SAO PAULO — There's a big crowd for midday prayers this Friday. More than 500 people — men, women and children — are gathered at the Brazil mosque in Sao Paulo, the oldest and largest Muslim prayer hall in Latin America. The white early 20th century building is surrounded by high walls and shady trees, and retains its peace and serenity despite the city highway built next to it.
A day after the Paris terrorist attacks last January, someone wrote "En sou Charlie" (Je suis Charlie) on the mosque's perimeter wall. The words were quickly cleaned off. Local media characterized it as an "isolated act." The habitual peace and quiet returned, or so it seemed.
A third of the believers here come from West Africa and Arab countries. They are youngsters aged 20 to 35, recently arrived migrants lured here by Brazil's reputation as a land of immense wealth, or forced to flee violence and war. The remainder are Brazilians, half of whom converted to Islam in recent years. Most have earphones to listen to a translation of the sermon. As in practically all mosques in Sao Paulo — there are 17 — the imam doesn't speak Portuguese.
Sao Paulo's Mosquita Brasil — Photo: Facebook page
The important thing is that the "faith is accepted," says the primary religious authority in the area, Abdelhamid Metwally, who arrived from Egypt in 2007. Metwally, a graduate of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, speaks with authority and dons a long, black robe and a red fez wrapped in white. "It's so they''ll recognize me," he says with a smile. "But the main thing is what is inside you."
Metwally bears witness every week as four to six Brazilians convert to Islam and utter the profession of faith (shahada). "Brazil is a country of tremendous tolerance, where we can express our beliefs with great freedom, which is not the case anymore in some European countries," he explains.
Soap opera effect
Brazil, the world's most Catholic country, has witnessed a significant increase in Muslims over the past 15 years. The exact number is difficult to know as "they are registered under the 'other' category," says Francirosy Ferreira, an anthropology professor and Islamic specialist at Sao Paulo University (USP). "But their estimated number is now about a million, of whom 30% to 50% are converts, depending on the region," he says. Brazil's overall population is approximately 200 million.
Islam was repressed in the early 18th century when Muslim slaves carried out several revolts. It began to recover in recover in Brazil in the 1920s, with the influx of Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians. This gained momentum in the 1980s and after the 9/11 attacks.
"One observed a renewal of interest in this religion, which was being reviled in the media," Ferreira says. "But here, there was even more interest after October 2001, when the broadcaster Globo began airing a soap opera that took place in Morocco," he adds. The series, called The Clone, was created before the terror attacks and sought to paint a picture of the Arab world that included an entirely admirable Muslim protagonist.
Curitiba's mosque — Photo: Rodrigo Ghedin
But the show's timing — that fact that it coincided with the attacks — "made an impression," says Luiz Carlos Lucena, who has made a documentary on conversions to Islam. According to some sources, roughly 70% of converts in Brazil are women, mostly young and relatively well educated. A large proportion of them are from metropolitan suburbs where Islam's messages about social justice and race equality increasingly resonate.
Cristiane Bertolino converted in 2008, at the Do Pari mosque in Sao Paulo. "I come from a Catholic family and have never had a problem since I began wearing a headscarf, even at work," she says. "It is good to be a Muslim in Brazil. It could even be the best place for a Muslim. I'm not saying there are no prejudices or frictions, but there is no conflict."
"You feel very different"
Dana al-Balkhi arrived here in September 2013 on a direct flight from Istanbul. The 26-year-old language student was one of 1,740 Syrians given refugee status in Brazil at that time. "I knocked at every embassy in Turkey, and Brazil's was the only one to give me a visa," she says in her lively manner.
Her sister came with her but returned to Syria after a few days. "Brazil was too liberal for her. I am a believer too, but less rigid," she says. Dana admits she doesn't like Samba or carnival. She also doesn't understand why her Brazilian friends keep asking her to drink alcohol and dance. "Brazil is an extremely welcoming country," she says. "But it's difficult to practice Islam here. Halal food is expensive and difficult to find. And even if you're not viewed with hostility, you feel very different."
Dana has given private lessons, worked in a clothes shop and been refused jobs, notably in a private school, but now works at the Brasil mosque. There were so many calls after the Paris attacks, she recalls. Metwally and about 40 other imams nationwide swiftly issued public condemnations of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. There were isolated calls, for example from Ali Zoghbi, deputy head of Brazil's Federation of Muslim Associations, that France should also punish blasphemy, though with limited repercussions.
Daniela Ernst, a 30-year-old English teacher who converted as a child, has a more nuanced view of the country. "For Muslims, it is clearly easier to live in Brazil right now than elsewhere," she says. But hostility does exist, according to Ernst, who says she has seen evangelical pamphlets that are openly anti-Muslim. She also mentions an incident in which a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the house of a Muslim family in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. And in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, a student with a headscarf had stones thrown at her after the Paris attacks, the teacher recalls.