A project for schools about the Czech Muslim community and Islam which a local group tried to derail

In this week’s Czech Life we speak to Šádí Shanaáh, who is one of the founders of Muslims through the Eyes of Czech Students, a concise handbook and course for secondary school students aimed at providing information about the country’s Muslim community and the history of Islam. Initially, the project - which also touches upon contemporary problems and developments - was backed by the Education Ministry. It, however, later withdrew support. Why others did not, as well as the role played by vocal anti-Islam activists, are topics discussed.

Shadi Shanaah, photo: Alžběta ŠvarcováShadi Shanaah, photo: Alžběta Švarcová First though, I asked about the survey in schools which served as a foundation for the handbook and course.

“In our study we learned something which wasn’t altogether surprising, which is that very little space is given to Islam or the Muslim world. In Czech education, much time is devoted to pre-history or the origin of ancient civilizations but Islam is only dealt with marginally, which means in the 7th century Arab expansion or the period of the Ottoman Empire. There is also not much time devoted to the 20th century, either. And we found that in some text books there were factual mistakes. We found that teachers would like to teach more but have little time as well to research secondary sources, which is why we devised a concise handbook – with input from the country’s top experts - with links if they want to go more into depth. Our study also found that some 80 percent of students did not think the subject was currently taught very well.”

There was a desire among the students to learn more; they themselves were interested…

“More than 90 percent of students said that this issue was very hot right now, very topical, that they see a lot about it on the internet but that they would need more information. To that end, we devised a 90-minute session which focuses on three areas which are pre-set. But we are also flexible if the school wants us to focus on other aspects. The three core areas though are a critical reading of the media, the veil for women, and information about the Muslim community in the Czech Republic.

“We found that teachers would like to teach more but have little time as well to research secondary sources, which is why we devised a concise handbook with links if they want to go more into depth.”

“We also get feedback from them and the thing we hear most is that they would like us to discuss contemporary issues – from the Arab Spring to Islamic State and that if possible more time could be devoted to the developments we see in the world today. They want to understand more and are surprised to learn there are mosques in the Czech Republic but without minarets. But we are limited by the time we have in the classroom.”

Is it fair to say that one aspect of the whole project, put simply, is to fight xenophobia, racism, and for students to learn more about their Muslim neighbours who are practically invisible, a very tiny community in the Czech Republic? Is that part of the motivation?

“The motivation is also that there is an overreach, that the skills learned or applied are not just limited to this one issue. As you rightly said, Muslims are a tiny minority here. Of course, we wanted to respond to what we see as growing anti-Muslim attitudes but the ambition is to show that issues are often not black and white, that students can develop a critical approach or reading of contemporary problems. For example, the life of the Roma I think is a very pressing topic, or there is the Jewish minority. From our perspective, we are capable of presenting the Muslim world but we hope that other NGOs better placed to focus on other minorities or religions will present those.”

I imagine that the overview of how minorities or different cultures are taught about in secondary schools is fairly limited and this is not just a problem with the Muslim world.

Photo: hin255 / FreeDigitalPhotos.netPhoto: hin255 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net “There are aspects which can be taught but I think they are fairly basic also in a civics and morals course, where religion might be discussed. There is also the legacy here of communism that any kind of discussion of religion is kept at an arm’s length. If we leave aside for the moment issues such as terrorism and some of the atrocities taking place in the world now, some Muslims feel they might been seen better if or be seen more positively if there was a more positive attitude in general towards religion, Christianity included.”

At the same time, when we talk about what is going on today with terrorism and radical Islam, do the students get any sense of that?

“As I said we are flexible and aside from the three core subjects we also organize panel discussions or invite a Muslim guest. Many Czechs don’t know any Muslims so they get to hear from a person themselves. More and more we are organizing things outside the classroom as well, so we are changing the name of the project and the logo because there is a demand from governmental institutions, communal level leadership, social services, the judiciary, the police to have a better understanding. The information meets the needs of the different institutions.”

