The Arab and Islamic world in Venezuela

This article is also available in: Italiano

Venezuela is probably the South American country most closely linked to the Middle East, thanks also to a figure with a decidedly interesting history

Very small premise

I used the words “The Arab and Islamic world in Venezuela” 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).

Venezuela
Tarek El Aissami and Nicolàs Maduro

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

As for the vast majority of South America, the first Arabs arrived here following the very complicated moment crossed by the Ottoman Empire between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century; again, the majority of them came from the areas of Bilad ash-Sham and, specifically, from Syria. It is no coincidence that, unlike the other realities, here we see many more Druze, something singular but which, in a certain sense, still influences part of the country today.

Venezuela

As in the other countries of the continent, here too the Arabs proved to be incredible entrepreneurs and traders, managing in a very short time to become richer and more powerful. The most famous example of this is undoubtedly Tarek El Aissami, Maduro’s right-hand politician and historically close to the Ba’ath.

Between Syria, Iraq and Venezuela

The story of El Aissami, albeit in summary, must absolutely be told as it shows how the link between the Middle East and South America not only exists, but is stronger than ever. The El Aissami, in fact, are not only closely linked to the Ba’ath, but it seems that his great-uncle, Shibli al Aysami, was even a founder of the Syrian arm (albeit of minor importance compared to Aflaq, al Bitar and al Arsuzi. In any case, he made a long and fruitful career in the ranks of the party, which even led him to be vice-president of Syria under Amin al Hafiz. Once the latter undergoes the coup of Salah Jadid, he will flee to Iraq, becoming one of Aflaq’s loyalists and withdrawing from the public scene only in 1992 due to a serious accident in the career of his nephew, Tarek’s father, Zaidan.

Venezuela
Tarek El Aissami

Zaidan El Amin El Aissami, not surprisingly, was a Syrian Druze who, having arrived in Venezuela, founded the local section of the Iraqi Ba’athist party, later becoming one of the major sponsors of Hugo Chavez, so much so that he participated with him in the failed coup of the 1992. The defeat suffered together made the new leader’s confidence in him grow exponentially, which will lead the son to a brilliant career in the Chaviste ranks, while the other maintained excellent relations with Saddam Hussein for a long time. A peculiarity: in 2006 Chavez even asked to make Venezuela a member of the Arab League and since then the country has been considered special. Returning to El Aissami, with Maduro’s rise to power he became even more precious, so much so that he even held the role of vice-premier and several ministries. As of today, he should be minister of oil, industries and national production.

The Venezuela in Syria

Compared to other countries in South America, Venezuela was the one where both “outward” and “return” migration was most evident. In fact, not all Arabs decided to settle in the country forever and many, despite having lived for several generations in the country, chose to return to Syria and specifically to As-Suwayda, a key city for the Syrian Druze; according to some estimates, about 60% of the population would have Venezuelan citizenship and, also considering the area around the city, it would amount to about 200,000 inhabitants either born in Venezuela or in any case having Venezuelan documents.

Venezuela

Also for this reason it is not uncommon to be able to hear in the city both a piece of “classical” Arabic music such as Fairouz and Umm Kulthum, as well as one of South American music. The introduction of mate, a typical drink of that continent and which in a very short time has also become a real Syrian tradition, is due to this phenomenon of “return migration”.

Islam in Venezuela

According to the most recent estimates, the number of Muslims in the country would be around 15,000 faithful, with Isla de Margarita being considered the real Arab center of the country, so much so that on the island it is not uncommon to see girls in hijab and you can even watch al Jazeera and several Arab TV channels.

Venezuela

The most important mosque is undoubtedly the Mezquita de Ibrahim Al Ibrahim which is considered the second largest in South America.

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