Some Brazilians skip Carnival for spiritual retreats
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
BRASILIA – With the official Carnival parades of samba schools in full swing in Brazil, many Brazilians are opting to not participate in a celebration that they believe to be excessive and immoral.
“Many immoral and nearly naked people go to Carnival. They engage in excessive drinking. We like to travel during Carnival without participating in the street dancing. We follow the Bible,” Neusa Lacerda, a 50-year-old housekeeper who lives in Gama, a satellite city around 34 kilometers from Brasilia, told me in an interview.
Born into a Catholic family, Neusa says a Jehovah’s Witness family raised her. She and her husband are now members of the evangelical church, and like to participate in family barbecues on the weekends.
“I have danced in the streets during Carnival in the past,” she said. “But God forgives us. I suffered a lot as my father was an alcoholic, and my religion says that we cannot become drunk. It is a question of self-control.”
Neusa is part of a growing number of Brazilians who are leaving the Catholic Church, which is still the largest in Brazil, and joining evangelical Protestant churches. According to the Datafolha polling firm three in every ten Brazilians (29 percent) are now evangelicals. In 1994, 75 percent of Brazilians considered themselves Catholic. In 2015 that number had fallen to 55 percent. The evangelical churches have been aggressive in recruiting new members, and use singing and other activities to attract Catholics bored by the relative traditionalism of the Catholic Church.
Carnival celebrations are big business in Brazil, with the 2016 one in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, generating R$400 million (US$129 million) in business sales, according to the mayor’s office. It estimates that for every R$1 spent, the city earns R$40 in return. This year in Salvador, Bahia, the local government estimates that R$50 million (US$16 million) will be spent on 197 attractions, with more than half of the expenses being sponsored by the private sector. In the colonial city of Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, it was reported by the O Tempo newspaper that revelers consumed 1 million liters of beer in the 2012 Carnival.
With the whole country shutting down for four days during the peak of the Carnival, it can be hard for evangelical churches to compete with the large street celebrations all over the country. Just last weekend in pre-Carnival street celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, it was estimated that one million people took to the streets to dance behind “trio eletricos” or mobile bands that blast out happy music for hours on end.
Some evangelical churches have decided to join in the Carnival celebrations, but in squeaky-clean and religious versions. According to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper the Bola de Neve Church in Guarulhos held a Carnival party on Feb. 10 at its headquarters, with music and dancing. But instead of the sleazy lyrics common in Carnival songs, words praising Jesus were inserted.
But most evangelical churches stay well away from dancing during Carnival and instead promote spiritual retreats where followers can spend their time in reflection and prayers. That is what the Baptist Ebezener Church of Taguatinga, around 24 kilometers from Brasilia, is doing yet again this year. It started holding this annual retreat in 2002, and runs around 20 branches of the church in Brasilia and surrounding cities.
“We are holding a spiritual retreat from Feb. 24-28, and we are expecting 3,000 people to attend,” pastor J. Alves told me in a phone interview. “We have invited several guest speakers to give lectures during the day, and we have separate activities for the children and teenagers. We will charge each attendee around R$50 (US$16) a day in order to participate.”
Brazil arrests: Is Daesh spreading its tentacles?
This column was printed in Arab News on July 24, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The 10 Brazilian supporters of the terror group Daesh, who were arrested on Thursday across Brazil, didn’t seem to be prepared to launch attacks in the country. According to intercepted WhatsApp and Telegram messages sent to each other, the members were planning to take martial arts and shooting classes. One of them inquired online about buying an AK-47 rifle from a shop in Paraguay.
All those arrested appear to be Muslim converts, ranging in age from 20 to 50 years. A few of them knew each other personally, but most of them knew each other only through the Internet. A few of them ran their own blogs online where they praised Daesh and the various terrorist attacks the group claimed responsibility for such as the Orlando and Nice massacres. One of them, Ahmed Andrade Santos Junior, 34, from Joao Pessoa in the state of Paraiba, learned about Islam online and radicalized himself by regularly visiting extremist forums online.
O Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper characterized him as a former Christian who was not at all religious and who used to box. His expounding of extremists ideas got him banned from a local mussala by the imam. He visited Egypt and was photographed there posing next to the flag of Daesh. When he returned to Brazil he openly defended Daesh and its dastardly acts.
Another suspect that was arrested was Vitor Barbosa Magalhaes, 23, of Guarulhos in greater Sao Paulo. He taught himself Arabic online and then got a scholarship to learn Arabic in Cairo for six months in 2009. It is there that he learned more about Islam and converted. His wife said in an interview that she believes him to be innocent and that he is non-violent.
Brazilian authorities are on full security alert ahead of the Rio Olympic Games, which open on Aug. 5. Already 6,000 National Force military troops have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro to ensure the safety of the expected 500,000 athletes and visitors. But many Brazilian commentators have noted that visitors to Rio have more to fear from being robbed or killed by local criminals, rather than be caught in a terror attack.
