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Cablegate: Scenesetter for Sr Farah Pandith's Visit to Brazil: Sao Paulo's Muslims

R 201218Z NOV 09




E.O. 12958: DECL: 2019/11/20
SUBJECT: Scenesetter for SR Farah Pandith's Visit to Brazil: Sao Paulo's Muslims
Classified By: David C. Brooks, State POL; Reason: 1.4 (d)

1. (U) Post is delighted to host Special Representative (SR) Farah Pandith’s first visit to Latin America, November 22-23. Brazil offers a unique context for engaging the local Muslim communities. The country hosts a significant (400-500 thousand) Muslim minority that lives within a larger society that has historically taken great pride in both its diversity and tradition of cultural and religious tolerance. Sao Paulo hosts Brazil’s largest Muslim community, a combination of both older and more recent Arab immigrants (mostly from Lebanon) as well as some Africans and Brazilian converts. Engaging this group in the midst of Brazil’s famous “melting pot” context can generate opportunities for making connections not available elsewhere and will likely echo favorably with non-Muslim

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Brazilians. Brazil’s Muslims By the Numbers (Such as They Are)

2. (U) Statistics on Brazil’s Muslim population vary widely. A year 2000 census lists only 27,000 Muslims in the country. Spokesmen for the country’s Muslim community have sometimes put this figure as high as 1-2 million. Most knowledgeable observers calculate that there are 400-500 thousand Muslims in Brazil. (Muslim community members universally lament the lack of hard data on their own numbers, due, in part, they say to flaws in the Brazilian census methodology.) The majority are Sunnis of Lebanese descent. Many of these immigrants’ families arrived decades ago and have set strong roots in Brazil. A more recent group of immigrants has complemented these earlier flows. The new immigrants are frequently also from Lebanon, but they are poorer and far more Shiite. Their politics is more radical and they frequently look to Hezbollah for leadership. The Consulate does not have contact with this latter group, which tends to keep its distance from us.

Consulate Engagement: A Work in Progress

3. (C) For several years, the Consulate has sought greater engagement with Sao Paulo’s various Muslim groups (Refs A-E). Working closely with the Lebanese Consul General, Joseph Sayah, we have developed an increasing network of friends among Sheiks and community leaders in the Sunni community, including an ability to dialogue with some Sunni Fundamentalists who hold highly critical views of the United States. We continue to try to make inroads into women and youth groups, but this is difficult in an essentially conservative, hierarchical community where even friendly Sheiks tend to guard their flocks closely, youth often enter family businesses and, as yet, women do not play overt leadership roles. Your visit offers us an opportunity to increase this engagement by highlighting both Washington-based programs and giving a Washington push to ideas we have developed locally.

4. (U) What follows is a description of broad trends in Brazil’s Muslim communities built around data points developed from our own experiences. This account includes data from only two trips outside Sao Paulo, a gap we intend to close in the coming year as we promote Muslim engagement as part of our normal political travel in our district.

The Lebanese Connection

5. (C) Heavy Lebanese immigration to Brazil, most of which was Maronite Christian, has shaped Brazil’s Muslim community in important ways. Most of the Lebanese who are here are descended from earlier generation immigrants who extol the virtues of a tolerant Lebanon where Christians, Jews and Muslims mixed with ease. This is a cornerstone of this community and has only been reinforced by Brazil’s own broad traditions of cultural tolerance. Many Lebanese Brazilians would like to see this spirit brought back to the country of their ancestors/their country of origin. A key figure in this effort is Lebanon’s Sao Paulo-based Consul General, Joseph Sayah. A Maronite Christian with fluent Arabic and an intimate understanding of Islam, he actively maintains contacts with a wide range of actors in the Brazil’s Islamic communities, promoting moderation. The social events he sponsors put this tolerance on remarkable display. In his hands, Lebanese National Day becomes a virtual celebration of religious comity, with Lebanese Jews, Christians and Muslims all hugging and conversing in fluent Arabic. Sayah is a close friend of the Consulate and a key interlocutor in reaching out to disaffected Muslims who would rather keep their distance from us.

America at Arms-Length: the Sunnis of San Bernardo

6. (C) The San Bernardo suburb of Sao Paulo is home to a Sunni mosque that is run by Jihad Hammadeh, a Lebanese Sheik who speaks excellent Portuguese. For this reason, he frequently appears in local media speaking out on Islamic or Middle Eastern issues (often criticizing what he sees as unfair stereotyping of Muslims in global media). Hammadeh also works for two organizations that are dedicated to the spread of Islam in Latin America: the Center for the Propagation of Islam in Latin America (CDIAL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). The latter was originally financed by the Saudi Monarchy, but sources indicate that that funding has dried up in recent years. The San Bernardo Mosque gives classes in both Islam and Arabic language to those interested and makes strong efforts to convert Brazilians to Islam.

