Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

The Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Asad’s government that began in 2011, and the armed conflict that followed, has generated a strong reaction among the large populations of Arabic-speaking immigrants and their descendants in both Brazil and Argentina. Institutions and community members mobilized in the past around political issues of the Middle East, such as the Palestinian question, the US-led invasion of Iraq and the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006. The US “War on Terror” provoked collective mobilization among the Muslim communities in the Brazilian and Paraguayan cities of the Triple Border Area, Foz do Iguaçu and Ciudad del Este, which were directly targeted in discourses on terrorism and materially affected by increased surveillance and police control. These earlier mobilizations were often supported by left-wing parties since the causes fit well with those parties’ general anti-imperialist discourse. Conversely, on national Argentinian and Brazilian issues there is no unified political stance held by the Arab communities, since their members are distributed across the political spectrum according to their particular interests and ideological leanings.

The reaction to the Syrian conflict differs in terms of the scope of the mobilization and the resulting changes in the internal dynamics of these communities. Most previous political mobilizations were not met with the same enthusiasm or with any form of consensus among the various institutions and groups within the Arab communities in either Brazil or Argentina. The Syrian uprising, in contrast, has created or revealed profound divisions that are expressed as shifts in how the community and the identities of its members are imagined and defined. Three elements mark the mobilization around the Syrian conflict in Argentina and Brazil: the engagement of younger individuals, including some who had not participated previously in the collective life of the community; the limited influence of Syrian refugees on the production of discourses about the conflict; and the public dominance of pro-Asad discourses and political actions, fostered by institutions self-defined as Syrian-Lebanese and/or Arab.

In contrast, the Tunisian revolution of 2011 passed almost unnoticed by these communities. The Egyptian revolution of the same year and Muhammad Mursi’s election as president of Egypt in 2012 were celebrated only by some Islamic institutions, such as the Muslim Charitable Society (Sociedade Beneficente Muçulmana) in São Paulo and did not provoke any larger political debate among the members of the community. The celebration of Mursi’s election had both nationalist and religious undertones since many sheikhs leading mosques in Brazil come from Egypt and Mursi symbolized the victory of an Islamic political project for the country. [1]

Brazil and Argentina host the largest populations of Syrian-Lebanese in Latin America—lower estimates put the total population of Arabic-speaking immigrants and their descendants between 1 and 2 million in each country, with Syrians accounting for one quarter of that number. [2] This Arab presence in South America is the result of several waves of immigration which peaked between 1870 and the 1930s, and has continued, albeit in much reduced numbers, until today. Patterns of immigration and trajectories of incorporation have been similar across the continent, with a significant portion of the immigrants and their descendants progressively joining the middle classes and, for a minority, the upper classes of their host societies. While there is a sense of ethnic solidarity and shared cultural references among immigrants from the Middle East and their descendants, there is no single overarching identity that is accepted by them all. Instead, several ethno-national identities—Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian-Lebanese, Arab—are differently claimed, combined and sometimes rejected in each context. The Syrian-Lebanese identity was adopted in diasporic contexts as a compromise between Pan-Arab, Syrian and Lebanese nationalisms, in particular because some Lebanese rejected the attribution of an Arab identity to Lebanon, claiming instead a Phoenician origin. For the sake of clarity, the networks of institutions and the imagined communities that give a sense of belonging to these various identities will be referred to as the Syrian-Lebanese and/or Arab community.

The success of the pro-Asad mobilization among certain sectors of the Syrian-Lebanese communities in Argentina and Brazil, as well as the effects that this mobilization has had on the reconfiguration of these communities and their diasporic identities, can be traced through an examination of several factors. The key components shaping the perception of the Syrian conflict in these diasporic communities are the mobilization of an authoritarian political imaginary fostered by some ethnic Syrian-Lebanese and Arab institutions in Brazil and Argentina, as well as the silencing of dissident discourses; sectarian mobilization of religious identities; and the resonance that the ideological arguments used in defense of the Syrian regime have with vernacular expressions of Latin American anti-imperialism and nationalism.

Mobilizing the Community Through Street and Cyberspace Politics

The largest and most influential Syrian-Lebanese and Arab organizations and leaders in Argentina and Brazil began to take a political position when the peaceful uprising against Asad’s government transformed into an armed rebellion. Most notably, they called for supporting the Syrian regime, which they usually qualified as “progressive,” “secular” and “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” as the president of the Federation of Arab American Entities (FEARAB), Eduardo Elias, declared in 2012 during a gathering at the Homs Club in São Paulo. Similarly, a March 2012 demonstration in support of the Syrian government convened at the Obelisk of Buenos Aires with 100 participants, whose chants and slogans praised Bashar al-Asad and the shabiha (armed militia groups that support the ruling Ba‘ath Party and the Asad family).

