAHSHIE/DIÁLOGO]

Karamath was out on bail for charges of weapons and drug possession when he was approached by police again more than a year later, in November 2011. During a state of emergency declared during a violent crime wave, Karamath and 16 other Muslims were detained in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, three Cabinet members, senior ministers and police officers. Karamath proclaimed his innocence, and no weapons were found in his home. Security officials said they were acting on intelligence to prevent a repeat of a coup attempted in 1990 by the African Islamic group Jamaat al Muslimeen.

On July 27, 1990, Jamaat al Muslimeen set off explosions at the police headquarters in downtown Port of Spain, seized the Parliament building and occupied Trinidad and Tobago Television Co. The revolt left 24 people dead and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. More than 100 armed militia members held the prime minister hostage, as well as several members of the Cabinet and Parliament, until the group surrendered to authorities six days later.

Today, 22 years since the attempted coup, its memory has tarnished the image of the islands’ Muslim community, and authorities are still investigating events that led to the insurgency. Trinidad and Tobago is believed to have the largest Muslim population in the Caribbean — an estimated 78,000, or 6 percent of the population. Recollection of the attempted coup has heightened scrutiny by security officials. In a country ravaged by guns and gangs and surrounded by poverty, at least one Muslim leader believes the country is ripe for extremist ideology and violence.

Identifying a Threat

“Islam is very strong in Trinidad, and Islam is growing every day,” said Imam Abzal Mohammed, sitting on his second-floor balcony dressed in a white cap, buttoned-down shirt, long pants and sandals. His mosque on Bonanza Street in Prince’s Town serves nearly 100 families. Mohammed proudly tells the story of how his grandfather, an Indian immigrant, gave him his early Islamic training and foundation in Urdu. Mohammed has held various leadership positions in 55 years on the executive committee of Anjuman Sunnat-Ul-Jamaat Association (ASJA), the country’s largest Islamic organization, which oversees 85 of the country’s mosques.

“We have lived a long period of time in Trinidad where the Muslims and all the people live happy together, but what is happening is there are so many changes that are taking place now,” he said. Mohammed stressed that Islam is a peaceful religion, but Trinidadian youth have begun to gain interest in the Salafi doctrine. The fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam, which emphasizes adherence to Islam’s original teachings, reaches out to deprived Muslim youths and has been linked to violence in the Middle East. “We have a serious problem, and the problem we have, we cannot sweep it under the carpet and we cannot hide [it].”

Imam Abzal Mohammed, who preaches at the mosque in Princes Town, Trinidad, is also the longest serving executive member of ASJA, the country’s largest Islamic organization. [ABRAHAM MAHSHIE/DIÁLOGO]

Mohammed, who served for several years as a prison chaplain, said followers of Salafism in Trinidad are avidly preaching their views at mosques and recruiting young followers. “You have the fanatics that are preaching a different type of Islam in Trinidad,” he said, noting that Salafis emphasize the importance of jihad as a religious sacrifice. He has heard that Salafis espouse violent jihad, and he has notified local authorities of what he believes to be a national security threat. “In Trinidad, we have had Shias for the longest while. They have not been aggressive, but Salafis are the aggressive people.”

Retired Defence Force Captain Gary Griffith, security advisor to the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, said that intelligence failures in July 1990 allowed the attempted coup to materialize. He defended the intelligence that led to the detention of alleged assassination plotters in November 2011, but he refused to pinpoint a particular group or religion as a threat.

In defending the detentions, Commissioner of Police Dwayne Gibbs said there was a “clear threat” to the national security interest. Many influential people in Trinidad are Muslims, noted Sgt. Cornelius Samuel of the North Eastern Division police service, whose superintendent was responsible for some of the detainee interrogations. He said there are also many criminals who use the Muslim faith as a cover for criminal activity. “To some extent the Muslim community has always been looked upon with some suspicion,” he said.

Defending a Belief

Ashmeed Choate, who practices Salafism in Trinidad, was one of the 17 Muslims detained in the alleged assassination plot and labeled by police as the “mastermind.” Choate was held for three weeks before all the detainees were released without charges. During his detention, he said, he was accused of plotting the alleged assassinations to cause panic on the island. He said he was also accused of giving to charities that promoted Islam in poor African communities. Choate rejected both claims and said he barely knew the other detainees.

“I have no hidden agenda. I don’t have some other ulterior motive in what I do,” Choate said of his efforts to invite Trinidadians of all backgrounds to Islam. “These are my people. Trinidadians are my people. My first objective is to call to Allah, to invite to Allah, to invite to his religion.” Choate views his work in underprivileged communities as a good deed that is shunned by mainstream Muslims because he does not subscribe to the same brand of Islam as most Trinidadians, and because he studied in the Arabian Peninsula. Choate was born in Trinidad and studied Islam in Saudi Arabia, where he gained interest in Salafism as “going back to the source” of Islam. When Choate returned from Medina, Saudi Arabia, in 2000, he said he hosted a radio and television program and preached widely. He also said that he spread the message of Islam to people “who are less fortunate, deprived, people who are marginalized in the community.” Recently, he said, he gave up the program because it was too much work, and he wanted to devote his attention to serving as principal of Darul Qur’an Wal Hadith Islamic School in Freeport, a one-room schoolhouse nestled between a papaya grove and the humble homes of the parents of some of the school’s 100 Muslim and non-Muslim pupils.

Asked about Salafis who say that their strain of Islam necessitates violent jihad, he said: “If I had the opportunity, I would debate [that position] with any Salafi in front of any form of press.”

Sources: Trinidad Express, The Jamestown Foundation, BBC, PBS, www.theweek.co.uk, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

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