GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Do Arab Muslim immigrants face discrimination in Brazil?
Paper Proposal Text :
Do Arab Muslim immigrants face discrimination in Brazil?

By Rasheed Abualsamh

Brazil has a long relationship with the Arab world that stretches back 153 years, when the first Lebanese immigrants arrived here in 1860. But it wasn’t until the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, that Arab immigration from the Levant reached high levels, approximately 5,000 immigrants a year over a period of 10 years, which consisted mostly of Christian Lebanese and Syrians fleeing the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Turks. These numbers may not seem like much, but with marriage and large families, typical of Arabs, there are now approximately 15 million Brazilians of Arab descent.
The Arabs who first came to Brazil were small merchants, many peddlers of goods who would go from town-to-town, selling household goods and clothes from a small carriage pulled by horses or mules. Brazilians called them “Turcos”, since they came into the country with documents issued by the Ottoman authorities, who controlled the Levant. Called “mascates” in Portuguese, they played an important role in the vast region of the Center-West of Brazil where they brought news of the latest happenings in the capitals to the small, isolated, communities that they passed through. Until today, the stereotype of the Arab merchant being shrewd and tight-fisted with money, even to the point of trying to sell shoddy goods to unsuspecting customers, prevails in the Brazilian popular psyche, helped no doubt by soap operas (novelas) on television that depict “Turcos” this way.
Most of the Arab immigrants settled in Sao Paulo, the commercial and industrial capital of Brazil, opening up shops selling everything from clothes, food, and furniture to cars. Many became rich and successful, growing so successful as to own whole TV networks (João Saad founded Bandeirantes in 1967). Many also went into politics and were elected mayors, congressmen, senators and governors. Paulo Maluf, currently a congressman, was previously elected mayor and governor of Sao Paulo in the 1980s and 1990s; the newly elected mayor of Sao Paulo is Fernando Haddad, who was previously the education minister in the cabinet of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and the current governor of Sao Paulo is Geraldo Alckmin.
But Arab culture and food also had a great impact on Brazilian society, with stuffed grape leaves and hummus becoming part of the local menu.
It was only in the 1970s that Muslim Arabs started to immigrate to Brazil, many fleeing from the civil war in Lebanon. This was also when Brazil started paying attention to the Gulf countries, especially after the oil shock of 1973. Relations were especially strong with Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who between 1983 and 1988 bought 170,000 Volkswagen Passat cars made in Brazil, paid for in Iraqi oil. At one point, Iraqi Airways flew to Brazil once a week from Baghdad, and Brazil exported tanks and other heavy weaponry to Iraq.
Saudi Arabia was crucial in the 1970s and 1980s in providing funds to Brazilian Muslims to build mosques and set-up Islamic schools. The first mosque in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, was built with Saudi funds and opened in the late 1970s. Other mosques in Sao Paulo and other states were also built with Saudi funding. These mosques were built to serve the mostly immigrant population of Muslim Arabs. There have been reports in the Brazilian press of poor Catholic Brazilians in the suburbs of Sao Paulo converting to Islam, but that does not appear to be a widespread phenomenon. The Brazilian government census estimates that there are 27,239 Muslims in Brazil, but the Brazilian Islamic Federation estimates there are 1.5 million Muslims in the country.
The main ties that bind Brazil now to the Gulf region are commercial ones. Brazil is the largest provider of frozen chickens (Sadia) to Saudi Arabia, and in turn Gulf countries export oil to Brazil. There have been several Brazilian football players hired by Saudi football clubs, and many Brazilian pilots joined private airlines in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the past several years.
Despite these ties, there remains much more that could be done to expand ties beyond the merely commercial. In an attempt to do so, a delegation of around 25 young Saudi men and women visited Brazil in 2012, and were taken to see the Amazon, Sao Paulo and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. A few Brazilian graduate students are studying at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the recipients of scholarships that cover the costs of their studies and living expenses.
Despite this, most Brazilians think of the Gulf in terms of the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai (most are dying to visit), or they think of camels, desert and oil of Saudi Arabia, where women have to cover up in black abayas. In turn, most Gulf citizens most likely think of Brazil in terms of football, Carnival in Rio and the vast tracts of the Amazon rainforest.
What could be done to change and improve these stereotypical views of each other’s regions? Is it feasible to even try to do so, given that the religious and social differences between the conservative Gulf countries and liberal Brazil are quite wide? Also, is Islam really growing in Brazil? What difficulties and/or discrimination do Muslims face in Brazil? Have the events of 9/11 worsened the reputation of Muslims in Brazil? Are Brazilians really accepting of Arab Muslim immigrants? Recent news reports showed how some Muslim women in Foz de Iguaçu, Parana, were not being allowed to wear their hijab when taking their photos for their driving licenses—even though there is no Brazilian law that prohibits women from wearing their hijab while driving. Yet another report on Brazil’s first Muslim football team in Sao Paulo, tells how the non-Muslim players on the team don’t mind the stops for the Muslim players to perform their daily prayers, in perhaps a sign of tolerance among Brazilians of different religious beliefs.
That is what I would like to explore in my paper for the “Relationship between Gulf Countries and Brazil: The Role of Non-State Actors”.