In a hall full of high-ranking military officers in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, a screen transmits images of a man with a long gray beard, glasses, and a kufi, a knit cap worn by many devout Muslim men. In the first photo, a man with white hair appears at a protest with Palestinian flags. In the next, he’s beside a woman with her hair covered by a hijab. The two are standing on a rooftop in a favela, as informal settlements are called in Brazil.
“This photo was taken in Maré,” a large favela in Rio de Janeiro, the lecturer explained. “What are these people doing there? What is their goal?”
The man in the photos is Cesar Mateus Rosalino, 42, a well-known artist, community leader, and activist who lives about 300 miles west of Maré in Embu das Artes, a community situated on the far outskirts of the sprawling megalopolis of São Paulo. After converting to Islam, Cesar adopted the name Kaab Al-Qadir — which is common among Brazilian converts. His story has been told a number of times in interviews with the Brazilian press. The media became interested in Qadir after he established a prayer room in 2013 in the heart of the Cultura Física favela, in Embu das Artes, which has since been transformed into a mosque. He earns his living producing cultural events supported by public grants, as well as workshops and lectures that he offers at Embu’s schools. He’s also part of a cultural association in the favela, Zumaluma, that offers courses in computing, dance, and art, which are sometimes financed by the city government.
In 2016, the only prayer room in this favela in the Embu das Artes area of São Paulo was remodeled and turned into the Summayah Bint Khayyat mosque, named after an Ethiopian slave who, according to Islamic texts, was the first martyr in that region.
It was on the rooftop of the house where he lives — and not in Rio de Janeiro — where he posed with his friend for the photo, shot for a segment on a corporate news radio station, CBN, which correctly identified the location. Cesar said he has never been to the Maré favela.
No formal accusation of terrorism has ever been brought against him, nor is there any evidence that he has done anything to provoke such suspicions. Nonetheless, his face was displayed to 138 military officials, students in the Advanced Military Studies course at the Brazilian Army Command and General Staff School, as well as alumni who had gone on to become colonels and generals. The topic of the lecture was preparations for terrorist attacks, and it was sponsored by the Foreign Relations and National Defense Committee (CREDN) of Brazil’s Lower House of Congress, delivered on the afternoon of July 4 and transmitted live by Chamber of Deputies TV.
On stage, CREDN’s international affairs and communications adviser, the former journalist Marcelo Rech, accused the individuals photographed at the protest of “sympathizing with jihad” and then questioned their “intentions.” Rech did not present any concrete information about who they were and why they were being presented in this way. “There’s no way to know to what degree they are extremists,” Rech said cryptically.
The episode exemplifies the recent change in the local authorities’ stance on Islam in Brazil. The same federal government that once promoted campaigns against religious intolerance has, since president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment and the ascension of Michel Temer, been responsible for a series of cases in which law enforcement agencies have designated suspects or taken actions based on stereotypes about Muslims, extrapolating concrete evidence they had against their targets — a practice more commonly known as profiling. It was in this context and on the eve of the Rio Olympics that the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Abin), freshly devolved to military control after a brief stint under civilian leadership, launched a campaign that spread the fear of terrorism. In collaboration with the Federal Police, Abin also participated in “Operation Hashtag,” which led to the arrest of 14 suspected members of an alleged “terrorist cell.” Brazil was full of questions about the real threat the group may have posed. Judge Marcos Josegrei da Silva, who issued the arrest warrants, even said that “you can not say that these people are terrorists, that they will commit such acts.” Brazil has no history of attacks linked to Islamic terrorism.
The shift in Brazilian public security policy follows a dangerous trend in the United States and Europe of othering and targeting Muslim communities in the name of the war on terror. This culture of suspicion has stimulated a rise in hate crimes. Consequently, many Western Muslims no longer feel safe in their own cities.
