Bolsonaro and Islamophobia in Brazil

By Nathália Urban 

Brazil is home to several cultures and religions, such as Islam, which according to a demographic census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), carried out in 2010 is practiced by 35.000, but the Islamic associations in the country and Harvard Divinity School argue that the number it can reach up to 200.000.

Despite Bolsonaro’s growing rapprochement with the UAE and its strange relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Brazilian Muslim community suffers from the country’s growing intolerance.

The Imam Ali Mosque, in Ponta Grossa, was invaded at dawn on 26 November.  The invaders broke objects inside the mosque and also set fire to a copy of the Koran, the holy book of Muslims.  This tragic episode was not an isolated incident, and the other episodes that have been going on for many years are mainly fostered by evangelical fundamentalists, a sector that mostly supports Bolsonaro.  Evangelical leaders like Edir Macedo and Malafaia, through their obscure links to Israel, preach to their flock an increasingly radical vision of Christianity, these inflammatory speeches by various pastors that “Muslims are all dangerous terrorists who want to wipe out all Christians , has negatively reflected on the Brazilian Muslim community”.

It is still very difficult to get concrete data on the number of cases of Islamophobia in the country, which is why the Group of Anthropology in Islamic and Arab Contexts (Gracias) of the University of São Paulo (usp), started in February to publish a survey questionnaire to Muslims living in Brazil, in order to complement the qualitative research on Islamophobic Narratives in Brazil, under the coordination of Professor Francirosy Campos Barbosa.

In an article published in Jornal da Usp, the professor said: Brazil is one of the countries with the greatest religious diversity, but also faces serious problems in relation to religious intolerance.  In recent years, the growing wave of Islamophobia and prejudice against people who profess the Islamic religion has been practiced, mostly, against women who wear the hijab.  The attacks suffered can happen on social media, family, school, etc., demarcating what I have been calling gender Islamophobia.”

In Brazil, aversion to Muslims flourishes in the form of aversion and stereotyping of these people, nourished by a symbolic substrate provided, for decades, by mainstream media.  More or less fixed narratives, images and identities are taken up at different frequencies and intensities by the media, depending on the social weight given to individuals, groups or ideas they represent.  Muslims do not popularly figure in the local imagination as a primary threat to the nation, as in the countries of the Global North.  However, with the globalization of the far right, this narrative was readily bought by its native exemplars.

Bolsonaro and the Sheiks

Despite his harsh criticisms of the Palestinian struggle, always incorrectly associating them with religious violence and terrorism and buying the white supremacist rhetoric that “the white Christian west is being threatened”, Bolsonaro loves to squander on his trips to the Middle East, Dubai is a of the preferred destinations of that government.  The city in the United Arab Emirates is the fourth most visited by his government, only behind Washington, New York and Lisbon.  According to the Travel Panel, the amount spent to pay for international commitments was 76,100 reais, with 48,900 reais in per diem and 26,300 in airline tickets.

In a video posted on his social media, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro (the president’s geopolitical son) defended the their latest trip to Dubai in which he took his wife and daughter, in midst of a general economic crisis in Brazil: 

“First: a large entourage here is seen as a sign of prestige.  Second: I’m not here with public money.  My trip here with my wife has zero taxpayers’ reais”, he declared.  Eduardo Bolsonaro was in Dubai with a delegation of deputies representing the Brazil-United Arab Emirates Parliamentary Front.  The congressman argued that his presence in Dubai, as well as that of Jair Bolsonaro, is necessary in order to establish trade relations between the two countries.  “The Arab people are very similar to Brazilians in that matter. They want to look you in the eye, establish trust, know who he’s handing his investment to,” he declared.

In 2019, after meeting Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, suspected of ordering the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, last seen alive inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey, Bolsonaro said he felt a certain kinship with the prince “Everyone would like to spend an afternoon with a prince.  Especially you women, right?  I have a certain affinity with the prince.”

Of course, this approximation or kinship has a class edge. In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Bolsonaro announced that Brazil could grant humanitarian visas to Afghans fleeing the Taliban.  But it imposed a condition: Christians only.

Due to these and other diplomatic and political approaches, the professor of international relations at PUC-SP, Reginaldo Nasser, said: “Is it Islamophobia with the poor, does Bolsonaro have Islamophobia with the sheikhs of the Persian Gulf?  No, he does not have.”