Immigrants and Converts: Muslims in Brazil

The New Growth of Islam in Brazil

Rio De Janeiro and São Paulo –In One Of the many office buildings-cum-apartments in Rio de Janeiro’s downtown, between its gilded Municipal Theater and the popular grungy party district, a plaque lists this tower’s tenants: lawyer, dental surgeon, financial services, Islam.

The barely bedroom-sized suite has yellow puff carpeting that looks like ceiling insulation. The Associação Beneficente Muçulmana do Rio de Janeiro had to open this room, a jolly Jordanian who immigrated to Brazil 37 years ago explains, because as more people come and work in downtown, they can’t take time off to go to the mosque farther north in the city. Friday isn’t a day off here, he reminds me.

“What does mesquita mean?” – he asks me in a chipper accented Portuguese as he fits on his white tunic, before answering his own question: “It’s a place reserved for the adoration of God – Allah. Deus. God.”

The dozen worshippers – immigrants from India, Canada, Palestine and Angola, and a handful of Brazilian converts from Rio itself – stream in for the majority Portuguese-language sermon.

If it sounds small, it is not. This gathering is part of something wider here: the new growth of Islam as immigrants and converts emerge in Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation that is diversifying in many ways from its staid moniker as the world’s largest Catholic country.

According to the São Bernardo do Campobased Assembléia Mundial da Juventude Islâmica América Latina (World Assembly of Muslim Youth), the number of mosques here has grown from about 60 in 2000 to 115 in 2010. Academics and community leaders estimate the Muslim population to be somewhere between 700,000 and 1.5 million in a nation of nearly 200 million, or one-third of Latin America’s population.

“So Islam is a trend in globalizing Brazilian society,” says Professor Paulo Gabriel Hilu da Rocha Pinto, an anthropology professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro. He dates the current rise to Muslim Arab immigrant waves to Brazil in the 1970s and ’80s, which then allowed communities to organize and construct mosques that opened spaces for converts.

“It’s growing steadily in small numbers through conversion and immigration,” he says.

Brazil has a long history with Arab immigrants – who are popularly called “Turcos,” or Turks, but are largely of Lebanese and Syrian descent. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman visited Brazil in April 2010 to commemorate 130 years of Lebanese immigration, many of whom are Christian. With a community of 7 million – greater than the population of Lebanon itself – immigrants and their descendants say they are the largest Lebanese diaspora in the world.

“Armed with just courage and hope, [these were] men and women that crossed oceans in search of a new life. Their children inherited their judgment and talent, distinguishing themselves in Brazil as politicians, doctors, architects, engineers, artists and scientists,” Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told Suleiman in the commemoration event, before naming his various ministers of Lebanese descent.

Lula, Brazil’s popular outgoing incumbent, has made engagement with the Middle East key in the country’s new foreign policy. He was the first sitting Brazilian president to visit Lebanon, launched the idea of the South American-Arab Countries Summit, which has already met twice, and has seen trade between Brazil and the Middle East more than triple during his eight-year presidency. Brazil announced in December that it recognizes the Palestinian state with pre- 1967 “Six-Day War” borders.

But Brazil and the Americas’ first links to the Muslim world are as old as the region’s colonization itself, notes John Tafik Karam, an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. For example, the British brought South Asian Muslims to the Caribbean, and the second largest slave rebellion of the Americas – after Haiti’s – was the 1835 Malê revolt in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, organized largely by Muslim slaves using Arabic. Chile, Venezuela, Paraguay and Argentina all have large Muslim communities; more recently, Ecuador has begun to see a nascent Pakistani and Bangladeshi community since it eased rules to enter the country in 2008. The Muslim population is a minority but is so present in the region’s development that it re-draws what we should think of as the Islamic world, argues Karam, who is studying the Arab population in the Brazil-Paraguay- Argentina “tri-border” area.

