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Muslims in the Marshalls

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How Islam Is Gaining A Foothold In Micronesia

A mosque and a Muslim congregation are flourishing in the Marshall Islands by demonstrating Islam is a force for good in the community.

Joyia sees his community playing a healing role where Marshallese society is out of balance: drug and alcohol abuse, a breakdown in marriage and families, truancy from school.

By Jon Letman for the Honolulu Civil Beat*

Tucked onto a quiet side street in central Majuro, the white two-story building with baby blue trim hardly stands out other than two skinny rocket-shaped minarets rising skyward. Like an oversized house, the building presses up against a fence topped with barbed wire under which a sign reads “Love for all — hatred for none.”

Welcome to Baet-Ul-Ahad, the only mosque in the Marshall Islands. Mecca may be more than 8,000 miles away, but the flowing Arabic script over the front door announces this as a Muslim house of worship in the remote atoll nation.

Arriving shortly before Friday’s midday prayers, I’m met by the mosque’s senior imam, a bespectacled man in his early 30s with a neatly trimmed whisper of a beard. Matiullah Joyia invites me into his office where he introduces the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of the Marshall Islands.

Baet-Ul-Ahad mosque has been serving a growing number of Marshallese Muslim converts since 2012. Photo: Jon Letman/Civil Beat

Baet-Ul-Ahad mosque has been serving a growing number of Marshallese Muslim converts since 2012. Photo: Jon Letman/Civil Beat

When Joyia arrived in 2012, there were scarcely a dozen Muslims in the entire nation. He says the mosque’s construction was met with fear and suspicion and remembers opening day when an exterior sign with a sacred verse was pelted with eggs. Empty beer cans were used to defile the gate.

“It was a message to us that ‘you’re not welcome.’ It was my very first day,” Joyia recalled.

Four and a half years later the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has gained a foothold as a tiny minority in a nation where United Church of Christ missionaries founded the Marshall Islands’ first Christian church in 1857. Today, Majuro has more than 30 churches serving UCC Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, the Assembly of God — in all at least a dozen Christian denominations — as well as a Baha’i community.

Within Islam, Ahmadiyya is a relatively new sect founded in 1889 in what is today India’s Punjab state by a man named Mrza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmadis recognize him as a messiah, sent as a metaphorical second coming of Jesus to “end religious wars, codemn bloodshed and reinstitute morality, justice and peace.”

Imam Matiullah Joyia came from Canada to help establish the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on Majuro. Photo Jon Letman/Civil Beat

Imam Matiullah Joyia came from Canada to help establish the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on Majuro. Photo Jon Letman/Civil Beat

Joyia says the Ahmadiyya Community stresses the importance of peaceful coexistence and that there is no justification for violence in the name of religion. The only acceptable form of jihad or “struggle,” Ahmad taught, was a metaphorical battle fought with a pen. The greater jihad, he said, was to fight negativity within oneself.

Ahmadis, however, face a history of discrimination and persecution by their fellow Muslims, particularly in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesida. In a 1974 amendment  to Pakistan’s constitution, Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims and since the 1980s they’ve been subject to penalties and worse, simply for presenting themselves as Muslims in appearance or deed.

Ahmadis go out of their way not to retaliate or strike back, Joyia said, lamenting, “We believe in Prophet Mohammed as much as they do.”

Accused of heresy, tens of millions of Ahmadis have migrated around the world, with the largest communities in Europe, North America and West Africa. Today, the Ahmadiyya Community’s international headquarters are in London.

‘Love For All — Hatred For None’

Joyia explains that Baet-Ul-Ahad serves about 120 Marshallese Muslims and visiting Muslims such as the Indonesian fisherman who occasionally pass through Majuro. As he speaks, the azan — the call to prayer — is heard rising in the humid afternoon air.

Joyia, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Ontario, oversees daily operations of the mosque with fellow Imam Feroz Hundal, who also emigrated from Pakistan to Canada before coming to Majuro three years ago.

