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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Islamic Radicalism in Mexico: The Threat from South of the Border

The ongoing controversy surrounding the debate over illegal immigration and border security issues in the United States, specifically as it applies to the porous U.S.-Mexico frontier and the status of millions of undocumented workers and other migrants that enter the country each year from Mexico, continues to dominate headlines. Although the overwhelming majority of those entering the United States from Mexico each day are in search of opportunity, many observers worry that it is only a matter of time before al-Qaeda exploits this vulnerability for its own ends.

In assessing this threat, Muslim communities in Mexico have come under increasing scrutiny by U.S., Mexican and international security officials both as potential enablers for terrorist infiltration and as ideological sympathizers for the brand of radicalism characteristic of al-Qaeda. Muslim conversion trends in Mexico and Latin America have also raised concerns, especially given al-Qaeda's successes in luring some Muslim converts to its cause. To date, however, these assessments have been way off the mark and in many respects divert attention away from the far more pressing threats at hand. A closer look at the nature of Islam and the outlook of Mexican Muslims may explain why.

Islam in Mexico

Compared to other countries in Latin America that are home to sizeable Muslim communities with longstanding ties to the region, Mexico's Muslim minority is tiny. At the same time, it is one of the most diverse and dynamic in the region. Despite varying figures and scant data, only a couple thousand Muslims are believed to live in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. Nearly all are Sunni Muslims. Of this group, approximately half trace their origins to what is modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, mostly the descendants of traders and peasants who emigrated from the Middle East in the latter part of Ottoman rule. Mexico's Arab Muslim community is assimilated in major urban centers such as Mexico City. Significantly, Mexico is also home to a much larger Arab Christian community, also originating from the Levant, which numbers in the tens of thousands. Both communities share close ties and feel a shared sense of pride for their common Arab heritage [1].

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