The Arab and Islamic world in Argentina

This article is also available in: Italiano

A synthesis of what is and what has been the relationship between the Arab world, the Muslim world and Argentina, one of the countries in the world with the largest number of citizens of Arab origin

Very small premise

I used the words “The Arab and Islamic world in Argentina” rather than “Arab-Islamic” precisely to emphasize the split nature of the two realities, which will however both be dealt with in this article. I would like to specify it because they often associate automatically, but, for everything concerning South and Central America, it would be a serious mistake; in fact the very many Arabs who came here were mostly Maronites, Orthodox, Druze and only a small part of them were Muslim (and among them there were both Sunnis and Shiites).

Argentina

On the contrary, the historical presence of Islam in these lands is mostly attributable to Indian and Indonesian workers (as in the case of Suriname) or even to African slaves purchased by the Portuguese for their plantations. As always, I will try to follow a mostly chronological narrative by combining the two stories but I repeat: they are two different stories that are joined here.

The arrival of the Arabs

Unlike the Brazilian case, whose first Muslims had mostly come as slaves, the very first Arab-Islamic presence in the country seems to date back to some Moors who fled fromAndalusia to avoid persecution, but there are not many sources on this; surely, however, Arab immigration to Argentina began massively around 1890. At that time the Ottoman Empire was experiencing increasingly tragic conditions and, amidst persecutions, compulsory conscription, famine and political crises, many were encouraged to move to the New World. Most of the migrants, mainly from Lebanon and Syria, settled in Buenos Aires, Cordoba and in some towns in the north of the country, quickly becoming a real force in many fields including politics and entertainment.

Argentina
Vicente Leonidas Saadi

The entire politics of the Argentine twentieth century sees as protagonists families such as the Saadis, absolute lords of the province of Catamarca since the 1950s, and the Sapag who erected the province of Neuquén as their political center; however these are powerful linked above all to some areas, while the only Arab politician to win the Argentine elections was Carlos Menem.

The strange Menem case

This president also has another characteristic that intrigued me not a little: despite being a Catholic, he was buried last February 14 in the Cementerio Islámico de San Justo; according to his wife, former Argentine first lady Zulema Fátima Yoma, for being close to his son, who never seems to have converted to Islam. Going then to look at the same page of the Spanish Wikipedia, one can notice an extremely interesting detail: Carlos’s family was Sunni originally from Syria, but he converted to Christianity before pursuing a political career. Still in the same paragraph, he also explains how, up until his government, there was a law that established that the Argentine president must absolutely be Catholic; law which, as anticipated, Menem himself repealed.

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Carlos Menem

It is absolutely not to give me the facts of the former Argentine president who, as far as I’m concerned, can be of any creed, gender and / or conviction, but to reflect on something that, in reality, still happens today. In countries like Morocco, for example, to marry a local citizen you must be a Muslim, while in Lebanon there is a charge for each religious denomination. Regardless of what religious conviction he had but also thanks to his origins, with this gesture Menem managed to launch a message that it would be a mistake not to grasp even in the “Old world” in which too many times we tend to prefer a facade conversion rather than to consider the other as one’s brother.

Islam in Argentina

Currently Islam is practiced by about 1% of the Argentine population but the truth is that, since there is no state data on the religion, there is no clarity about the number of faithful, with estimates ranging from 1 million to 400 ‘000. Although there are large religious complexes such as the Centro Cultural Islam King Fahd in Buenos Aires, the mosques in the country should be just about ten, a very small number when compared to Brazil, in which there should be about 150.

Argentina

A curiosity: in La Angelita, a small town in the province of Buenos Aires, more than 50% of the population should be Alawites.

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