In this tri-border area, many Brazilians worry about the domestic Muslim population. Rumors that Muslims here are linked to terrorism have persisted since the 1992 bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people, and the 1994 car bombing that killed 85 at the Israelite Mutual Association. Argentina accuses Iran of masterminding that attack. The Arab population on the border has since often been suspected of financing and supporting terrorism.

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in November show the U.S. dual view of Brazil’s Muslim community. On the one hand, the consul general in late 2009 cited São Paulo Muslims’ “acute awareness of the danger of radicalism” and “solid achievements in integrating Muslim and Brazilian identities” as an “excellent example of how a unique MMC (Muslim Minority Community) has, by and large, carved out a positive space within a diverse Latin American country.” On the other hand, the São Paulo consulate also wrote in late 2009 that “genuine radical elements do exist here” among the “Hezbollah-oriented Shia population” in São Paulo and the tri-border area.

Despite this negative association and the international terrorism that has gained the faith notoriety, Islam is growing in its number of converts in Brazil. Sheikh Jihad Hassan Hammadeh, vice president of the São Bernardo do Campo-based WAMY, attributes these conversions to events such as Sept. 11, 2001.

“You start to see a search and this starts to demystify the religion,” the Syrian-born, longtime Brazilian resident says. He lightheartedly adds that the popular soap opera “O Clone,” which came out shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks – it followed a young Brazilian man who falls in love with a beautiful Muslim Moroccan while on a trip abroad – was, for many Brazilians, a first prompt to look at Islam.

Certainly, Brazil has a reputation as an alternately carnivalesque party capital and fervently Christian country, but “it’s possible to coexist,” Hammadeh says. In an Islamic country, Muslims have broad support to practice their faith, but here, “it depends on your conviction. … Still however, what we see in Europe and in the United States doesn’t exist (here in Brazil), this more direct prejudice.”

A retirement-aged Brazilian who converted to Islam in 2010 slouches in the couch next to the sheikh and agrees. Islam is still not well known in Brazil, so he also sees less Islamophobia, he says, after chatting about how he is trying to obtain a visa for Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

More than anything, the quiet growth of Islam in Brazil speaks to the new international nature of this Latin American nation as it carves out a broader 21st century global space for itself. The past year has been one with many milestones on the international stage for a nation once seen as a laid-back, beachy backwater: Brazil’s election of its first female president in October garnered headlines worldwide, and she’s already being called one of the world’s “the most powerful women” by some; President Silva hosted the Israeli and Iranian presidents in 2009, later negotiating a polemical nuclear deal with the latter; and in October 2009, Rio de Janeiro won the rights to host the 2016 Olympics.

It’s in this diverse scene that I meet a pretty Brazilian high school senior convert who says her first Muslim contact was on the social networking site Orkut. Another convert tells me how he connected what he read in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” to his experience as an Angolan immigrant in Rio de Janeiro. An upbeat Egyptian immigrant describes his recent move to São Paulo to marry a non-Muslim Brazilian. He had been working Fridays up until that week, when he was able to make it to Friday services. “It’s nice to come to prayer and feel like it is at home,” he tells me.

Here, in São Paulo’s Mesquita Brasil, next to a busy highway and down from a rainbowstriped megachurch, a poster advertises a group trip for the 2010 Hajj – $3,700 USD, leaving from the city. Women change into white gowns and veils as others take coffee in the lobby. A Filipina woman speaking in Spanish leads me over to the bathroom so I can wash my feet and hands. Mulling through the cornflower-blue stucco halls, I meet recent immigrants from Tanzania, France, Trinidad and Palestine.

A handful of the 100 worshippers use headphones for a Portuguese translation of the Arabic sermon. The familiar call to prayer begins, but it is quiet and the traffic passing by hardly has a way of knowing that anything has begun. Taylor Barnes is this year’s Inter American Press Association scholar based in Rio de Janeiro. She writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the Miami Herald, among other publications. http://

More than anything, the quiet growth of Islam in Brazil speaks to the new international nature of this Latin American nation as it carves out a broader 21st century global space for itself.

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    Taylor Barnes

    Taylor Barnes is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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