Thursday 28 February 2019

Life of Muslims in Non Muslim Countries: The Czech Republic

I have been writing about life of Muslims living in the non Muslim countries for awhile now and my experience of knowing about their life and status is rather mixed. Some countries have extremely cordial relations with their Muslim population, some moderate, and some on extreme limits of Islamophobia. For some reasons, I always had a liking for the once united Czechoslovakia since my childhood when collecting stamps and the name of this country fascinated me as it was very difficult to pronounce.

I never knew then that one day I would be writing about life of Muslims in part of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia and will be saddened to know how difficult the life of Muslims would be in the Czech Republic. Yes, while reading through different surveys and posts, it seems the tiny population of about 20,000 (hardly any percentage of the total population of the Czech Republic) has the toughest time as compared to all other non Muslim countries in the world.

To start with, the first caption that caught my life was "Czech Republic politician calls for ban on Islam" and this is not the only one. Islam which found its presence in the area that now constitutes the Czech Republic in the 10th century AD, has not really flourished well since as compared to other countries of the region. Despite strong trade links between Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Empire emerged during the 19th century, Islam did not leave a meaningful impact on the local culture.

A law 1912 by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy recognized Islam as a "state religion" and officially allowed its presence in what is now the Czech Republic. In 1998 the first mosque was opened, in Brno and a year later another, in the capital, Prague. However, attempts to open mosques in other cities have been stopped by local citizens. In 2004 Islam was officially registered in the Czech Republic: the community is thus eligible to obtain funds from the state.

Most of the Muslims are from Bosnia-Herzegovina (early 1990s) and former countries of Soviet Union (mostly from Caucasus region, from the late 1990s until the present). A significant and influential part are the middle-class people of Egyptian, Syrian and other Middle Eastern ancestries (typically those who studied in Czechoslovakia and decided to stay). A few hundred Muslims are Czech converts.

The present Czech Republic's tiny Muslim community subject to hate and face disproportionate about of hatred from fellow citizens. "There are shocking levels of islamophobic hysteria, aimed mostly at Muslim refugees (which is insane - there pretty much aren’t any here!). Even people who are normally tolerant often make an exception for Islam," says Veronika Vrabcová, a Czech student of Psychology and Sociology. "Now, most people here won’t take physical action against an actual human being. There has been a case when a girl was thrown off a bus (at a stop) by another passenger because he thought she wore hijab (she didn’t). My colleague got surrounded and spat on while with her little children. (The kicker is she is a Czech converted to Islam and a very gentle and caring person.) I haven’t noticed anything worse than that, but then, I’m not Muslim."  I’d say, if you’re noticeably Muslim, or people confuse you with a Muslim on a regular basis, many will make your stay in Czech Republic rather unpleasant, but you aren’t in outright danger (at least at the time I’m writing this). Yes, even if you’re actually a Czech citizen since birth and merely converted. [3]

Prague Muslims, Czech Republic [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

The Muslims feel that Islam has become a hot-button topic in Czech national politics, where the power to resolve the country's hung parliament could lie with a politician whose only policy is, "No to Islam. No to terrorism". Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura and his Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) rode into parliament as the third most powerful party after the recent October nationwide elections, with no discernible policy other than to drive Islam completely out of the Czech Republic. [2]

Today the Czechs exhibit 'highest level of racial bias in Europe'. Vladimir Sanka, a 58-year-old Czech Muslim, who is on the board of the Muslim Community in Prague association says: "Most of the Muslims here are doctors, engineers and IT specialists and so on, yet some political parties are trying to change our rights and eliminate Islam." 

The Muslims are restricted from several basic privileges enjoyed by other faiths, including the right to establish schools, to hold legally recognized weddings and conduct religious ceremonies in public spaces. Making matters worse, growing anti-Islam sentiment has resulted in an uptick in hate speech and even physical attacks against Muslims who moved here long before the refugee crisis. Although one can find halal meat in Prague, one near the just blocks away from the famed Wenceslas Square, people oppose selling halal meat because they consider the Muslim way of slaughtering animals cruel. Also because the Czechs are not okay with any religion. Many people tend to pretend that they don’t care. But every time they see a woman in hijab, they slowly walk away, and if not, you can see marks of concerns. Even worse when they see a man - Muslim, as they imagine that he beats women and so on. 

Why the Czechs are so averse to Islam or for that matter any religion is because Czechs have highest number of atheist in the world (or for sure in Europe). Only 16% of Czechs believe in ANY God at all. And as Muslims show that they are Muslims - prayer, hijab, dietary requirements etc - so then they are “strange”. Nearly the same feeling of something “strange” is towards catholic / Christian monks / nuns / priests or Hare Krishna folks or Buddhist monks, says Jirka Kanding. Czechs have generally extremely high distrust to ANY authority that will try to interfere with private life or “show them” / “ to teach them” what to do and what is correct. So the reason why Islam is not the religion to be liked by the Czechs. [3]

It may be added here that in Slovakia, the other part of erstwhile Czechoslovakia, the state of Muslims in not good either as last year it passed a law effectively banning Islam from gaining official status as a religion.

You mat now like to watch this short video on Being a Muslim woman in Czech Republic: the story of Nenávist Balická

So hats off the Muslims of Czech Republic foe keeping up their religion despite all odds and surviving and striving to preserve their religion, Islam.

Author's Note: The data above has been collected from the references as given below. If any one differs with the material contained in this post, one may consult the references and their authors.  If someone has more material about the subject, he/she is most welcome to share in the comments box to make the post all encompassing.

Photo | References: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |
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