Lately, Brazilian Muslims have experienced a similar increase in prejudice from civilians and harassment from security forces. Federal Police teams twice entered mosques in São Paulo between the end of July and the beginning of August without any warrant. According to individuals who regularly frequent one of the places of worship in question, eight uniformed Federal Police officers entered the mosque during a sermon. They asked questions about the religion, the subjects being discussed at meetings, and the origins of the money used to administer the mosque. At least two of the officers were armed. No one was brought in for a formal interrogation.
The Federal Public Defender’s office was informed of the cases but undertook no investigation to determine if any abuse of authority had occurred. Representatives of Islamic organizations expressed their fear that such an inquiry could further sour the relationship between their community and the authorities. The locations of the mosques are not being revealed due to fear of reprisals.
Although the change in government happened less than six months ago, the increased targeting of Muslims in the current political context has caught the attention of researchers. “The rise of the Temer government brought significant changes in policies at the Justice Ministry, especially regarding refugees in Brazil,” says Renato Cristofi, a São Paulo-based historian who studies East-West relations.
Temer’s pick to lead the Justice Ministry was the controversial Alexandre de Moraes, whose career in public service has shown him to be more disposed to aggressive action than dialogue. Since taking office, he announced that the government should spend less money on public security studies and instead invest more heavily in “intelligence and military equipment,” that he would lead the fight against “criminal attitudes” among social movements, and that “no right is absolute.” In his previous role as São Paulo’s public security minister, Moraes drew widespread condemnation for violently — and without judicial authorization — breaking up sit-ins by students demanding better conditions in their schools. Temer, an old friend of Moraes, once jokingly compared him to the ’70s TV detective Kojak, who shares both his bald head and his willingness to break the rules to accomplish his law-and-order goals.
In an interview with The Intercept Brasil, Cristofi said most of the criteria for surveillance of Brazilian Muslims are “blatantly prejudiced,” and that this is indicative of “a lack of training in and understanding of” terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism on the part of Justice Ministry. “It’s part of the same phenomenon that produces scenes of aggression toward Muslim women on the streets of Brazil, albeit sporadically.”
The exact number of Muslims in Brazil is disputed. In the most recent census, in 2010, it was reported to be approximately 35,000. However, Brazilian Islamic associations estimate the total is actually somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million. According to these organizations, there are nearly 50 mosques and more than 80 Islamic centers throughout the country of over 200 million. Historical records of Muslims in Brazil date back to the 16th century, when people were brought as slaves from largely Islamic regions of Western Africa that had adopted Islam. During this time, non-Christians were persecuted under the Portuguese Inquisition, and, in many cases, were forced to convert to Catholicism by their masters. Muslims in the northeastern city of Salvador led the country’s most important urban slave rebellion, the failed 1835 “Malê Revolt,” or Muslim Revolt.
Census data identifies the state of São Paulo as home to the largest Muslim population, 11,400 people. The religion is well-represented in the budding black consciousness movement and among young people from the poor, urban periphery, a demographic similar to what arose in the United States during the ’60s. Poor, black, and Muslim in Brazilian society amounts to a trifecta of discrimination. This is the profile of much of Qadir’s community.
Among many of the Brazilian Muslims interviewed by The Intercept, there is a perception that incidents of explicit prejudice and violence have increased dramatically since the Paris terror attacks in November 2015 that killed 130 people. This comes from personal experience and word-of-mouth accounts shared at mosques. However, recent official data is not available and a large chunk of cases are never reported. The Public Defender’s office, which has received some formal complaints, told The Intercept that many Muslim victims prefer not to report crimes committed against them, often out of fear of the authorities. Women are the most frequent targets.
“Since they’re women, people have the courage to attack them.”
According to Qadir, about six months ago, a female member of his mosque, while accompanied by his 7-year-old daughter, was violently assaulted while running an errand at the local post office. A man kicked her in the ribs while yelling, “Go back to your own country, terrorist!” The woman is Brazilian, like Qadir.
Despite the gravity of the incident, they did not file a report with the police.
Today, Qadir is subject to death threats, daily verbal aggressions, and harassment on social media — something that’s becoming increasingly common for his coreligionists. On the streets, on the internet, and in the halls of Congress, he’s called a terrorist. But a brief conversation with him about religion is enough to contest the thesis that Qadir is some kind of radical fundamentalist.
