Central European Muslim leaders lament restrictive legislation, media bias

Muslim leaders from the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia came to Prague on Tuesday to share their experiences and to discuss the challenges faced by their communities. The numbers of the Muslim populations in their countries vary significantly, as do their historic backgrounds. But the debate showed that some challenges are shared by Muslims across the region: islamophobia, media bias, and severe legislative restrictions.

The Muslim presence in Central Europe goes back centuries but today’s Muslim communities in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary only began to form in the 1970s and 80s, with the influx of students from the Middle East and North Africa.

The sizes of the present-day Muslim communities in each of the Visegrad Group countries range from around 35,000 in Poland to less than 5,000 in Slovakia. This is one of the reasons why legislation makes it difficult for Muslim organizations to register as religious communities and acquire the same rights as much more populous religious groups.

In Poland, Islam enjoys the same status as the Catholic Church and other mainstream religions. In the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, however, there are far too few Muslims for the group to be granted rights such as teaching religion in public schools, performing service in the armed forces and in prisons. Also, they are not eligible for state funding. Vladimír Sáňka is the head of the Islamic Centre in Prague.

Vladimír SáňkaVladimír Sáňka “Religious communities may only apply for these rights after 10 years since their registration and submitting 10,000 signatures of adult supporters residing in the Czech Republic who provide their personal data. This high numerical census will probably not be feasible even in the horizon of decades.”

Slovak legislation is the most restrictive of the Visegrad countries. There, the law requires 20,000 signatures for a religious group to even register, and Slovakia is perhaps the only European country without a mosque. Muhammad Safwan Hasna is the Head of Slovakia’s Islamic foundation.

“According to 18th century data, there were nearly 300 Muslim families living in Bratislava, mostly merchants from the Balkans. A Moorish-style mosque was built at that time that survived until the Second World War. It would be interesting to find out why Bratislava in the 18th century was more tolerant than it is now.”

The conference, organized by the Anna Lindh Foundation together with the Prague-based Institute for International Relations, also highlighted the issue of islamophobia in post-communist countries of Central Europe, and the role of the media. Konrad Pendziwiatr is a researcher from the Tischner European University in Cracow, Poland.

“I believe that here, the Polish media play a very important role. Instead of providing the public with balanced and informative reporting, they provide stereotypes and they strengthen them. I argue that they create a new folk devil. In the past, it used to be the Jews. But now the Jews are gone, and the Muslims are the new folk devil.”

The leaders of the Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Polish Muslim communities said fighting against media bias and prejudice would be crucial for their integration within society. They also noted their communities were dynamically growing, both through immigration and conversion, which will in the future put further pressure on both Muslims and the majority population.