Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Islam in Brazil: Local and Transnational Trends in the Making of Diasporic Islam


Last week, the Kevorkian Center was honored to host Brazilian anthropologist Paulo Pinto, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Universidade Federal Fluminense.

Paulo had done extensive fieldwork among Sufis in Syria and has now undertaken a study of Muslims in Brazil. With regards to the latter, the key questions he presents are: what is Islam in Brazil? how is Islam produced in Brazil?

While this short blog will not recap all his insights, I would like to focus on a few that really struck me. 

Pinto rightly emphasis taking into account local dynamics alongside national and transnational orders in the way of making Brazilian Muslim identity. 

There is a parallel history of Islam in Brazil. A colonial heritage of African slaves that disappears in with end of slave trade due to cut off with African and assimilation to Catholic or African Brazilian religions. 

And the contemporary Muslim presence of Middle Eastern immigrants (mostly Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians). But this presence is based on a search for a community in the name of ethnic identity. Muslim immigrants articulate identity as Syrian, for instance, due to a Brazilian immigrate narrative viewing Arabs as undesirable non-Europeans and Islam as less than favorable. 

Between the 1920s-1960s, Brazil witnessed the creation of Muslim charitable societies that ensure social welfare but also places of sociability to maintain Muslim identity. 

The 1960s-1990s witnessed the first mosque (mainly due to funding from Gulf countries and Iran). But Islam is understood as a cultural heritage within larger set of religious norms. Until the 1990s Islam is understood by Muslims in Brazil (or at least institutions) as a Middle Eastern cultural heritage and not a missionary religion. The first conversions start in 1990s and spark fierce debate: Should we accept them? How do we integrate people who do not know Arabic or cultural norms? 

Some preachers argue, for instance, that Brazilian society is not conducive to Muslim life. In 1995, Maria Morara, an engineer from a Catholic university, converts to Islam after traveling to Egypt and Turkey. But a many preachers reject her and she starts a debate with the preachers arguing that Brazil is indeed compatible: traditional, religious, and very family oriented; and Evangelical Churches are not much different from Islam and manage convert millions, and Islam could do the same only if it took seriously the task of tackling Brazilian religiosity. During this era, some communities begin to open up for converts. And in 1997 Rio-based institutions stop being heritage-oriented and begin to see Islam as a universal message for all and accept conversion of Brazilians without Arab or Muslim background. By 2010, half of Brazilian Muslim community is already converts and the figure is 85% in Rio. 

But this is not without internal tension between Brazilians of Arab heritage and simply Brazilians (everybody without Middle East background). For instance, a Brazilian Arab Christian who converts to Islam is considered Arab but any other isn't. So ethnic and heritage-bound identity remains very important. Arab Brazilians righteously argue they have an imbibed (one surmises) Muslim culture and do not need to learn it while converts challenge/retort that they know the actual purpose of Islamic norms and practices as opposed to Arabs who simply reproduce their heritage. A binary between  tradition vs. acquired religion. 

Among converts many identify with Salafi (conservative Islam), a codification of Islam as a way-of-life learned and followed, and more than the sacred texts. Very pedagogical. But born-and-raised Muslims do not see any attraction to Salafism. Instead Islam in often an expressed (occasionally Sufi) cultural tradition (Sufi traditions in Brazil are just traditions removed from pious sentiments. Ex. muwlid (Prophet's birthday), a Sufi holiday opposed by Salafis as antithetical to orthodox Islam). When these traditions and rituals are performed in mosques, such as muwaild, this is where religious differences between born-and-raised Arab Brazilians and converts rise to the fore as the latter exit the mosque in opposition to the intermixing of culture and Islam.

But converts do not deny religious value of some culture aspects, such as Arabic where Islam isn't localized but complement to religiosity. Or living in a Muslim society: Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, India, South Africa, and Pakistan are popular destinations. 

In a related tangent, each Muslim community in Brazilian (meaning regionally) produces a different codification of Islam and Muslim identity because local dynamics connection differently to national and transnational processes. Ex. Rio is different from the tribal area near Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

What I found so interesting in the talk is the difference between pedagogical Islam and an Islam that is imbibed through upbringing. An Islam that is simply Islam without necessitating explanation. Islam is culture. Islam is going to mosque on Friday but drinking on Saturday. Islam is a holiday centered around food. As one Muslim recently said, "I don't do Islam correctly, but you don't actually know that...lines between Islam and Afghan culture are blurred." 

This is the Islam I was brought up in and the one I practice now, and the only Islam I recognize: We live Islam as we live it. And that is the source of our unassailable faith. This is our connection to Allah.

And it is the Islam of 99% of Muslims, Brazil included.

As a corollary, here's an interesting video on the rise of Islam in the favelas of Brazil:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice opinion. thanks for posting.