Muslim Relations in Panama

September 16th, 2010

By Dan Miller

Panama has many Muslims, roughly 0.3 percent of the population or 9,600. Panama has roughly one percent of the population of the United States, so that’s the equivalent of 960,000 in the United States. Here, Muslims have largely been assimilated into Panamanian society. There are some reasons for this.

1. The Arabic influence on the Spanish language has been substantial:

Modern day Spanish language (also called castellano in Spanish) first appeared in the small Christian Kingdom of Castile in Northern Spain during this period of Islamic domination over most of the Iberian Peninsula. As a result, the language was influenced by Andalusi Arabic practically from its inception. Arabic imprint on the language increased as the Kingdom of Castile expanded into Muslim lands where the Castilian language had never been spoken and as arabized Christians (Mozarabs) from Al Andalus emigrated northwards during times of sectarian violence, and particularly as a result of the Almoravid conquest in the 12th century. Although the degree to which Arabic percolated the peninsula is the subject of academic debate, it is generally agreed that Arabic was used among the local elites and local Arabic-influenced Romance dialects, known collectively as Mozarabic were more prevalent as the vernacular language. Only the kingdom of Granada, under the Nasrid dynasty was totally arabized after many centuries of Muslim rule.

2. One of the world’s largest free zones is in Colon, Panama, although rather separate and distinct from the rest of the city. Most of the merchants are Jewish or Muslim; in many cases, they are business partners. The Jews tend to live in Panama City, about an hour’s drive from Colon. The Muslims tend to live in Colon.

3. There are about ten mosques in Panama, including at least one in David, the third largest city in the country, on the road between Boquete (now a largely upscale Gringo expat community) and David. Several years ago, there were unsubstantiated rumors that Osama bin Laden had been sighted, but they rank right up there with Elvis sightings.

4. My wife and I rely substantially on a computer store in David, owned I think, by a (shudder) Muslim. He is both a gentleman and a damn good salesman, though not in the least pushy. When we go to his store, he offers refreshments, usually a cup of herbal tea. When we buy something of any significance, he always gives us a small gift – a cheap headset or a couple of blank DVD discs. The welcome we get encourages us to return.

Why are the relationships so good here? I don’t know, but suspect that it has something to do with integration into the local culture. As far as I know, there was little news about the recent Ground Zero – threatened and actual Koran burning episodes in the United States or the resultant protests – possibly because they were of little interest. People here have other things about which to become upset, and beyond that most tend to their own affairs.

Panama has too little world significance to become a focal point of Islamists, and that is a good thing for those of us who live here, Jews, Muslims, Christians and those of us who have no religion. Not once has anyone bothered us about my lack of religion. There is substantial tolerance for the views of others, and that’s a damn good thing.

Am I a tad puzzled? Am I perhaps missing something? You betcha. But that at least seems to be the way it is here.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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One Response to “Muslim Relations in Panama”

  1. Tom Carter |

    As you know, Dan, I lived in Panama for two years a long time ago. It doesn’t surprise me that everyone gets along so well. The people are friendly and easy-going, and that was true even when folks were upset about the Panama Canal treaties negotiations, which were in progress while I was there.

    There’s a small but important Jewish community in Panama City; I had a bit of contact with them through a rabbi who was a good friend. Jews in Panama have been in high government positions, and their contributions to the country are very positive in all respects. That’s undoubtedly a factor in Panama’s historic support for Israel.

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