Deciphering Islamophobia in Brazil

Inside the Luz Mosque. >Photos by author

Deciphering Islamophobia in Brazil

BRAZIL—Thirty-three-year-old Luciana Velloso was walking down the sidewalk in the Brazilian city of Curitiba on November 20, wearing her veil, when someone pelted a rock at her leg. On November 23 in the same city, Paula Zahra, 34, was spat on and called “bomb woman” by someone on a passing bus. The Luz mosque in Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca neighborhood — its breezy, low-ceilinged prayer room sheltering visitors from the baking Rio sun — had to close comments on its Facebook page that week due to continuous slurs, such as “go back to where you came from.” In reality, many of these worshipers are from Brazil, and they’re among the country’s small but growing group of Muslim converts.

Inside the Luz Mosque. >Photos by author

Inside the Luz Mosque. >Photos by author

Islam in Brazil today stems from 20th-century Arab Muslim immigration and has grown during a period of deepening religious plurality since the 1980s. When Brazil’s dictatorship ended in 1985, so too did legalized repression of non-Catholic faiths, and the 1988 constitution guaranteed freedom of religion. Long-persecuted Afro-Brazilian faiths began to express themselves more above ground, and in 1992, an interfaith council convened at the Eco-92, the Rio-hosted U.N. Earth Summit.

Not only did more Brazilians feel comfortable coming out and claiming religions they may have practiced privately before, this also opened the door for more religious experimentation and conversion. In 1991, 83% of Brazilians identified as Catholic; by 2010, that demographic decreased to 65%. Membership in Christian Pentecostal churches, which focus on evangelizing and often promise wealth and success to followers, rose to 13% of the population, from 6%, over this 19-year span, adding 15 million Brazilians.

Estimates of the number of Muslims in Brazil vary widely. Data miners agree that the faith has grown substantially over the past two decades. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, responsible for taking the census, counted 35,000 Muslims in 2010. Many organizations, however, dispute this figure; the Brazilian Islamic Federation puts the number of practicing Muslims at 1.5 million.

Brazilian religious practices have long been diverse, nuanced and syncretic in ways that rigid survey data can’t always convey. In a piece on Brazil’s nearly 4 million Spiritists — largely white, upper-middle class believers in communication with the dead — historian Laura Premack writes: “It is entirely unsurprising to meet a Brazilian who calls herself Catholic, belonged to an evangelical youth group as a teenager, was married by a priest, attends a local Methodist church, reads Spiritist books, draws mandalas to relax, and consults an [Afro-Brazilian] Umbanda priest for advice.”

Veterinarian Ana Escaleira grew up Catholic in Rio but says it never felt right to her.

“I believed in God,” she explains, “but not that Jesus was divine or God’s son, and the fact that there were so many saints in Catholicism didn’t make sense to me.” She read about the logic of other religions and, in 2001, converted to Islam.

Fernando Celino developed a teenage friendship with a Muslim son of Syrian immigrant parents, which inspired him to study Islam and the portrayal of the religion in the media as part of his journalism degree. The Rio resident converted in 2005.

In the northeastern state of Bahia, a growing Muslim community maintains a social justice focus in memory of a revolt that Muslim slaves led during Ramadan in 1835. In addition, Syrian refugees and Muslim immigrants continue to arrive in Brazil and settle down.

Fernando Celina and his wife Petra Duarte in Rio's Tijuca neighborhood, home of the Luz Mosque.

Fernando Celina and his wife Petra Duarte in Rio’s Tijuca neighborhood, home of the Luz Mosque.


Escaleira doesn’t remember any hostility toward Muslims in Brazil before September 11, 2001. Since then, she says she’s received increasing questions and comments about her use of a headscarf. In 2010, a prospective employer asked in a job interview if she could remove it for a client-facing position, and she declined. She was eventually hired for a different position at the organization, located in the back room of the office.

By 2015, Islamophobia increased a notch in a country where there has never been an attack by an Islamist extremist. The day after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, São Paulo’s biggest mosque was vandalized with “Je Suis Charlie” graffiti. That week, someone threw a rock at Muslim theater professor Sarah Ghuraba, 27, as she headed to the doctor’s office.

