Are Czechs afraid of Islam?

04-06-2004

Since the Iron Curtain fell, Czech society has been increasingly exposed to the influence of other cultures. There are not only western tourists in Prague. Quite a few students and entrepreneurs, but also refugees, have come from Muslim countries, bringing elements of their culture and way of life with them. So what is the position of Muslims in the Czech Republic, and what attitudes and pre-conceptions do Czechs have about Islam? Martin Mikule has been finding out.

With recent world events tensions between Muslim minorities and the majority in some western countries have increased. In the United States some people have come to identify Islam with terrorism, in France the government has antagonized some of its Muslim citizens with a law banning the wearing of Muslim scarves in state schools.

But what about the Czech Republic?

The Muslim minority in the Czech Republic is not large, far smaller than in France or Great Britain. There are about 20 thousand Muslims in a country of over 10 million. Most are immigrants, but you will also find a few hundred Czech converts. One of them is Zuzana Masakova:

"There is an Islamic center in Prague, there is a mosque in Prague, there is another one in Brno, and there are a few prayer rooms in other cities. There is an Islamic organization that is above all these local communities of Muslims. There were Muslim organizations back in the twenties and thirties of the last century, so there is a long tradition of a small Muslim minority in the Czech Republic. Nevertheless, during communism, it was forbidden, so the Muslim centers were renewed in the nineties."

Photo: European CommissionPhoto: European Commission Recently there has been an intiative to build a mosque in the north-Bohemian spa town Teplice. But some of the inhabitants didn't like the idea and wrote a petition against it. Teplice, which is a few kilometers from the German border, has a tiny Muslim minority, yet - because of the town's spas - there are many visitors coming from Arab countries, and they would embrace an Islamic place of worship there.

The mayor of Teplice Jaroslav Kubera supports the iniciative:

"The reason for the initiative is obvious: since the nineties the largest number of spa visitors have been coming from the United Arab Emirates. Our clients bought a farmhouse here, which they use as a prayer room. Now they would like to renovate it as a hotel. Part of it would be a mosque."

The sociologist Jiri Musil explains the attitude of Czechs to different cultures in a broader historical context:

"Czech society is extremely homogenized and has completely forgotten the fact that in the past there were three main ethnical groups: the Czechs, Germans and the Jewish people. So the Czechs are still not well prepared for heterogeneity and for differences in the country. But slowly, I think, the Czechs start to understand the need to accept this heterogeneity."

Zuzana Masakova has spent some time abroad, so she is able to compare the situation in the Czech Republic with that in some other countries.

"I have experience with the Muslim community in France and in Canada. I must say that in France during past few months the situation has very much deteriorated because of the law on secularism. People started to look at Muslims very hatefully, and mainly women are attacked on the streets, and it is very bad. I think, and I hope, that Czech people are more tolerant. Their problem for the moment is that they are not used to it, so they are afraid of something unknown. But when they get to know, I am confident that the Czech society is going to be much more tolerant than in France."

People from rural areas in particular, who do not meet foreigners very often, have had the greatest difficulty in getting used different cultures. But there is a good chance that, with growing mobility, as more Czechs move outside and more foreigners come into the Czech Republic, the situation will change.

04-06-2004

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