Less than a century ago, there were 230 million Muslims in the world, which at that time comprised one seventh of the world's population. Today, adherents of Islam account for almost one third of the people living on this planet. This upsurge in the popularity of Islam is particularly evident in Europe. Whereas a hundred years ago, Europe's Muslim population was concentrated primarily in the Balkans, nowadays there are Muslims living all over the continent from Iceland to Georgia. In keeping with this trend, the Czech Republic also has a small but vibrant Muslim community. This week a conference was held in Prague on the issue of Islam and the role it plays in Western society. Coilin O'Connor has more details.
Although there are only about 20,000 Muslims living in the Czech Republic, this is a big increase on the number who lived here less than a decade ago. What's more, this figure continues to rise. This week, the Czech Association for International Affairs, an academic discussion group, held a talk on the status of Islam in contemporary society at Prague's Charles University. I asked Jan Snaidauf - one of the organisers of the discussion - what prompted him to hold a meeting on this particular topic:
"One of the most frequently discussed topics is Shariah or Islamic law and the points where it clashes with our understanding of law, and also where it does not clash - where it is in accordance. We are trying to make people think about all the things that are widely said - such as that Islamic law is against human rights, that Islamic law is not good for people, and that Islamic states are tyrannical. I don't want to say that this is absolutely untrue, but at the same time I don't want to say it is true either. As a result, we should search for the truth."
Vladimir Sanka, Director of the Islamic Centre in Prague, was also at the discussion. I asked him how he had come to be a follower of Islam:
"About nine years ago as an atheist I tried to come to terms with the consumer society I was living in. I looked at many questions about life. I came to the conclusion that God had to exist. That seemed logical and answered many questions. When it came to finding the right religion for me I discovered Islam."
Professor Lubos Kropacek from the Institute of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Charles University was a guest speaker at the meeting. I asked him whether there was any truth in the notion that Islam was at odds with many core Western values.
"I stand very decisively against the very concept of the clash of civilisations. I am convinced that we live in one world, that we are just one mankind, and that the differences between civilisations will gradually pass away. However, the positive values of various cultures and of different peoples will be preserved. It's a matter of discussion and especially a matter of deeper study, which should enable people to understand each other better."
In view of the fact that very few Muslim countries are democratic, I asked Professor Kropacek whether he thought that Islam and democracy were actually compatible:
"A progressive liberal interpretation of the Koran might disclose that in this text there is the concept of "Shura", which means consultation and the participation of people in decision-making. This might be considered as a Koranic or home-made and time-honoured way of providing a positive religious recommendation for popular participation in decision-making, and the basis for a sort of Islamic approach to democracy."
More information on the Czech Association for International Affairs can be found at www.amo.cz. Anyone interested in further details on Muslims living in the Czech Republic can visit the website of Prague's Islamic centre at www.islamweb.cz
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