In recent months, and especially since the Paris attacks on November 13, “aggressions have gone from verbal to physical,” says Lorrama Machado, coordinator of Rio’s Center for the Promotion of Religious Freedom and Human Rights (CEPLIR), which has a hotline for any report of religious intolerance. Machado says that in 2015, reported cases of Islamophobia rose 500% nationally from 2014, and in Rio, the jump was over 1,110%. Machado believes that this is connected to two things: Media coverage of Islam and comments by some influential Brazilian faith leaders.

Coverage of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the later Paris shootings ran prominently in the Brazilian media for weeks, and many Brazilians enthusiastically changed their Facebook profile pictures to designs of #JeSuisCharlie and the French flag. U.S.-based wire services provided much of the coverage. César Jiménez-Martínez, a researcher of Latin American media and doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says that as news organizations in the region lose money, they are increasingly translating foreign coverage from American or European news agencies instead of producing their own.

“Foreign policy narratives of the global north are not always blindly followed,” he says, noting that many Latin American news organizations understood the Iraq War, for example, as a petroleum-seeking initiative. “But people who work in Latin American media tend to be members of the elite who feel culturally close to Western Europe and the United States, and so often do buy into the ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative. Many reporters picked up the trope that the Islamic State are the current bad guys in the world, and Brazilians who don’t closely follow the news relate this to Islam more generally because of the name.” Jiménez-Martínez adds that in Latin American film and television, terrorists have often been depicted as being Muslim.

Claudia Antunes, a former international editor and columnist for Folha de São Paulo, one of the nation’s most read daily newspapers, says, “With some exceptions, the Brazilian press has had a difficult time setting its own priorities in international news coverage.” She adds that during Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s administration, Brazil’s ambitious policy toward the Middle East — launching a South America-Arab Countries summit, recognizing a Palestinian state with pre-1967 “Six Day War” borders and brokering a nuclear fuel swap deal with Turkey and Iran — earned news coverage. But Dilma Rousseff’s current administration’s milder foreign policy combined with news organizations cutting foreign bureau staff has led to a reproduction of narratives from the American media, Antunes says. Many Brazilians like to compare themselves not with their Latin American neighbors but with the U.S. — even if Americans aren’t reciprocating that. Brazilians point to similar trajectory, demographics, size and regional economic prowess.

The Rousseff administration’s special visa program for Syrian refugees earned attention for leadership among its Latin American neighbors. But in November, coverage of ISIS and the Paris attacks flooded newsstands. In Rio, Machado’s phone started ringing off the hook. The leader of Rio’s Luz mosque, who had already compiled a 49-page report of online and physical instances of Islamophobia in 2015, created a manual for how Muslims can deal with street harassment. The mosque’s report then grew to over 100 pages.

At its most reactionary, Brazil’s mainstream media include writers such as economist Rodrigo Constantino, who became popular as a columnist for widely read newsweekly Veja.

“We are the developed and civilized ones, not them,” he wrote about Muslims in a November post on his personal blog. “The biggest culprit for these attacks is the West itself. Guilty for being tolerant with intolerant people.”

Lutheran minister and CEPLIR member Lusmarina Campos Garcia says that in addition to, and sometimes instead of, consulting the media, “Many people learn politics with their pastors.” This is especially true in Pentecostal Christian denominations, she says, which have grown most in low-income neighborhoods, incorporating elements of Afro-Brazilian faiths such as divine healing and demon exorcism while often deriding those faiths. Machado has invited Pentecostal leaders to participate in CEPLIR several times, but they have appeared only sporadically.

“Trying to be in open dialogue with them has been very difficult,” she says. “You hear common discourses of theirs about building an army of Christ and destroying what comes from the devil. It’s that kind of tone of hate that leads to physical aggressions.”

Mozambican Ali Momade's Arabic class at the Luz Mosque.

Mozambican Ali Momade’s Arabic class at the Luz Mosque.


Rio’s CEPLIR, which offers psychological support to victims of intolerance and trains public employees on how to avoid intolerant behavior, aims to be the first such permanent body in a state government. The center’s work builds on years of activism by the civil society Committee for Combatting Religious Intolerance. Historically the one of biggest slave ports in the Americas, Rio is rich in Afro-Brazilian faiths, prejudice against them and solidarity campaigns in response. According to police reports, faiths of African origin are the biggest victims of religious discrimination in Brazil; in 2015 alone, at least three Candomblé worship houses nationally were set on fire.

