Brazil could have had one of the world’s most progressive migration bills but Islamophobia and xenophobia killed it.
On July 28, a Syrian refugee was assaulted in Rio de Janerio’s picturesque Copacabana neighbourhood as he was trying to make a living by selling sfihas – an Arab snack popular in Brazil – in the street
According to the Brazilian media, 33-year-old Mohamed Ali Abdelmoatty Ilenavvy was attacked by the members of an alleged “street vendor mafia” for setting his stall in another vendor’s spot.
This would have been a simple altercation between street-vendors if it were not for the language used by the aggressors. The yet-to-be-identified assailants told Mohamed Ali to “get out of their country” as they demanded he pay them about $3,000 to be allowed to set up a stall on the pavement.
Local news outlets broadcast a video of the incident in which one of the attackers, armed with a piece of wood, shouted: “Get out of my country! I’m Brazilian and I’m watching my country being invaded by these suicide bombers who killed children, teenagers. They are miserable people.”
Others threw Mohamed Ali’s belongings on the floor as they shouted: “This land is ours. You will not take our place”.
Mohamed Ali, who is a lawyer by profession, moved to Brazil three years ago to escape the war in his home country. He is now married to a Brazilian woman and has a son. After the attack, he told local media outlets that he was surprised about what happened, as he had always felt welcomed and accepted in Brazil. “I came to Brazil because they opened their doors to refugees,” he said. “All my [refugee] friends are working. We are working very hard. I’m very sorry, because I never thought this could happen to me.”
As a hard-working refugee with strong links to the local community, Mohamed Ali is a classic example of integration within Brazilian society. Brazil is an immigrant country where foreigners are welcomed rather than treated as a burden. But things are starting to change.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Brazil received a significant influx of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria. During this period, other groups of migrants, especially Italians and Japanese, also made their way to Brazil. Most of them were invited by successive Brazilian governments that were eager to increase the country’s population. Over the years, these immigrants helped to shape Brazilian society. Today, decendants of these immigrants are artists, politicians and businessmen making significant contributions to Brazilian society. The current Brazilian president, Michel Temer, is also of Lebanese decent.
Brazil also opened its doors to immigrants in the 21st century. It has so far welcomed more than 3,000 Syrian refugees, making it the country hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees in Latin America.
However, the anti-immigration rhetoric and Islamophobia that swept over the world in the past two decades also took its toll on Brazil, and changed the country’s welcoming attitude towards immigrants and refugees.
The Muslim community in Brazil is relatively small but has been steadily growing, especially in the peripheral areas of Brazil’s biggest cities. In 2016, there were some 1.5 million Muslims in the country, making up 0.7 percent of the Brazilian population.
As Islam became a more visible component of Brazilian society, the number of Islamophobic attacks in Brazil also increased, with Muslims receiving death threats and being physically assaulted in public places.
The fear that Brazil is going to see many more xenophobic attacks such as the one Mohamed Ali faced is very real. But it is still not too late for Brazil to remember and embrace its immigrant roots.
Muslims are already among the main victims of religious intolerance in Brazil, and they are starting to feel more threatened and persecuted as fringe far-right groups become more and more vocal.
For example, only a day after Mohamed Ali was attacked, members of a fringe evangelical denomination called Geracao Jesus Cristo (the Generation Jesus Christ), organised a protest against Islam in the same Rio neighbourhood of Copacabana. Some of the protesters were carrying banners with Islamophobic messages on them, including “Islam: Legal Murderers in Brazil”, “Quran: Guide for rape and murder” and “Say no to paedophilia, say no to Islam”.
This was not a standalone incident, as anti-Islam and anti-immigration demonstrations by the Generation Jesus Christ and other far-right, fundamentalist groups have become more commonplace in Brazil in the past couple of years.
In May 2017, members of a fascist group called “Direita Sao Paulo” (Right-wing Sao Paulo) organised a demonstration in the city of Sao Paulo against the recently approved Brazilian Migration Law.
In a population of more than 200 million, the number of migrants in Brazil is just below two million, constituting a mere 0.9 percent of the total population. The number of migrants from Muslim countries is even more minuscule, as most of the refugees and immigrants in Brazil are from Haiti and Bolivia.
Brazil is a violent country. In 2015, with a murder every nine minutes, Brazil had more violent deaths (many linked to police action) than Syria, a country experiencing a brutal war. Cases of police violence against vulnerable populations, especially blacks, are numerous and the country has one of the highest rates of murders of LGBTQ people. Brazil also has a very high police mortality rate.
Yet the number of violent crimes committed by refugees and immigrants – let alone Muslims – in the country is low enough to be statistically irrelevant. In turn, cases of xenophobia and violence against foreigners, notably against immigrants from Haiti, are quite common.
Worldwide propaganda against Muslims that portrays them as a threat against society has been successful in Brazil – a country with seemingly no relevant cases of violence carried out by Muslims.
But all is not lost yet.
In response to the attack Mohamed Ali faced in Copacabana, local authorities in Rio de Janeiro are discussing opening a police station to tackle race crimes and crimes of intolerance. The station is expected to start operating this year, and provide protection and guidance for refugees and immigrants facing intolerance.
Meanwhile, residents of Copacabana are embracing Mohamed Ali and apologising to him on behalf of all cariocas (the population of Rio de Janeiro). People even created a page for him on social media and asked everyone in Copacabana to go and grab a bite at his stall on Saturday, August 12 to show their support. Hundreds showed up.
Many Brazilians are resisting the rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia in their country and refusing to allow anti-Muslim propaganda, fear and bigotry to take control of a country built by immigrants.
The fear that Brazil is going to see many more xenophobic and Islamophobic attacks such as the one Mohamed Ali faced is very real. But it is still not too late for Brazil to remember and embrace its immigrant roots.
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist and a PhD candidate in human rights at the University of Deusto in Spain.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.