Once a colony at the fringes of the British Empire, Trinidad was an epicentre of human importation. Initially slaves from Africa, then nearly one hundred thousand indentured laborers from India, were brought to the island, mainly to produce and harvest sugarcane. But after generations of cohabitation, Trinidad has developed a unique multicultural social fabric, and with it, unique problems resulting from a history of colonial subjugation.
In the wake of emancipation, British authorities imported Indian indentured workers to fill the labour vacuum left by freed black slaves who typically refused to continue working for their former masters. Ethnic studies researcher Nasser Mustapha has noted that, unlike the Afro-Trinidadians, the newly arrived Indians “were able to maintain their religious identity due to their isolation on the estates”. Further, “because of the need to preserve their faith in an alien and somewhat hostile environment, Indo-Trinidadian Muslims became very defensive and introverted, with an emotional attachment to their ancestral traditions”. Nonetheless, “common external pressures led to greater mutual respect and acceptance between Indian Muslims and Hindus in the Caribbean”.
Although initially intended to prevent African and Indian Trinidadians unifying to revolt against British rule, colonial policies to encourage ethnic separation unintentionally pressured Indo-Trinidadians to forgo prior inter-ethnic religious rivalries out of a mutual interest to preserve shared cultural traditions. Similarly, slavery eroded Afro-Trinidadian slaves’ prior cultural identity, reenforcing absolute subservience to the British colonial system.
At the time of Trinidad’s independence, the Nation of Islam’s anti-imperialist political ideology appealed to descendants of slaves seeking to distance themselves from the legacy of colonial subjugation. Just as race became inseparable from religion amongst Indian Muslims, and in response to centuries of colonial oppression, Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts embraced a particular brand of Sunni fundamentalist Islam which fused black-power rhetoric with anti-western-imperialist sentiments. Consequently, pervasive ethno-social divisions became only further entrenched as Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts resented Indo-Trinidadian Muslims for incorporating ‘blasphemous’ cultural elements into worship, Indo-Trinidadian Hindus for practicing the ‘wrong’ religion, and demonised Afro-Trinidadian Christians for not rejecting the religion of their former colonial oppressor.
Ethno-religious tensions reached their peak in 1990 when a Trinidadian Islamic radical group, Jamaat al-Muslimeen (JAM), carried out an attempted coup which held various political officials hostage, including the Prime Minister, for six days and left at least 24 people dead. While the vast majority of Trinidadians, regardless of ethnicity or religion, disavowed the coup attempt, the Counter Extremism Project notes “Yasin Abu Bakr, the notorious leader of JAM […] targeted urban Afro-Trinidadian youth in his sermons through a mix of Islamic doctrine and Black Power rhetoric”.
The pervasive legacy of colonial oppression meant disempowered Afro-Trinidadians saw potential for Islam to rectify perceived social injustices. However, Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts found themselves only more socially isolated as their particular interpretation of Islam demonised the established Muslim community on the grounds of race, or even members of their own race for their religion.
Although the majority of modern Trinidadians see their society as a patchwork of multicultural customs and racial unity, many of the social divisions which originally drove the 1990 coup attempt remain unaddressed. For example, political parties are often divided along racial lines, and Trinidadians still tend to marry within their own racial group.
More perniciously, the rise of the Islamic State has seen radicalised Trinidadians to channel their resentment elsewhere. Generations of compounded resentment preconditioned a subset of the Afro-Trinidadian Muslim community to be especially receptive to rhetoric promising social reordering, and therefore vulnerable to radicalisation. Predatory ISIS recruiters have been able to lure a disproportionately large number of Afro-Trinidadian Muslims by manipulating feelings of alienation towards their local community through the promise of global social reordering. In fact Trinidad is at the top of the list of Western and English speaking countries for rates of Islamic State recruitment.
Social isolation breeds resentment and the legacy of British colonial rule established a toxic precedent of disunity, making Trinidad fertile ground for extremist recruitment. As the only nation in the Western Hemisphere to ever experience an attempted Islamic coup, and as one of the largest ISIS recruitment centres, Trinidad exemplifies how the legacy of colonialism does not disappear with independence. It also shows how short sighted policies can have long-term consequences. Although British colonists could not have predicted that their actions would lead to the rise of Islamic extremism on the island, policies enacted in bad faith rarely end well. History cannot be undone, but similar blunders can be avoided in future by recognising that policy actions may have unintended consequences, especially those involving race and religion.
Christopher Lindrud is International Coordinator at the Trade Center of the Americas.