Despite the fact that the first Muslims arrived in Brazil over 180 years ago among the slaves brought from Africa to work on Brazilian farms, and that the first Arab immigrants arrived here over a 100 years ago, distorted ideas, unfortunately, still remain in the minds of some Brazilians of what it means to be an Arab or a Muslim.
In the Brazilian imagination, Gulf Arabs are all rich sultans with immense oil wealth and could do anything to earn an extra dime. This stereotype comes from the days when the first Arab immigrants came here and worked as door-to-door salesmen hawking household goods, and were mistakenly called “Turks” because of the Ottoman passports they used to enter Brazil. And like most Arab immigrants to Brazil they were Christians, which made their assimilation into Brazilian culture easier and quicker. In fact, I have met many Brazilians of Arab descent. They do not speak the language, have never been to the Middle East, and have Arab food as the only surviving link, as well as their Arab surnames, to their Arab ancestors.
The Muslim stereotype may be worse in the Brazilian imagination after centuries of brainwashing by the Catholic Church, beginning in the Crusades where the Christian kings of Europe traveled to Jerusalem to wrest control of the holy city from Muslim rulers. For some Brazilians being Muslim seems to be worse than being an atheist or even worse, such is the level of defamatory propaganda against the religion and its followers, and the lack of willingness of these people to learn about the religion of more than one billion inhabitants of this planet. In this distorted view, Muslims are seen as backward, sexist, violent and as terrorists.
The popular soap operas on Brazilian television are also to blame for some of this stereotyping, showing Arabs and Muslims as cartoon characters, presenting them in an exaggerated way. Globo TV’s soap opera “Alto Astral,” that just ended last week after a six-month run, was one of those guilty of presenting rather silly depictions of Arabs. One of the characters was the ruler of a fictional Arab country called “Maktub.” In many scenes, the ruler was shown wearing turbans and fancy shalwar-kameez, which looked much more like something an Indian Maharaja would wear rather than an Arab king.
And that is the problem with many Brazilian authors. For them the Arab world is the same thing as the Indian subcontinent and Turkey. All are orientalisms that these authors use and abuse, mixing the three at will, and make of all of this a cultural swill that makes us shudder because the result is so idiotic, horrible and just plain wrong.
Last week a Syrian friend who lives in São Paulo showed me an article that was published in a satirical Brazilian site about an alleged Arab billionaire who wanted to marry seven Brazilian women at the same time, and would supposedly pay each one $100 million. The billionaire’s requirements were that that women had to accept each other; not be self-interested and marry for love (for $100 million, who would not be self-interested?), and should be between 18 and 45 years of age. A very badly photoshopped photo of the man accompanied the article. Despite being an obvious bad joke, the article was shared 240,000 times on Facebook, and many Brazilian women seemed to believe it. If Brazilians knew more about Islam, they would know that a Muslim man can marry only up to four women at a time, not seven as claimed in the article. And a Muslim can only do this if he treats each wife exactly the same, buying the same things for each, and spending the same time with each wife.
Finally, when the adviser of the Embassy of Oman in Brasilia, Marcelo Bulhões dos Santos, was arrested by federal police on April 24, 2015, on suspicion of falsifying documents, the Brazilian media treated him with total disrespect. Instead of focusing on him being a lawyer, they focused on him being a Muslim and used it to speculate that he had possible links to terrorists. But the police denied that its investigation had anything to do with terrorism. Nevertheless, Veja magazine speculated that Bulhões was the target of an investigation on suspicion of complicity with terrorists and because he had converted to Islam. All this without citing any source or showing any proof of what they were accusing him of. In the magazine’s desperation to paint the lawyer as a sympathizer of “terrorists” Veja cited a statement from Bulhões on his Facebook page supporting the Palestinian group Hamas. Now, everyone knows that Veja is extremely anti-Palestinian, so this criticism is not valid and is certainly no proof that Bulhões is involved with dubious groups.
Worst were the websites that blared Bulhões religion in their headlines, as did the “Diario do Poder”: “Muslim investigated for terrorism worked with Dilma.” I do not see how his religion makes any difference to the story that he had been detained for questioning. This is pure discrimination against Muslims, implying that all are terrorists because of the evil deeds of Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Can you imagine if a Brazilian newspaper had a headline like this: “Jew investigated for terrorism”? It would be taken as a great slander against Jews, and as racist.
Arab and Muslim groups in Brazil have to organize to fight against all these forms of discrimination and stereotypes that they encounter every day in Brazilian society. It is up to us to educate the Brazilian public to respect us and to better know our culture, history and religion that are so rich and ancient.
— The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.