For a country that has suffered from Islamic terrorism and confronts a well-documented problem with drug dealers doing business with a jihadi organization, Hezbollah, Brazil hasn’t done much to protect itself from the spread of Islamist ideology within its borders. Neither its government nor the leaders of its civil society seem willing to confront the threat that Islamist infiltration presents to its citizens and political system.
One hint that Brazil has a problem with Islamism came in 2011 when a convert to Islam murdered 12 school children and injured dozens of others in Rio de Janeiro. Another hint came in 2016, when the Brazilian government arrested 20 supporters of Islamic State for plotting an attack against the Israeli delegation to the Summer Olympic Games, apparently hoping for a repeat of the 1972 Olympic Massacre in Munich.
Both of these events took place against a backdrop of a well-documented relationship between Brazilian drug gangs and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. It is well known that Hezbollah and other jihadi organizations have set up shop in the Tri-Border Area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay conjoin, but the threat of Islamist infiltration and influence extends into Brazil’s economy and political system.
Islamist regimes in the Middle East have had their eyes on Brazil and other countries in South America for decades. Writing for the Foundation of Defense of Democracies in 2016, Emanuele Ottolenghi warned that Iran has been working to export its revolution into Brazil for years.
“Alongside dozens of Iranian and Lebanese Shia clerics, there is also a new generation of locally born clerics who have joined their ranks. Converts are routinely sent to Qom, all expenses paid, to attend Iranian seminaries specially tailored to Spanish and Portuguese speakers, before they return home to act as Iran’s unofficial emissaries in their countries of birth,” he wrote.
It’s not a problem that can be ignored because of Brazil’s status as a mostly Catholic country. Islam has become increasingly attractive to young disaffected black men in the country’s cities. Interest in Islam, and conversions to the faith, increased in the years after the 2002 broadcast of a television series called “The Clone” which portrayed the faith in a sympathetic light. The soap opera generated immense curiosity about Islam, and many people went to Mosques seeking more information about the faith after viewing it. Leftist ideology has also played a factor, in a country where many young people have embraced anti-Americanism in the years after 9/11.
In an effort to confront the problem, I have spoken with numerous officials in Brazil’s government and leaders of its civil society with the intent of establishing a counter-Islamist NGO in the country. During my conversations, I was given lots of verbal encouragement. People know it’s a problem.
But when the conversations came to an end, I was repeatedly told there was a lack of funds available for such an organization. Something didn’t ring true. We were talking about less than $500,000 for a two-year project. Finally, one of my sources shared with me that Brazil’s security establishment had concluded it was best not to “stir the pot.”
Part of the problem is economics. Brazil is one of the world’s largest exporters of halal meat in the world. According to Agência Brasil, the country’s official news agency, Brazil exported more than $16.2 billion worth of halal meat in 2019, putting it above its closest competitor, India, which sold $4.4 billion for the year.
The impact of potential trade sanctions on Brazilian policy became obvious after conservative Jair Bolsonaro defeated the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or “Worker’s Party” in the country’s 2018 presidential election. During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. It was a promise he was unable to keep for fear of offending Muslim countries, with one anonymous diplomat from Turkey warning, “The reaction will be given not only as an individual country but on behalf of the whole Muslim world.”
Other factors, such as political divisiveness, suspicion of law enforcement and an unwillingness to antagonize Brazil’s large Arab population, contribute to a tendency on the part of Brazilian elites to ignore or downplay the threat of Islamist infiltration — even as they acknowledge the problem in the Tri-Border Area. This tendency was particularly evident in the coverage of the 2011 shooting in Rio De Janeiro with law enforcement and journalists highlighting the bullying endured by the shooter prior to the attack and downplaying his status as a convert to Islam who, according to one report, would read the Qur’an for hours at a time.
Denial of the problem is simply not tenable. Brazilian leaders can no longer avert their eyes from the threat of Islamism in their country. They must step up and address the problem, the sooner the better.
Sonia Bloomfield is a Brazilian socio-cultural anthropologist and retired tenured professor of the University of Brasilia. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area where she taught at the University of Maryland Global Campus. Her research includes the cultural and political environments of Israel, and Islam in Brazil. Her experience includes training with the U.S. Army as a senior social scientist of the Human Terrain System program.