"ALLAH Akbar" blares from the loudspeakers as hundreds of Muslims file into the mosque for prayers. Outside, halal meat stores line the street as in Damascus, Cairo or Baghdad, but this is the working-class neighbourhood of Bras in Sao Paulo, Brazil – the heart of Islam's Latin American rebirth.
Brazil is experiencing an Islamic boom, with reliable estimates indicating that the Muslim population has increased from a few hundred thousand to 1.5 million this decade alone, out of a total population of 190 million. This is clear as mosques emerge throughout the country, some financed by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Nowhere is the Islamic presence felt stronger than in Bras. Syrian-born Mohammed Al Bukai runs a mosque there. He said: "The first waves of Arab immigrants arrived here in the 1920s. It's very centrally-located so we offer classes and seminars here for anyone interested in Islam".
"The 9/11 attacks were key in arousing people's curiosity towards Islam, now some 15 per cent of our community are non-Arabs".
Paulo Daniel Farah, an expert on Islam at Sao Paulo University, said: "Islam is growing everywhere in Latin America, but especially in Brazil, since Muslim slaves were brought here from Africa in the 19th century, a part of the history that only began to be studied in schools and universities by law in 2003".
They led the main rebellions against slavery, mainly the Malê Revolt in 1835 in Salvador de Bahia – the largest urban slave uprising in the Americas – which was followed by decades of repression. They championed values of equality and social justice embodied in Islam, a message that rings very strongly today as blacks remain the poorest segment in the country together with Indians.
This explains why conversions are especially strong among Afro-Brazilians who make up half of the country's population, many of whom come from black empowerment movements in search for their past identity. This phenomenon is particularly strong in the massive industrial suburb of Sao Bernardo, an hour's drive from Sao Paulo, where president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has his home.
The twin minarets of the area's new white-washed mosque emerge among rows of two-storey houses. Inside, Honerê al-Amin, 32 , a black hip-hop artist who turned to Islam more than a decade ago, helps organise Muslim social activities. "I joined hip-hop to denounce the genocide against young blacks in Brazil, only later did I discover in my own history reference to Muslims forced to come to this country. I was fascinated by the film Malcolm X and characters like Muhammad Ali, I wanted to be like them," he said.
Conversions are also growing among white Brazilians. In Bras, I find Thamara Fonseca, 24 , wearing a colourful hijab. Her family came from Europe and her husband lives in Birmingham. She designs clothes and says how her clients and people generally have come to accept her conversion.
"At the beginning I kept hearing in the street, 'Look at Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein's wife, you're a woman bomber', but now people don't say this anymore, now many come and ask me about Islam, everyone wants to know more", she says.
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