Muslim Representation in Caribbean Reparations
The Repair Campaign spoke with Maryam Ali about her experience as a Muslim woman of Indo-Caribbean descent and her hope for the participation of the Muslim community in seeking reparatory justice.
February 4, 2024
Tell us about yourself
My name is Maryam, I’m a Trinidadian of Indo-Caribbean descent and I identify as a Muslim.
My family is predominantly Muslim and the Islamic faith is very important to us having been passed down between multiple generations. My great-grandmother’s grandparents would have come from the Fatel Razack – the first ship transporting Indentured labourers from India to Trinidad in the 1840s. As far as we can tell from back then, they would have been Muslims.
However, Trinidad is a melting pot of races and religions. So even though I identify as a Muslim, I also have extended family members and friends who are Hindu or Christian as well.
What was it like growing up with such a mix of religious groups?
I love our diverse cultural layout in Trinidad. You can’t go very far without finding someone of a different faith. They say on every street where there’s a mosque, there’s also a church and a temple. So for us, it’s been kind of incredible because I feel like we have a very tolerant and respectful culture.
Even though I am a Muslim and I would pray a certain way or have specific religious holidays, I’d still go by family and friends for Diwali or Christmas and celebrate with them. It’s good to have such an all-around understanding and appreciation of different faiths because it really strengthens the community by having so many interfaith communities represented.
In light of your intersecting identities, what has your experience been like navigating new cultural landscapes as an Indo-Caribbean Muslim woman?
For someone who has just grown up in Trinidad and doesn’t have a lot of exposure outside of the country, I’d say that you don’t really feel very different because there’s a lot of representation of people who look like me in Trinidad. So growing up, I didn’t feel any different.
It didn’t occur to me until later on in life while traveling or being more aware of the news that different people have different experiences based on their appearance, gender or their faith.
One of the first times I would have experienced the feeling of being seen as different for just being me, would probably be travelling to the United States and experiencing those random checks that we somehow always get pulled aside in.
Travelling to, and living in, other Caribbean islands like Antigua, Cayman and Jamaica has also shown me the cultural landscape can be very different. There aren’t as many people who look like me in some of these other islands, so people have a lot more questions, people are a lot more inquisitive and you get a lot more looks.
Have you had any noteworthy experiences, whether positive or negative, on account of your identity as a Muslim woman?
I would say it’s a bit of both. There’s definitely been positive experiences. I don’t want to only speak about the negative ones because there have been really good ones as well.
In Antigua, there is a very small Muslim community and I found that they were extremely kind. For instance, when you did see someone who looked like you – and it wasn’t very often – you would exchange pleasantries and there would be some sort of conversation asking you if you know where the mosque is, asking you if you know where to get halal meat and stuff like that.
Being in Jamaica, I’ve probably had the most questions and interactions that may have been positive or negative. I’m grateful I have a community of friends, but I’ve definitely had awkward conversations in taxis or at the grocery store, or during everyday life where someone will come up to me and ask uncomfortable questions.
Sometimes it’s very nice and comes from a place of curiosity and I’m happy to explain and clear up any misconceptions or stereotypes. But I’ve noticed that there is sometime a really big push for conversion. Some people are very serious that it has to be their faith. So I try to explain a lot that we can do different things and it’s fine.
My religion celebrates and emphasises tolerance a lot. I have a lot of conversations where I explain, I have a lot of respect for your faith and just because I do something different, it doesn’t mean that we can’t coexist. I have to have a lot of those conversations. It was maybe a little more difficult in the beginning, but now I feel like I kind of have a script, so when it comes up now, it’s easier to do.
What does your Muslim community and the Islamic faith mean to you on a personal level?
The community feels a lot like a family. It stems from the fact that I was born into that community in Trinidad so everybody there has seen me grow up.
