The Arab and Islamic world in Colombia

This article is also available in: Italiano

The Arab community in Colombia is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most interesting in the whole of South America, able to blend 100% with this magnificent country but without losing its identity.

Very small premise

I used the words “The Arab and Islamic world in Colombia” rather than “Arab-Islamic” precisely to emphasize the split nature of the two realities, which will however both be dealt with in this article. I would like to specify it because they often associate automatically, but, for everything concerning South and Central America, it would be a serious mistake; in fact the very many Arabs who came here were mostly Maronites, Orthodox, Druze and only a small part of them were Muslim (and among them there were both Sunnis and Shiites).

Arabs of Colombia

On the contrary, the historical presence of Islam in these lands is mostly attributable to Indian and Indonesian workers (as in the case of Suriname) or even to African slaves purchased by the Portuguese for their plantations. As always, I will try to follow a mostly chronological narrative by combining the two stories but I repeat: they are two different stories that are joined here.

The arrival of the Arabs

As in other countries of Hispanic America, there was an initial Moorish and Arab immigration with the arrival of the first conquistadors, but the really significant one that will change the fate of the country dates back to a period between 1860 and 1914; this epoch coincides with the ever more conspicuous and evident decay of the Ottoman Empire which, not surprisingly, will see its end with the First World War. Precisely for this reason, the Sublime Porte found itself increasingly in difficulty in managing the Arab populations, especially those of the Bilad ash-sham (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan), often ending up carrying out violence and repression which, combined with problems such as famines led most of the inhabitants to leave for the New World.


The community initially consisted mainly of Lebanese Maronites, who initially settled in most of the inhabited centers, then electing Barranquilla and, in general, the north of the country as their favorite residence. Leaving with little money but many dreams, in a very short time the new migrants managed to become one of the focal points of Colombian society, so much so that from 1978 to 1982 Julio César Turbay Ayala, of Lebanese origin, was president of the country. In general, the Arab presence in the country is so developed that, according to some estimates, the number of “white” citizens with these origins would be second only to that of those of Spanish and German origins; certainly the best known character outside the country is Shakira, whose paternal family should have origins in Zahle.

Arab Colombia in Narcos, in Good and Evil

Of course Colombia is not just Narcos but, like many, I was a huge fan of the first two seasons and doing this article I could not help but notice how, watching that series, you immediately come into contact with this reality without realizing it. . The politician I mentioned earlier, for example, is the one from whom Pablo Escobar will kidnap his daughter, Diana Turbay. All this will take place between 1990 and 1991 and will be considered one of the moments of greatest tension between the drug traffickers and the Gaviria government, decided more than to activate extradition to the USA; one of Escobar’s most extreme responses will be the kidnapping of the young journalist, who later died in a firefight between kidnappers and law enforcement, who arrived there to save her.

The real Diana Turbay (left) and Gabriela de la Garza, who plays her in Narcos

In the series, however, the Arabs are present both “with the government and against Escobar” and in the opposite faction. It will be Alvaro Fayad, in fact, who founded the famous M-19 guerrillas, an extreme urban guerrilla formation that between 1974 and 1990 greatly complicated the management of the country thanks to a long series of attacks. Specifically, it should be remembered the famous Assault on the Palace of Justice of Bogotà in 1985, in which 12 judges of the Colombian supreme court lost their lives. For a long time this event was not connected with the drug traffickers but, as we see very well in the series, it is now almost certain that it was Pablo Escobar who financed the attack; in the latter not only Alvaro Fayad participated, but he was also one of the leaders of the movement killed by the police.

Islam in Colombia, the Maicao case

Compared to other South American realities, Colombia is probably the one that has maintained a stronger and more lasting bond with the “Islamic world”, so much so that there are some cities that have never become a real stronghold, especially in the area of La Guajira, on the border with Venezuela. Specifically, the largest and strongest community is located in Maicao, a city which, curiously, is also the one with one of the highest percentages of Indians within it with about 40% of the population.

The Mezquita de Omar Ibn Al-Jattab in Maicao

Over time, Maicao has become one of the most varied places in terms of ethnicity and faith in all of South America, so much so that from 2020 Mohamad Jaafar Dasuki Haaj is mayor, (most likely) the first in the country to be Muslim, who has wanted to celebrate his election together with the indigenous Wayùu community, the main one in Maicao. Also in here is the Mezquita de Omar Ibn Al-Jattab, the third largest in South America, built in 1997 in Italian marble. There are no exact data regarding the presence of Muslims in the country but, according to estimates, they would be around 2% with numbers ranging from 80,000 to 100,000 faithful.

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