The Rise of Islam in PNG
ABC News Papua New Guinea correspondent Steve Marshall recently produced a story about the growing number of Papua New Guineans converting to Islam in the country. His story raises a number of interesting points and questions concerning the religious future of PNG.
According to the report, PNGeans began converting to Islam in the early 1980s and there are now more than 4,000 followers in the country with recent reports of entire villages converting at the same time.
Why the gradual increase in PNG Muslim numbers?
Well, according to Isa Teine, the general secretary for PNG’s Islamic Society (Yes, they have a website!), many are drawn to Islam because of the many similarities Islam has with Melanesian customs:
“When we greet people we hug them. This is Islam. We don’t shake hands and leave them, so most of our cultures are Islamic. Polygamy – this is Islam. Islam encourages four wives. Before Islam came in, people already had two, three, four wives. This is Islam.
“So when the religion came in and said, ‘Oh we have to do this, our Islamic culture, we have to do this and that’, people fit in easily. So it’s very easy for Papua New Guineans to embrace Islam. Once the religion itself spread I tell you, I’m just predicting in 20, 30 years time, all Papua New Guinea will submit to Islam”.
The similarities enable many PNGeans to fit in and actually feel comfortable practicing the religion because it doesn’t completely require them to totally transform their cultural beliefs.
This also makes the claim that entire villages are converting unanimously to Islam quite believable because one would only have to convince the elders of the clan to become Muslims before the rest of the clan-members follow suit. This tactic is commonly used during elections – politicians understand that by securing the “Big Men’s” loyalty, they have ultimately secured the loyalty of the collective as well, i.e the clan or tribe.
It’s interesting to note that Islam is particularly making inroads in the Highland provinces of PNG with the PNG Islamic Society now operating four branches in the Highlands – with the only mosque located in Hohola, Port Moresby.
According to the report, the mosque in downtown Port Moresby has been fire-bombed and there is a bullet hole in one of the windows. A senior PNG Government minister once said that Islam was dangerous and a serious threat to peace and unity in the country.
- The PNG Islamic Society is the only Islamic organisation in the country and was founded in April 1981 – it won its recognition from the government in November 1982.
- The first person to embrace Islam on PNG soil was Brother Sadiiq Sandbach, then a Scottish national – now a Papua New Guinean, who became a Muslim in October 1982.
- The first Papua New Guinean to embrace Islam was Alexander (Bilal) Dawia who declared Shahadah on the 18th of February 1986.