7. (C) Hammadeh meets with us, but never attends our events and keeps us at arm’s-length. When we have suggested visiting his Arabic language classes, he has demurred. When during a recent visit SP’s Jared Cohen talked about creating cyber-linkages between Brazilian Muslims and U.S. Muslims, Hammadeh said that this should take place through individual Sheiks (Ref B). Hammadeh is generally moderate in his public pronouncements, but various sources indicate that the Islamic line he promotes among followers is strongly fundamentalist. Modern Islam: Sheik Houssam Al-Boustani

8. (U) Sheik Al-Boustani teaches a class for young Brazilians interested in learning Arabic and learning about Islam under the auspices of the Lebanese Future Movement. Boustani studied Islam in India and has lived in Brazil for nine years. He is an extremely enthusiastic and energetic teacher who peppers his lessons on the Koran and on Arabic language with self-deprecating humor. His students, which he says number seventy-five at any one time, are generally young Brazilian professionals who are attracted to what Boustani calls his version of “modern” Islam. Boustani is most welcoming to us and has had Poloff as a guest in his classes. He has also worked on a number of inter-faith initiatives, including the Abraham Path Project, consulting for a Brazilian TV movie (a fictional romance) about a Jewish Holocaust survivor and an Arab woman who marry in Brazil after World War II, and co-teaching a course on religion with a Rabbi and a Catholic Priest. Finally, he has recently published a book about Mohammed in Portuguese and is working on a book on Islam in Brazil.

9. (C) Boustani’s openness is sincere, but did not necessarily come naturally to him. According to Lebanon CG Joseph Sayah, it is the product of a long process. Boustani has a tough-hewn past. He is a former amateur boxer, and he fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. When he arrived here nine years ago, according to Lebanon CG Joseph Sayah, he was quite extreme in his views. Over time, he has moderated considerably. His teaching style, as witnessed by Conoff, is expertly pitched for young Brazilians attracted to Islam but who also dress stylishly and require/respond to a highly entertaining presentation of religious ideas. Boustani himself has said that Islamic outreach in Brazil has to engage other religious traditions. He also admires some aspects of Brazil’s Evangelical Christian communities, which he says have become experts at reaching humble folk with a mass message. (Note: Boustani is presently in Lebanon, but we are attempting to arrange a meeting with his students. End Note.)

Anti-American Attitudes

10. (SBU) While Brazil’s Islamic community is peaceful and has many friendly elements, it also contains reservoirs of strong suspicion of the U.S. In an August meeting, Sheik Yamani of the Mosque in Londrina (an interior city in Parana State) told Poloff that Bin Laden’s involvement in the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers had never been proven. (When Poloff pointed out that Bin Laden had bragged about the same on television, Sheik Yamani replied, “Such things can be doctored.”) The Sheik, a 31 year old of Portuguese descent, proved otherwise quite friendly, inviting Poloff to attend Friday services at his Londrina Mosque. He appeared to represent a conservative strain of Euro-Islam, evidenced by his and his wife’s highly conservative dress. Poloff has also taken pains to correct other myths that abound among some Muslim contacts, such as the story that former President Bush is the grandson of a U.S.-based Pastor Bush, who wrote a book condemning Islam in the 19th century.

The Radicals

11. (C) While the majority of Brazil’s Muslims are moderate in orientation and the overwhelming majority is moderate in deed and action, genuine radical elements do exist here, some in the Tri-Border area of Foz de Iguacu and others among Sao Paulo’s estimated 20,000-strong, Hezbollah-oriented Shia population. Muslims at the moderate, Sunni-oriented Future Institute charge that Shia immigrants sometimes come to Brazil with Hezbollah support (allegedly USD 50,000 is a typical sum) to found businesses to support Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Reasons to Engage

12. (C) The Brazilian-Lebanese context provides an excellent double background of tolerance that already promotes a high degree of mixing between Brazil’s Muslims and the rest of the society. Engaging moderate Muslims puts radicals on the defensive and opens conduits of communication that could lead to greater information about more distant elements of the community given over to greater radicalism. Work with friendly moderates should not be seen as separate from monitoring more threatening elements. While Brazil’s tiny, Hezbollah-oriented Shia population is a legitimate concern, Lebanon CG Joseph Sayah also told Poloff to “not lose sight of the Sunnis.” (Note. Sunnis outnumber Shiites in Brazil by about ten to one. End Note.) Sayah described how some young Brazilians, either of Arab background or not, have become attracted to fundamentalist versions of Islam. While beliefs do not translate directly into action, such conversions can create a climate for the growth of fanaticism. Al-Boustani’s version of “modern Islam” is tailored to counter that. "By expressing a willingness to engage all groups, we make it more difficult for extremists to try to create the kind of closed atmosphere that enables their recruiting".

13. (C) Toward this end, Post has suggested several possible programs, including a campaign to provide consular information to Muslim contacts, a series of outreach presentations on President Obama, and, most important, our desire to bring down a visiting U.S. Sheik who can explain how Islam is now a vital part of American society and build ties with local religious leaders. Given its size, diversity and traditions of cultural tolerance, Brazil could be an excellent testing ground for programs that might be useful to other WHA posts with similar Muslim minority populations.

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