“The motivation is also that there is an overreach… that the skills learned or applied are not just limited to this single issue. We also want to show that many issues are not black and white.”

Much of the discussion in threads in comment sections online boils down to statements of hatred… many are perfectly happy to write some very vile statements. Are the Czechs intolerant? Or this is there a small, vocal anti-Muslim minority?

“The same way I don’t like it when someone generalizes about Muslims I don’t want to generalize about Czechs. The issue is always more complex. I don’t really even think some of the people who are taking part in recent anti-Islam demonstrations are really anti-Muslim or xenophobic. Many people simply feel that they are losing control or that things in society are spiraling out of control very quickly: that the state is losing the ability to respond, that things are moving above their head very quickly from globalization, that the state is being overwhelmed by something and losing sovereignty and the ability to deal with unrest or social problems. This fear is compounded by numerous other factors including unemployment.

“Every participant in such a demonstration got to that point somehow, with many factors playing a role. It is not dissimilar Muslim radicalism because the pathways to Islamic radicalism are very individual. It is not easy to explain by saying that people attracted to that path are unemployed or poorly educated or suffering an identity crisis, because we have seen some of those who took that path were middle class and were pretty well-off. So it is quite diverse.”

“I don’t really even think some of the people who are taking part in recent anti-Islam demonstrations are really anti-Muslim or xenophobic. Many people simply feel that they are losing control, that there are things spiraling out of control very quickly and that the state is losing the ability to respond.”

Did the anti-Islam platform hurt this for-schools project?

“Well, we are certainly a welcome target for them. They need something to ‘mobilize’’ against. There are so few Muslims living here that they would have trouble otherwise maintaining such a campaign. They have a project and they work as civic society organization and petition politicians and organize groups like ‘Angry Mothers’ to try and stir the discussion artificially on internet forums, for example, focusing on child care. In this way, they raise the supposed alarm that their children are being “Islamisized” and brainwashed and this can be damaging.

“This group has the capability to make your life very uncomfortable, bombarding you with spam, rants and so on. We have asked schools that ordered our 90-minute course not to publicize it online as they are immediately swamped by this group and they can send demonstrators to the front doors or they can hack webpages. That is one reason why are not naming the schools any more. The anti-Islam group can make life very unpleasant for the schools themselves.”

Is that what happened with the Education Ministry, which basically withdrew from the project? Was it pressure from this group? Because it didn’t appear to affect the US Embassy in Prague, the Anna Lindh Foundation…

“I think that is pretty much what happened. The anti-Islam group distorted information every step of the way and with each step the lie grew bigger. In the end, I do not think this was a decision by any mid-level bureaucrats but that the decision came down straight from the top. There were Senate elections at the time and I think the minister who was taking part did not want to alienate any voters.

“I actually think that the US embassy was even more swamped and also had to answer questions by US congressmen and congresswomen. There was a Russia Today report which claimed that US taxpayers were paying for the Islamization of Czech students! And although I think members of congress took the report with a grain of salt, after all it is Russia Today, it still complicated matters.

“In the West the tendency by governments is to try and elaborate their national anti-radicalization strategies and try to involve NGOs like us, they try to involve the Muslim community, because they know that the community approach is best against radicalization.”

“We always explained to the Czech Education Ministry the aims of the project and how it worked: and the ministry withdrew its auspices anyhow and they never explained properly why they withdrew. This was a bit disappointing because in the West the tendency by governments is to try and elaborate their national anti-radicalization strategies and try to involve NGOs like us, they try to involve the Muslim community, because they know that the community approach is highly-effective or best at reducing radicalism.

“They spend a lot of time and resources to try to do things that we in the Czech Republic, the ministry, did not. The ministry took the opposite approach. Instead of participating or encouraging projects which try and reduce tensions in society, the ministry sort of contributed to the tensions and capitulated under pressure from openly hateful groups.”