Some Syrian-Lebanese and Arab institutions have historical ties with authoritarian nationalist parties from the Middle East, such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP, al-Hizb al-Suri al-Qawmi al-‘Ijtima‘i) and the Ba’ath. The SSNP has the strongest presence in the Syrian-Lebanese communities, with a representation in Argentina and Brazil through the Syrian Cultural Association. The Ba‘ath party acquired influence over ethnic and nationalistic organizations through the creation of FEARAB in the 1970s. While the role of the FEARAB and its pro-regime stance in the Syrian conflict has been questioned by some Syrian-Lebanese and Arab institutions in Brazil and Argentina, dissent has been kept out of the public sphere, thus building up an image of what looks like pro-regime consensus. [3]

The largest demonstrations convened by the Syrian-Lebanese and Arab organizations were held in August and September 2013, when the United States threatened to attack Syria after the chemical attack on opposition-controlled areas of Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, on August 21. These parades exceeded the small circle of supporters of the Asad regime in the diaspora. In Buenos Aires, the demonstration included labor unions, left-wing parties, Armenian, Islamic and Arab organizations. In Brazil, a similar alliance of Syrian-Lebanese institutions and left-wing political organizations staged periodic pro-Asad demonstrations in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Solidarities built through past common political struggles, like the Palestinian cause and the mobilization against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, were revived. After the 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya, the so-called Arab Spring came to be seen by these activists as a pretense to topple Arab nationalist and pro-Palestinian governments in the region. This anti-imperialist grid of interpretation of the Syrian conflict was also a key element in the mobilization of community members who were born in Brazil and Argentina, for it allowed them to combine their sometimes newly claimed ethnic identity with a political sensibility central to both Brazilian and Argentinian nationalisms.

Strategies to silence dissident discourses were mobilized on both personal and institutional levels. For example, in 2011, during a dinner that gathered representatives of the Argentinian branch of FEARAB and members of the local Syrian-Lebanese community in a restaurant in Rosario, conversation turned sour. When some of those present expressed their outrage at the protests in Syria, a Syrian-Armenian living in Argentina since childhood said, “We may not agree with the protests, but we also know that life in Syria is not easy. We suffered with dictators here [in Argentina], why should they live with them for eternity?” Someone else immediately replied, “Armenians should be stripped of their Syrian nationality.” Another joined in and added, “We saved them from the Turks, and now they show how ungrateful they are. Let them live with the Salafis.” The Syrian-Armenian man stopped talking and said nothing more throughout the dinner. Insults and other verbal aggressions, often with sectarian overtones, have spread all over social media. Individuals who disagree with the political position of an online page or a group are immediately excluded as “trolls.”

On an institutional level, intimidation and personal threats have been used together with financial pressure, such as in the 2015 Arab Film Festival in São Paulo as the curator explained during an interview. He programed the documentary film Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, which some Arab organizations judged as too critical of the Asad regime. Several sponsors, including the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, withdrew their support for the festival. These examples show how strategies of silencing helped to create a public image of seemingly unanimous support of the Asad regime among the Syrian-Lebanese communities.

In general, those who dare to voice their opposition to the regime or their support for the opposition are unable to dismantle the public image of support for the regime created by the main Syrian-Lebanese institutions. With the help of some left-wing parties in Brazil and Argentina that express clear support for the opposition or the revolution, some Syrian refugees managed to organize several anti-regime protests in São Paulo. However, their small number and peripheral position in the institutional and social life of the Syrian-Lebanese community in Brazil limited the impact of these initiatives. Therefore, the main narrative publicly displayed by Syrian-Lebanese and Arab institutions is support for the regime.

The Political Mobilization of Religious Identities

The transnational dimensions of the political mobilization of the Syrian-Lebanese communities in Brazil and Argentina are even more visible in the sectarian frameworks used to engage people in the pro-regime discourse. The mobilization of religious identities is seen in Shi‘i, Christian and ‘Alawi institutions, where there is a tendency to side with Bashar al-Asad’s government, and in Sunni religious institutions, where sympathy toward the opposition is expressed through humanitarian discourses about the refugees or victims of the war, usually those in areas controlled by the opposition. This institutional reproduction of sectarian understandings of the Syrian conflict, which was regularly reinforced by religious authorities visiting from Syria, has had an effect on the internal dynamics of the Syrian-Lebanese communities.

