Fear and Islam In Trinidad

Fear and Islam In Trinidad

By Dialogo
April 01, 2012

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.
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

“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].”
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

“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
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