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A Relatively Peaceful Coexistence

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In Chui, Brazil -- the small, southernmost city of Brazil that is half in Brazil and half in Uruguay -- veiled women are common. The hotel clerk says they are Palestinian Muslims. Hours north in Santa Maria, veiled women also roam the streets. Further north the megalopolis of Sao Paulo, veiled women are present as well. While the numbers are not overwhelming, it still is surprising to see a ubiquitous presence in a region not known as Islamic.

Islam first came to Latin America by way of West African slaves. Additionally, there have been waves of Arab immigration to Latin America throughout the last two centuries and most recently due to recent and ongoing conflicts in the Levant which brought Islam to the region (many of the Arab immigrants have also been Christian; for example, the majority of the 500,000 Chileans of Palestinian descent are Christian). In the formerly British Caribbean, Muslims from British India also came as laborers and, along with their religion, stayed.

Interesting, while many Muslims are immigrants or descendants of Muslim immigrants, many are recent converts to Islam. In an article by the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, many Muslims in a Bogota mosque were converts attracted by the generosity and message of Islam. In Brazil as well, the Muslim community boasts of converts (although the exact number of converts are not published). The current president of El Salvador’s father was a convert to Islam (although the president himself does not practice). And in southern Mexico, there is a small indigenous community of converted Muslims (a number of this community's beliefs are distinct from mainstream Islam but they practice the core of the religion).

While Islamophobia is probably less severe than in the United States and Europe, this may be a function of having a smaller population and not perceiving Muslims as significant of a security threat. Estimates put the Muslim population in the region between five and six million out of about 660 million in the entire region. Comparatively, five percent of Europe’s population is Muslim. While Muslims are only about one percent of the U.S. population -- similar to Latin America’s population -- some Americans’ association of Muslims with national enemies and U.S. wars against Muslim nations explains the United States’ unfortunate Islamophobia.

Latin America has a surprisingly large and vibrant Muslim population

There have been outbursts of Islamophobia in Brazil when, in 2015, a sheik who donated money to a Brazilian Islamic group was accused of having also donated to ISIS. This set off a wave of Islamophobic comments on social media. In addition, some far-right Christian groups have consistently preached Islamophobic ideas. While in Brazil in 2018, I heard Islamophobic comments from a number of people who cited Islam’s cruelty toward women to justify their dislike of the religion.

In the wake of 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian Muslim community says they were unfairly targeted as suspects. In addition, the community says there has been a rise in Islamophobia post 9/11. Despite the Islamophobia, the community claims the government will not attend to the safety concerns of Muslims as top ministers will not meet with Muslim community leaders. The minister of security from 2015 to 2019, Patricia Bullrich, said, “If they are Muslims, they are terrorists.”

Despite discrimination, countries of the region are welcoming Afghan Muslim refugees. Colombia is allowing thousands of Afghan refugees to temporarily stay in Colombia en route to the United States in the wake of the chaos in Afghanistan of August 2021. Mexico has welcomed scores of Afghans as well.

While the most recent wave of Muslim immigration appears to be temporary, the fact Colombia and Mexico are allowing Afghans to stay in their territory without visas or vetting is a testament to the relative open-mindedness of Latin America toward other cultures and religions. Islamophobia is a major reason why so many Afghans were not able to leave Afghanistan in time. The U.S. government has erected massive vetting systems and bureaucratic hurdles to keep in the name of stopping terrorism but ends of keeping out the people who loyally served the United States. If Afghanistan were a Christian nation there is no doubt immigration processing would have been faster.

Hopefully Latin America’s Muslim population will continue to live in peace with the general population and Muslims in need of safe harbor will find a place to live in the region.

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