Under Brazil's New Government, Islamophobia Continues To Rise

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks at an event with Israeli and Brazilian business people, attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem April 2, 2019.

Officials around the world are on alert for possible new attacks against Muslim communities following the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 50 people were killed.

Two days before this attack, two shooters entered a school in the city of Suzano, near São Paulo, and carried out an attack that left 10 dead. The motivation in this case was not religious, though, the violence is worrisome. In common, the killers of both massacres communicated, planned, and radicalized through online forums such as 4Chan.

After the massacre in Chirstchurch, the Brazilian Muslim community was once again on high alert for possible attacks. On the same day as the massacre in Christchurch, Abu Bakr Assidik Mosque in the city of São Bernardo do Campo, near São Paulo, was guarded by the Civil Police and Municipal Guard to ensure the safety of those present during Friday prayer. The city's Muslim community feared attacks after online threats and a series of YouTube videos made against Muslims.

A member of the congregation who wished to remain anonymous said that the individual “did not threaten any specific mosque, [but] in his threats he said that Muslims have to die.”

Hatred and threats against Muslims in Brazil are not new.

Between 2007 and 2017, Brazil received just over 3,000 refugees from Syria and other Islamic-majority countries (such as Pakistan and Bangladesh). Among Latin American countries, Brazil welcomed the majority of Syrian refugees in the region. And by 2015, the country saw a 20 percent increase in the number of Mosques in São Paulo state alone comparing to the previous year. For over ten years, there's been a visible trend of the Islamic faith growing steadily on the peripheral areas of Brazil's biggest cities, disputing the ground with the fast-growing neo-Pentecostal evangelical faith. Despite the official number of less than 40,000 Muslims in Brazil, Islamic organizations believe that the real number may exceed 1.5 million as of 2016.

Despite these small numbers of Muslim adherents in Brazil — less than 40,000 — cases of xenophobia and Islamophobia have risen. According to a research carried out by lawyer Luciana Carvalho for her Course Completion Monograph, 84.60 percent of respondents felt discriminated for being Muslim while 72.72 percent said they have been victims of assault or offenses.

On July 28, 2017, Mohamed Ali Abdelmoatty Ilenavvy, a 33-year-old Syrian refugee, was assaulted on the streets of Rio de Janeiro by alleged members of a mafia of street merchants, according to several news agencies, for having occupied the space of another merchant in a street of the famous Copacabana neighbourhood.

Abdelmoatty Ilenavvy is a lawyer trained in Egypt and sought refuge in Brazil to escape the war in his country three years before the incident. On the day of the assault, Abdelmoatty Ilenavvy was inaugurating his tent to sell esfihas, an Arab snack popular in Brazil, when an unidentified aggressor came up, accusing him of setting his stall in another vendor's spot and trying to extort 10,000 reais (about $3,000 UDS) from Ilenavvy for a space on the sidewalk. It would have been a minor altercation between two business owners if not for the words that were used.

Armed with a piece of wood, the attacker shouted, "Get out of my country! I'm Brazilian and I'm watching my country being invaded by these suicide bombers who killed and quartered children, teenagers. They are miserable people," local news outlets reported. Other men who passed by at the moment supported the attacker and, according to the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, threw the Syrian’s belongings on the ground as they shouted, "This land is ours. you will not take our place."

Brazil's right-wing 

According to Francirosy Campos, anthropologist and professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), the main problem faced by Muslims in Brazil is prejudice and threats, many of them made on social networks, particularly on Facebook.

But some religious and right-wing groups go further than social media posts.

A fringe evangelical denomination called Geração Jesus Cristo, or Generation Jesus Christ, is one of the groups known for public discrimination against Muslims.

In 2017, members of Geração Jesus Cristo, or Generation Jesus Christ, carrying banners and posters carried out demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro, protesting against Islam. Some of the posters were filled with hate messages such as, "Islam: Legal Murderers in Brazil," or "Quran: Guide for rape and murder," or "Say no to paedophilia, say no to Islam," as can be seen in a video recorded by journalist Hajj Mangolin.

Members of this evangelical denomination are known for their religious fundamentalism and for their slogan: "Bible yes, Constitution no." They are also known for posting incendiary videos on Youtube against Islam, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities. Their leader, Minister Tupirani da Hora Lores, was arrested in 2009 for crimes of religious intolerance for an attack against an Umbanda temple — this was the first time a religious leader was arrested for such crimes.

In May of 2017, members of a fascist group called "Direita Sao Paulo" (Right-wing Sao Paulo) organised a demonstration in the city of Sao Paulo against the Brazilian Migration Law, which they considered very lenient with the entry of foreigners and potential "terrorists", shouting phrases like "the European community no longer wants the Islamists who rape girls." A group of left-wing human rights activists staged a counter-demonstration and a Palestinian refugee was severely beaten by the fascists in the skirmish that ensued. Palestinian Hassan Zarif, owner of Al Janiah, a restaurant and an important cultural centre and meeting point of the Arab community of São Paulo, was arrested along with two Brazilian activists after the confrontation and released the following day.

An uncertain future 

The foreign population in Brazil numbers just below 2 million, or 0.9 percent of the total population. Yet, even in a country with seemingly no relevant cases of violence carried out by Muslims, Islamophobic propaganda managed to stick and grow.

The arrival of a new government led by Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain of the far-right with a strong anti-minority speech, has not helped to allay the fears of the Muslim community in Brazil.

“There are many stereotypes and a prejudiced view of the Islamic community, fed by the traditional media, this is not new,” said Soraya Misleh, a well-known activist for the Palestinian cause.

“What is new are some explicit Islamophobic manifestations in Brazil, which have been increasing, especially after the arrival of a number of Arab refugees. Bolsonaro, with his xenophobic and racist discourse, feeds these unmasked expressions of Islamophobia, which attacks the oppressed and exploited.”

It is difficult to predict if Brazil will face yet another wave of violence against Muslims. With people like Bolsonaro, many wonder if the Brazilian government is willing to contribute to fighting against prejudice or whether it will continue to promote it. Only time will tell.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian freelance journalist published by Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, World Politics Review, Vice, among other news outlets.

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