Together, Joyia and Hundal lead community outreach efforts that include computer training workshops, medical missions from the U.S., blood donation drives, agricultural projects and educational and employment programs. These efforts, Joyia says, help dispel misperceptions and demonstrate that they are in the Marshall Islands as a force for good.

A sign outside the mosque on Majuro emphasizes love and tolerance for all faiths. Photo: Jon Letman/Civil Beat

A sign outside the mosque on Majuro emphasizes love and tolerance for all faiths. Photo: Jon Letman/Civil Beat

In 2016, Joyia organized a World Religions Conference on Majuro under the theme “How Religion Can Protect the Environment,” which included more than 250 attendees and speakers representing Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and atheists.

Joyia sees his community playing a healing role where Marshallese society is out of balance: drug and alcohol abuse, a breakdown in marriage and families, truancy from school.

Stressing the importance of education among Muslims, Joyia adds, “I think if people embrace and follow Islam, they’ll have promising progress in the future.”

From his office, Joyia takes me outside where we climb a narrow flight of stairs leading to an unfurnished prayer hall overlooking the ocean where men and boys pray (women pray separately downstairs).

A dozen or so barefoot men listen as Joyia delivers a sermon on the purpose of humankind’s creation as described in the Koran. As the sermon is translated into Marshallese, squeaky ceiling fans whirl overhead. Outside a fast-moving squall rolls in from the ocean, pummeling the roof like a wave from above.

Uncle Sam Gets A Mosque

Following the service, two members of the congregation, speaking through an interpreter, talk about how and why they joined the Ahmadiyya Community.

The first is a woman named Moreen Mission who asks to be called by her Islamic name Maryam. After Maryam had heard about the mosque, she decided to “study, compare and learn more.”

Although she says she has faced discrimination as a Muslim, two years after she began regularly attending the mosque, Maryam says it’s the place she has found the true meaning of god.

Like Maryam, Sam “Ali” Nena is a Muslim convert. Born on the tiny Polynesian island of Tuvalu, Uncle Sam — as he is affectionately called — has lived in the Marshall Islands since 1960. He says he first learned about Islam from Ahmadi missionaries who visited Majuro from Fiji in 1980. In 1987, Uncle Sam converted to Islam. It was his wife who donated the land where the mosque stands today.

Uncle Sam “Ali” Nena shares a smile after Friday prayers. Photo: Jon Letman/Civil Beat

Uncle Sam “Ali” Nena shares a smile after Friday prayers. Photo: Jon Letman/Civil Beat

Through the 1980s, Uncle Sam remained in contact with the Ahmadiyya Community and was the first to encourage the establishment of a mosque in the Marshall Islands. As he describes being discriminated against and cursed in public, he shows no sign of anger, instead smiling gently.

Going on five years in the Marshall Islands, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is gradually finding acceptance and understanding.

Hilary Hosia, a Marshallese journalist who covers the Ahmadiyya Community, sees less resistance as Marshall Islanders grow more familiar with the group and watch as it organizes and introduces events like a basketball tournaments, tutoring for students, and projects to bring solar panels and improved sanitation for elderly and vulnerable citizens. Eventually Hosia thinks the presence of Muslims will become commonplace, similar to the once rare sight of Catholic nuns.

Asked if Christianity and Islam are compatible neighbors, Joyia says, “We believe that Islam is one of the most tolerant religions and it promotes harmony.” Quoting the Koran he says, “For you is your religion and for us is our religion.”

He continued, “We might have differences, but that should not hinder us from serving humanity, from becoming good people and having a good relationship.”

*Jon Letman, an independent journalist on Kauai, writes about politics, people and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region. The above article appeared on the Honolulu Civil Beat site on February 6, 2017 and its editors subsequently gave permission for it to be posted here.

You can catch a glimpse of Friday prayers at Baet-Ul-Ahad mosque in this short video.

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