Brazilian Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes gave several interviews to the press on Thursday stressing the amateurism of the 10 suspects that were arrested, noting that two more suspects were still at large. He added that the deportation last week of the Franco-Algerian physicist Adlene Hicheur, who had been teaching at a university in Rio, but had been previously been sentenced to three years in prison in France in 2009 for allegedly planning terror attacks in France with Al-Qaeda operatives, was part of Brazil’s actions against possible terror threats before the Rio Olympics. The Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann also downplayed the threat of the arrested suspects, saying that they were “bat-crazy.”
President Michel Temer was reportedly unhappy with the comments of his two ministers. It is clear that Brazil, which has never endured terror attacks before, is being pressured by the United States and France to beef up its security for the Olympics, and to show it is doing something by rounding up Muslim suspects that support Daesh.
“Brazil is being pressured greatly by countries that are really targets and are demanding security guarantees. Brazil does not have expertise, but it’s making an effort. It has done an important monitoring of online chatter on social media,” said Paulo Velasco, a professor and researcher at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in an interview with Estado de Sao Paulo.
But some in the Muslim community here feel that the government is overreacting to please foreign governments and adding fuel to the fire of Islamophobia in Brazil, a largely Catholic nation. “The Muslim community supports the actions of the federal police as long as they are done with transparency and proof,” said Jihad Hammadeh, the president of the National Union of Islamic Entities in Sao Paulo.
“There is a growing Islamophobia, principally on the part of entities that should bring security to society,” warned Hammadeh, who is also an imam. “The National Union of Islamic Entities manifests its profound preoccupation with the recent events and reports that Brazilian citizens are associated with terrorism in Brazil. At the same time, we vehemently support the actions of the federal police for the investigation of these facts, but with concrete evidence and much transparency so that no injustice and persecution occurs against any citizen or group,” he stressed in a statement.
Hammadeh warned that the sensational fashion in which the arrests of the 10 suspects was being reported by some media outlets in Brazil is bringing terror to the population at large and discrimination to Muslims. Unfortunately this is true. Even the big media here treats the whole issue in a sensational way.
The 10 suspects are being held initially for a 30-day period. If authorities are unable to prove any of the more serious terror charges against them, they will be released and could be made to wear electronic bracelets to monitor their movements and banned from approaching certain public sites such as sensitive government buildings, military installations and stadiums.
I understand the worry of the Brazilian government to nip any potential terror threat in the bud before any attacks take place. Despite the comments of the two ministers stressing how amateurish the 10 suspects had been, one can never be too safe, as we have seen from the Orlando and Nice attacks that were undertaken by lone wolves that had slid below the radar.
The problem is that the Brazilian population at large still does not know enough about the real Islam, and therefore ends up believing that all Muslims are bloodthirsty terrorists. This is some of the real damage that Daesh is doing to the image and reputation of Muslims worldwide — damage that will take a long time to repair.
Absurd criticism of Islam
This column was printed in Arab News on Dec. 27, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
With the recent bloody attacks in Paris and San Bernardino by terrorists claiming to be doing these in the name of Islam, discrimination against Muslims has grown worldwide.
They are targeted by these new critics, many of them American, well-educated and from the middle of the political spectrum — who reacting with horror to the violence — will say the most absurd things. “Islam is a violent religion” and “Islam needs reform to become more liberal,” are two of the most frequent accusations thrown at our religion.
And we also have the demagogue Donald Trump, the American billionaire entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate in next year’s elections. He has a long history of saying absurd and xenophobic things from calling all the illegal immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists, to saying in a recent speech that President Barack Obama should bar the entry of Muslims into the United States until the government finds a way deal with the threat of terrorism.
This preposterous statement brought back memories of the detention camps during the World War II into which Americans of Japanese origin were forcibly sent, even if they were born in the United States.
That Trump had the courage to say what he did, and most disturbing, that he was not forced to retract his words and apologize, shows that the American public is so afraid of more terrorist attacks happening that they are willing to sacrifice some of their constitutional rights. Not that the American president would have to get permission from Congress to begin such discrimination. The US executive branch has broad jurisdiction over immigration issues, which in theory would leave Obama with the power to stop the entry of foreign Muslims simply by invoking national security. But that would be bad for the freedom of religion and expression enshrined in the US Constitution, and certainly would lead to legal challenges in US courts.
One of the exponents of the concept that Islam is a violent religion is the American writer Sam Harris, who is the darling of late-night talk shows on US television where he spreads his poison. An avowed atheist, Harris is the perfect example of a supposed public intellectual that many liberal and well-educated Americans love to cite as if he were phenomenally wise. He does not speak the truth, so I refuse to listen to anyone who is so hateful of Islam. Unfortunately, a Brazilian friend of mine who I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, asked me this week what I thought of Harris. He confessed to me that was enjoying more and more of Harris’ online speeches about the alleged “Islamic evil.” I said that Harris was wrong and tarnishing the reputation of Islam.