Sitting in his modest living room, Qadir defines his concept of jihad as an “effort and commitment in the fight against ourselves,” it is the “struggle to be a better person.” He’s quick to emphasize that terrorist groups violate basic principles of Islam by killing innocents. “We only want to follow our religion, follow a faith that we believe in, and follow the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran,” he says. “Real Muslims have to follow the three books that were sent by God.”
According to community leaders, most harassment and violence toward Muslims happens in the southern region of Brazil, where their population is largely concentrated. Within the social circle of Nader Rodrigues Ali, a 38-year-old mechanical engineer in the southern city of Porto Alegre, over a two-month period there were at least four instances of violence against women wearing hijabs. Rodrigues attends the Islamic Mosque of Porto Alegre in the city’s downtown. Outside the nearby public market, a 26-year-old woman was attacked during the second week of August. When her assailant ripped off her headscarf, the clip securing the fabric severely cut her face. In the last week of June, another woman from the same mosque was stalked at night on the streets of downtown Porto Alegre by a man who called her a “terrorist.” “There are many sisters who don’t speak about these cases, they distance themselves and eventually leave the mosque,” Rodrigues said. “Because they are women, people have the courage to attack them.”
Brazilian authorities, rather than helping to combat such prejudice, are stoking it. During the anti-terrorism presentation at the Chamber of Deputies, the officers were also shown official websites of Islamic organizations. “Here we have the Facebook page of an entity called ‘Brazil Mosque,’ which posts very extreme messages,” Rech, the lecturer, said. “The big problem is to convert the country to another religion and apply Sharia law here.” Sharia is a set of rules, based on the Quran and Islamic teachings — similar to the Jewish system of Halakha and the Catholic Church’s canon law — which has become a poorly understood obsession in popular Western discourse.
The entity in question was the first mosque built in Latin America, inaugurated in 1952 by the Muslim Benevolent Society and frequented since then by families who emigrated from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine to São Paulo more than three generations ago. It is known for maintaining good relationships with neighboring Jewish and Christian communities. A search for the word “Sharia” in its archives will bring few results. On October 13, 2015, for example, the word appeared in a post about Islamic studies classes that are offered by the mosque. About Sharia, specifically, there’s the following excerpt: “Let’s not confuse ‘islamizing’ the world by force and applying Sharia with spreading its message. God has commanded us in the Quran to spread the message only to those who wish to accept it, whoever does not want to accept it is free to do so.”
Marcelo Rech — who studied at the National War College, in Washington D.C., and says he has participated in journalistic coverage and courses in 21 countries — is not a lone voice in the terrorism debate, and his errors are hardly an exception. Many “terrorism specialists” and commentators rely more on flawed convictions than facts to make inflammatory analyses, loaded with fearmongering, broadcast on televisions and printed in international newspapers without scrutiny.
In an interview with CBN radio days after his lecture, Rech repeated a talking point that there were people “wearing shirts displaying institutions of jihad” during a protest in São Paulo. The shirt in question is a souvenir from a disbanded rap group, which has appeared several times in reports by the same network. Based on his comments on the radio, it would appear that simply mentioning the word “jihad” warrants monitoring by Brazilian intelligence agencies to assess the risk of terrorism.
Months later, after making bold insinuations without any accompanying facts to any audience that would listen, Rech no longer appears so confident that the people in the photos may have links to terrorism. Speaking with The Intercept, he suggested that it may be a case of “good intentions, but poor execution.”
When questioned, Rech made it clear that he had used images that he found “randomly on the internet.” “I don’t have any information, I didn’t investigate for further information, I just wanted to illustrate my presentation.”
Referring to his presentation in the Chamber of Deputies, Rech stressed that he didn’t want to expose or criticize anyone. “I had absolutely no intention — absolutely none — to single out those people and I didn’t do that. In one moment, I said that these people look like terrorists,” he downplayed on the phone. “And I have no problem with apologizing for exposing them in that way.”