Interfaith initiatives across the country have led to Afro-Brazilian priests teaching members of their congregations about Muslim theology and vice versa. Sami Isbelle, the education director of Rio’s Luz mosque, says “the ideal exchange is when visiting practitioners of other religions dialogue directly with the congregation so they can explain their religion in their own words.” He adds, “Knowledge of other faiths can only have a positive effect.”

On a Saturday afternoon, Celino and Samir Isbelle, Sami’s cousin, stop by the Luz mosque for afternoon prayers, stepping away from the chaos of the city. Upstairs, Mozambican Ali Momade, in Rio for a Master’s degree in social sciences, is teaching an advanced Arabic class. Momade says the difference between Islam in Mozambique and in Brazil is that here, he sees more social classes mixing. Samir, a chemical engineering student who is a second-generation Brazilian with Syrian roots, says he’s increasingly able to perceive unfair depictions of Islam.

Take the words of Silas Malafaia, leader of the Pentecostal church Assembleia de Deus Vitória em Cristo, who in November tweeted to his 1.1 million followers about the “assassins of Islam”: “It’s Christianity that brings human rights, the protection of life, freedom of expression, and religious and political freedom. Where Christianity is the majority, minorities are respected. Where Islam is the majority, minorities are massacred.”

Samir challenges notions like these. “If you follow the narrative that ‘Muslim countries’ are violent, you would have to call Brazil a ‘Christian country,’ because the majority of citizens are Christian,” he says. “There is widespread violence against women in Brazil. But does that mean Christianity is violent, or that people are violent because of a variety of factors?”

Brazilian law enforcement officials, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety, killed more than 3,000 people nationally in 2014. A mass shooting in Rio on November 28 involved three policemen who shot at a car with five young black men 111 times. The victims, who all perished, were on their way to get a snack. According to an Amnesty International report, of 220 investigations into alleged police killings in Rio in 2011, “only one case led to a police officer being charged” as of August 2015.

An anti-terrorism bill has passed in one house of Congress and awaits approval that would allow a sentence of more than 16 years in prison for “any act that gravely attacks the stability of the Democratic state.” (U.N. monitors have warned that this legislation might also be used to criminalize the right to demonstrate.) Not letting global narratives of conflict pass them by, Rio activists held signs in 2015 saying that poor black men were “refugees in the Olympic city” and that in Brazil, “the terrorist is the state.”

Although racism and religious intolerance are crimes that can earn jail time, Brazilians are rarely arrested for those reasons, and the 103 pages sent by Rio’s Luz mosque to the public prosecutor remain, at the moment, open investigations.

In 2016, CEPLIR aims to work toward reforming religious education in Rio public schools, away from visiting religious practitioners leading courses (only 3% of religious educators licensed to teach in the state are of Afro-Brazilian faiths, zero are Muslim, and the rest are Catholic or Protestant), and toward a regulated curriculum of multi-faith education.

“Ideally, religion would not be taught in schools at all,” Machado says, “but it is mandated in Brazil’s constitution.”

This is slow, grassroots work, far from the pace of the bombastic Congress and mainstream media, but organizers are finding steady morale in marches, interfaith activities and using social media to educate. Antunes, the writer and editor, adds that Brazilian news sites that are popping up in response to shrinking traditional media can offer better coverage of world religions and politics.

At the end of 2015, CEPLIR met in a press briefing room in the state Office of Public Security. The building above Rio’s central train station is somber and checkpoint-laden. Portraits of police and military officers line the hallways and the briefing room, where journalists often interrogate the coronels of Rio’s famously fraught military police, is usually a place that has the atmosphere of a guillotine. But on this day, the unlikely occupants are a Lutheran priest, turbaned Afro-Brazilian faith leaders, Muslims, Catholics and proud atheists, all wearing white-ribbon bracelets and talking to government officials about a different type of public security: religious tolerance and how to reach it through educating individuals and institutions.

Screenshot 2016-02-09 11.29.08

This article appears in the Winter 2015/2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly. 

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