“But I thought all Islamists were terrorists,” he told me. I was shocked and saddened that this word has been associated only with terrorism by people in the West.
“Of course not! There are moderate Islamists and even democratic ones as those in Tunisia and Egypt,” I replied. But he did not seem convinced.
Another misunderstanding of Islam is that the religion needs a reformation such as the one Christianity underwent in Europe. Islam is an ancient religion, which is over 1,400 years old. In Islam, there are several strands of thought within the two largest branches of Sunni and Shiite followers. Just within the Sunni branch there are five schools of interpretation. Not to mention the Sufis, mystics who use poetry, music and dance to get closer to God.
As the British journalist Mehdi Hassan wrote in The Guardian in May this year, Islam has no clergy, nor a pope, as in Catholicism, for the supposed reformists to rebel against. And he says that Islam does not need to go through the bloody wars that Europe went through for 30 years in the 16th century, in which thousands of people died, only to reach a supposed “reform.” For him, Muslim extremists have to rediscover their heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect that have always been in Islam, embodied in the letter that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent to the monks of the Saint Catherine monastery, and the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain.
The Turkish writer, Mustafa Akyol, recently reminded us of the concept of “Irja” or “postponement” in Islam, which means that we do not have to judge whether people are good Muslims or not, but that we have to leave it up to God to decide in the next life, as He alone can judge us. This is a too liberal concept for the fanatics of Daesh, who want to judge and execute all “unqualified” Muslims here and now.
“The scholars who put forward this concept became known as the “murjia,” or defenders of the trial postponement,” Akyol wrote in his column in the New York Times. He noted that in spite of this school of thought having been dismissed as a heretical sect, hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world still practice the concept. Even in the Gulf and other Arab countries the concept is used and applied regularly.
Islam is a dense, rich and complex religion. It is also full of love, peace, compassion and forgiveness. It is the beautiful side of this religion that is missing in the West’s imagination.
Criminalizing hate speech
This article was published in Arab News on June 21, 2015:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
In these uncertain and turbulent times, we in the Kingdom need to promote unity now more than ever. With the bloody Daesh group wreaking havoc on Iraq and Syria, and the civil war next door in Yemen, we are surrounded by chaos, violence and death. And at home we have had to deal with our own terrorists, who after being brainwashed by an extremist ideology launched two separate attacks recently on Shiite mosques in the Kingdom’s eastern region in an attempt to sow sectarian strife.
It seems hard to believe, but so many of these young Saudis who are lured by the siren call of the extremists must really believe in the falsehoods that are fed to them by the terrorists, blissfully unaware that the peace and stability of Saudi Arabia has not come at an easy price for our forefathers who grew up 70 years ago, before the oil boom, in times of great financial hardships.
What we thought were going to be the liberating winds of the Arab Spring in 2011 turned mostly to violence against innocent civilians and instability that has left the whole Middle East in the utter shambles that it is in today. We should thank God a thousand times over that we can still go to bed without hearing bombs falling nearby; that we have electricity all of the time; that we have a strong government running the affairs of the nation, and an economy that gives Saudis a GDP per capita matching that of industrialized nations.
This is why I was surprised to read recently in this paper that the Shoura Council decided not to discuss proposals to set up a national unity project. Shoura members in favor of such an initiative had proposed that the government punish those convicted of promoting hate speech to jail terms ranging from six months to five years and a fine of SR500,000. The arguments against such an initiative were the ones we are used to hearing in other countries too: Why should we have new laws regulating public behavior when we already have so many laws on the books; and just writing down regulations in a new law will not necessarily produce change.
In the United States, these are usually the arguments of social conservatives who do not want hate laws enacted meant to protect people that are discriminated against, such as blacks, women and the handicapped. The point of this new law would be to stop those Saudis who make sectarian and racist comments under the guise of free speech, and who expect to get away with it. This should no longer be tolerated and our government and society should take swift action against those who insist on dividing Saudis according to their national, racial or sectarian origins.
After all, our founder King Abdul Aziz did not unify our country to just have our national fabric be ripped apart today by sectarian and racist violence.
For too long we have looked the other way as extremist preachers have spouted their words of hate and discrimination, poisoning the minds of young Saudis and thus producing new generations that hate others of their own countrymen because they are too dark, don’t look Arab enough or are of a different sect. I applaud Shoura member Abdullah Al-Fifi for supporting the national unity project and for pointing out that the Islamic Affairs Ministry has not done enough, or indeed done anything visible, to implement anti-extremist programs in schools and mosques.
The government has rightly clamped down on the hate speech of imams across the country, ordering them not to talk about sectarian issues, and instructing them to have sermons (khutbas) that encourage unity and social cohesion.
With the Arab world in flames we cannot afford disunity or discord in our midst. The stakes are just too high and as the repository of Islam’s two holiest mosques we indeed have a duty not just to ourselves, but to the whole Muslim world, to keep the Kingdom a safe, clean and prosperous place where all Muslims are welcome, be they from Africa or Asia.