Nevertheless, religious differences within the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora in Argentina and Brazil, albeit important in various contexts, were never seen as insurmountable divides. Until recently Christians (Maronite, Melchite, Orthodox and Roman Catholic) represented a larger part of the Arabic-speaking immigrants from the Middle East. Muslims (Sunni, ‘Alawi, Druze and Shi‘a) were a significant minority, amounting to 37 percent of the total in the early decades of immigration in Argentina [4] and between 10 and 15 percent in Brazil. [5] In Argentina, ‘Alawi immigrants from Syria represented a significant portion of the Muslim community and became highly organized, while in Brazil they were a very small minority with a feeble institutional life. [6]

The Syrian civil war stirred tensions between Christians and Sunni Muslims, as well as between Sunnis, Shi‘a and ‘Alawis in both Brazil and Argentina. The image of Saudi-financed terrorists versus Shi‘i resistance against Israel and imperialism circulate among Shi‘a and ‘Alawis. Also, many Shi‘a in Argentina have a millenarian reading of the Syrian conflict, seeing it as a sign of the end of times. [7] Since 2012 both Christian and ‘Alawi institutions have promoted events that foster sectarian readings of the conflict. One of these occasions was when Bishop Lucas al-Khoury, an assistant to the patriarch of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Damascus, gave a lecture in 2014 on the situation in Syria and in the region at the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Rio de Janeiro. The audience consisted of official representatives of Orthodox and ‘Alawi institutions, as well as members of both communities. Many people were wrapped in Syrian flags that were distributed by the organizers. The president of the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Society opened the event by downplaying religious and national differences and rhetorically affirming the unity of the diasporic community by saying, “Here is the home of all Arabs; the home of all Brazilians. We are all together here, and there never was any difference between us.”

The bishop started his speech by stating that the war was the result of a “conspiracy” against Syria plotted since the creation of the state of Israel and because of the refusal of Bashar al-Asad to “abandon the nationalist project in Syria.” Bishop al-Khoury argued that “more than 90 countries have already agreed to divide Syria among them. They started with Iraq, now they want Syria. They say they want reforms, but the greatest reform that benefited the Syrian people was the ascension of Bashar al-Asad to the presidency.” He then referred to the Syrian opposition as “criminals” who betrayed the country by inviting “foreign terrorists” to kill the Syrian people.

Then the bishop threw out the religious nationalist slogan coined by Bashar al-Asad in 2005, “God protects you, Syria,” which was repeated by all in the audience. Bishop al-Khoury continued his speech with gruesome details of the killing of Christians and ‘Alawis. The audience reacted by expressing their horror and condemning the fanaticism of the (Sunni) “Islamic terrorists.” Transnational connections were evoked in order to bring the horrors of the war close to the diasporic audience, as a man in his twenties exclaimed in a loud voice, “They even killed Brazilians in Homs,” referring to the community of Brazilian-born returnees that existed in that city. The bishop ended his lecture saying that God is great and would not allow “criminals” to destroy Syria, and that Bashar al-Asad would be re-elected in the coming elections.

This ethnographic account shows how sectarian discourses, religious identities, transnational diasporic connections and secular versions of Syrian and Pan-Arab nationalism are combined in discursive and performative ways. The result is to symbolically create a universe of good, patriotic Syrians who—both in Syria and in the diaspora—are being victimized by fanatic, criminal and treacherous terrorists acting as agents of conspiracies supposedly plotted and financed by foreign powers.

Vernacular Latin American Anti-Imperialism and Nationalism

Since its beginnings, the conflict in Syria has been seen by many Argentinean and Brazilian left-wing parties and social movements as a new and dramatic confrontation between nationalistic and progressive forces and imperial powers, embodied by the United States and Israel. This interpretation is common to most of the anti-imperialist movements. [8] While Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado (PSTU) in Brazil and Izquierda Socialista in Argentina became fierce critics of the Syrian regime and supported the Syrian revolution, [9] most other left-wing parties remained faithful to this vision. Ideas of national sovereignty and resistance to imperialist intervention also structured official state discourses on Syria. Thus, Brazil’s then-President Dilma Rousseff, during a visit to Russia in 2012, condemned any possibility of American or European intervention in the Syrian civil war, and was silent on Russia’s active involvement in the conflict. [10]

Conspiracy theories explaining the role of the United States—through its alliance with Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—circulated widely among diaspora members. For example, the Diario Sirio-Libanes (Syrian-Lebanese Journal) published an article titled “ISIS and Iraqi Crisis…Pentagon Strategies to Topple Syria?” on its website on September 3, 2014. Anti-imperialist imaginaries were also mobilized in strategies of silencing dissent. During a meeting at a Syrian-Lebanese institution in São Paulo, a young man of Christian Syrian descent expressed his sympathy with the Syrian opposition, which made another man of Shi‘i Lebanese descent react with outrage, saying, “I always thought that you supported the cause!” thus ending the conversation. The “cause” is used as a general political category that can refer, according to the context, to the Palestinian national struggle, the opposition to Israeli colonialism and military aggressions or anti-imperialist struggle in the Middle East. Similar uses of the “cause” as a moral category, which implicitly classifies those engaged in it as holders of positive moral qualities, is fairly recurrent.