The mosque is very important to the community as well. They had a lot of youth engagement when I was growing up. On Sundays, we’d have classes at the mosque, and they’d have games and food after. It was very important to our community and our Imam – your Imam is like the Muslim vision of a priest – that they instilled this sense of community because our parents would have grown up in a similar system and they wanted to enforce that sense of community in the next generation so that we could continue this family that they have all built.
In addition to that, there’s a huge emphasis on charity because charity is one of the core pillars of my faith. About every two Sundays, everyone goes to the mosque and cooks meals for the homeless. And there are a lot of charity drives, clothing drives and food drives. And I feel like all of that reinforces a sense of community.
Given that many issues faced by Caribbean communities stem from histories of exploitative colonisation, what role do you see the Islamic faith playing in seeking reparatory justice or trying to bring healing to communities impacted by colonialism?
Speaking to the mosque specifically, I think that the Islamic community does a lot in terms of supporting people who need it, sending kids to school, providing school supplies, education scholarships and more. While this is very charitable and good, it is important to get to the fundamental issue beneath many of these needs, which reparations is trying to address.
The fundamental issue of reparations and justice is something that all the religious bodies will have to come together for. I don’t think it’s specific to just the church and I don’t think it’s something they should work towards separately. I know all our religious communities have a deep sense of care for those who are less fortunate. There are so many needs to be met in our communities and reparatory justice is part of meeting those needs.
I do hope and I do think it would be best if the church, the mosque, the temples and any other faiths in the country were to come together and be a united front on the issue of reparations because it is something that affects us all.
In what ways do you see the legacy of colonisation, chattel slavery and indentureship affecting communities today?
Back in Trinidad, we have huge land inequality based on racial background. When slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the enslaved people were just freed, left with nothing and that was kind of it. When indentured labourers came in their conditions were similarly awful and they weren’t treated well either, but at the end of their contract, they were either given land or they were given passage back to India. So you’d find that a lot of landowners are Indian as they would have inherited acres in different parts of the country. Whereas when you look at the amount of land owned by people of African or Indo-African descent, you’ll see a big disparity in land ownership.
To make matters more complicated, many Muslim and Hindu marriages were not recognised by colonial powers who would have been predominantly Christian, so sometimes they could not legally pass down land to their children as they were considered illegitimate children.
Even looking at our religious makeup in the Caribbean, a lot of our ancestors would have been forced to convert to a certain faith during colonisation which has just continued down through generations. I’ve definitely had a lot of conversations with people who aren’t very open to other faiths.
What is your hope for the future, particularly with regards to reparatory justice?
I think that the Caribbean is an incredible place. We’re a melting pot of cultures, each country with a slightly different makeup. At the core of it, we are a people whose ancestors have been through this phenomenon of colonisation bringing us all here to this moment.
In the Caribbean, there is a real sense of brotherhood and community, which is lovely. And I think we need to extend that sense of community to other faiths. In addition to Muslims, I think the Christian community and the Hindu community all need to work together. Ultimately, if we combine forces we would be even more powerful than we already are. It has to be a team effort.
We have so much in common. As a Trinidadian, speaking to my Jamaican friends, we have different religions, different cultural backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, and still we have such a similar outlook on what our ancestors would have experienced. As Caribbean people, we have experienced similar struggles. We both know what it’s like feeling like we have to work twice as hard as other people to get into the same room.
But within our own people, we still struggle with this ingrained sense of cultural imperialism, where a lot of our people still struggle to see ourselves as equal. Sometimes it doesn’t even come from outside, sometimes it comes from inside. In the Caribbean, there is still colourism within and between different races. I think that’s a huge thing that we need to work on as a people.
I think that we have a lot of work to do on ourselves to have more pride in ourselves and see ourselves as first-class citizens because I think that a lot of us don’t.
For us to seek reparatory justice, we have to believe that we deserve it, because we do. Reparations can’t be just about money because internal healing is needed too.
A lot of good work is already being done. And I think that for the reparation discussions to go forward our young people need to be even more educated about the history earlier in high school to appreciate the reality of the injustice and suffering, the wealth that was stolen by colonisers, and the importance of reparations.