This perception of the Syrian conflict was also a projection into Syrian realities of South America’s historical experience with US imperialism. The anti-imperialist framework was a key element in the mobilization of younger members of the generations born in Brazil. Many of them rediscovered their Syrian or Arab identity after becoming interested in the Syrian conflict within the narrative of an anti-imperialist saga. As anti-imperialist discourses were also an element of Brazilian and Argentinian nationalism, this allowed the youth to articulate and affirm both their diasporic and national identities through their engagement in the transnational arenas organized around Syria.

The image of a “consensual” support of Asad’s government is constructed through strategies of political mobilization of local identities and diasporic imaginations, fostering transnational partisan and sectarian discourses and silencing dissent. The current political mobilization has two clear, albeit contradictory, effects: it reinforces symbolic, political and personal ties with an imagined homeland identified as Syria, thus strengthening the diasporic character of these communities; and it fosters a Syrian diasporic identity with more precise boundaries. However, it also inscribes sectarian and political tensions in the very Syrian identity that it claims to promote and defend.

The mobilization of the Syrian-Lebanese communities in Argentina and Brazil around the Syrian revolution and civil war shows how local and transnational elements combine to produce diasporic identities and imaginations. While events, images and ideas from the “homeland” can affect the internal dynamics of diasporic communities, they do so only if they can articulate with elements that matter to the local configuration of these communities. That is why pre-2011 efforts by the Syrian government to mobilize the diaspora in South America, which included the creation of the Ministry of the Expatriates in 2002 and Bashar al-Asad’s visit to the region in 2010, mostly failed. It presupposed a clear-cut Syrian identity that was not actually present in the Syrian-Lebanese and Arab continuum.

Conversely, the political mobilization of the Syrian-Lebanese communities during the Syrian conflict has succeeded in tapping into the diasporic imaginary that portrays a stable, prosperous and peaceful Syria under the Ba‘ath. Similarly, local religious identities have been mobilized into sectarian frameworks through the construction of narratives of collective victimization fostered by both local institutions and transnational agents. Political alterities are then produced from religious differences and coexistence outside an authoritarian framework is deemed impossible. For the younger members of the Syrian-Lebanese communities and those who rediscovered their Syrian and/or Arab identity through the conflict, the anti-imperialist element in the pro-regime discourses was a central element that allowed them to construct a diasporic identity fully articulated with their Brazilian or Argentinian identities.

The transformation of the internal dynamics of the Syrian-Lebanese communities in Argentina and Brazil through their mobilization around the Syrian conflict illustrates how diasporic communities are defined by their ability to endure through a process of reinvention over generations. This case also shows how diasporas connect diverse and dispersed communities through the mobilization of material or symbolic links to homelands that are invested with moral dimensions. In this sense, diasporas also constitute imagined communities produced through political, symbolic and moral cosmologies that both belong to and transcend the social and territorial contexts in which they actually exist.

Endnotes

[1] The data analyzed in this article was collected by the authors during ethnographic fieldwork between 2011 and 2014.
[2] The estimates vary wildly according to who makes them and the context in which they are made. See John Tofik Karam, Another Arabesque: Syrian-Lebanese Ethnicity in Neoliberal Brazil (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007) p. 10–13.
[3] Silvia Montenegro, “The Debate Over Syrian Refugees in Argentina: Reverberations of the War in the Syrian-Lebanese Diaspora,” in Sofian Merabet, ed. In and Out of Syria: The Revolution, the War, and the Refugees (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, forthcoming).
[4] Gildas Brégain, Syriens et Libanais d’Amérique du Sud (1918–1945) (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2008). [French] [5] Clark S. Knowlton, Sírios e libaneses: mobilidade social e espacial (São Paulo: Anhambi,1960). [Portuguese] [6] Silvia Montenegro, “‘Alawi Muslims in Argentina: Religious and Political Identity in the Diaspora,” Contemporary Islam (2017).
[7] Montenegro, “The Debate Over Syrian Refugees in Argentina.”
[8] Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “The Syrian Cause and Anti-Imperialism,” Al Jumhuriya, February 24, 2017.
[9] Montenegro, “The Debate Over Syrian Refugees in Argentina.”
[10] “Dilma diz que Síria não pode ser transformada em um ‘novo Iraque,’” BBC News, December 14, 2012. [Portuguese]

How to cite this article:

Paulo Pinto, Cecilia Baeza "The Syrian Uprising and Mobilization 
of the Syrian Diaspora in South America," Middle East Report 284/285 (Winter 2017).
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