Lack of acceptance, historical migration limits Muslim presence in Czech Republic

Graffiti in a Prague cemetery serves as a physical example of the discomfort many Czechs feel toward Islam.
Graffiti in a Prague cemetery serves as a physical example of the discomfort many Czechs feel toward Islam.

For the second time on May 27, the Czech government rejected quotas suggested by the European Commission, which would have brought about 500 refugees in from war-torn countries — many of whom are predominantly Muslim.

But Lucie Sládková, head of office for the Czech Republic for the International Organization of Migration, said despite the rejection of the quotas, the country has a history of accepting refugees, including those who are Muslim.

“When there was a crisis in Bosnia, the country stayed open for thousands of people and nothing happened,” she said. “There were no strikes, no demonstrations, nothing from the majority in Czech Republic. Everybody understood that those people were in need of help. Bosnians are also Muslim. Their religion is no point.”

Though a complex issue, the Czech government made the decision to reject quotas for three reasons, Sládková said.

“If the Czech Republic fulfills the quota by people from Sub-Saharan Africa, I doubt and everyone else doubts that they would stay,” she said. “They would just come to the Czech Republic to transit and move to their safe haven — to some countries where they have their relatives — where they have their diaspora.”

The  Czech government, she said, also wants to ensure opportunities for refugees coming from neighboring states.

“The Czech Republic is against the quota because there is a situation on the Ukrainian and Russian borders where the situation is also very harsh, and the Czech Republic is expecting more and more Ukrainians to come,” she said.

The final reason Sládková cites for rejection of the quotas is the issue of national sovereignty. Member states fear the European Commission would have too much control regarding immigration issues in the Czech Republic.

While Sládková acknowledges “Islamophobia,” or fear of Muslims, is a persistent issue in the country, she adds the Czech government should not take any extra efforts to incentivize Muslims to immigrate.

“Leave it as an open country for humanitarian and international protection as it should be,”,” she said. “At the same time, leave the channel for legal migration open for those who are coming and who would be a benefit for the society, be it whatever country in the world.”

Religiously allergic

State-imposed regulations throughout the country’s history, including forced Catholicism under the Habsburg Monarchy and forced Atheism under communism, created a lack of devotion in the people and, according to experts, a distrust for those who are religious and proselytizing.

Of the 10.5 million people living in the Czech Republic, 34.5 percent identify as Atheist, according to the 2011 population census, making it one of the most secular countries in Europe. In addition, only 1 million people identify as Roman Catholic, the largest faith in the Czech Republic, which still does not signify regular church attendance.

“There was always somebody who was trying to rule the country, and it was somehow always connected with religion,” said Tomáš Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities. “So out of that comes a huge skepticism against any kind of religion, and especially against any kind of organized religion.”

While religious freedom exists legally and there is no overt religious pressure, “Czechs are even more sort of allergic” to institutions, particularly those that are religious, said Pavel Hošek, a professor of comparative religions at Prague’s Charles University.

“Religion is not considered to be something admirable or respectable really,” Hošek added. “Sometimes people would rather make fun of especially more committed or more explicit forms of religion.”

Even wearing a hijab or burka may be considered a proclamation of religious faith, Hošek said.

Richard Hlaváček said his wife, who comes from a religious family in Morocco, made the difficult decision to remove her veil, which she has worn since puberty, after receiving comments and stares from people.

“Before she took her veil off, she was literally depressed and she didn’t know how to handle it,” said Hlaváček, a Czech native who converted to Islam in 2002. “Muslims here, especially women, I think literally feel like aliens. Not in a term like refugee, but real alien from another planet.”

Ethnically homogenous

Islam was registered as an officially recognized religion in 2004, and 11,235 Muslims live in the country as of January 2015, according to the Interior Ministry, making up less than 1 percent of the population. Although the Czechs don’t have a dominant religion to bond them together, they are an ethnically homogenous society, mostly of Slavic descent.

Even though Hošek said most Czechs have never met a Muslim “because they see what’s going on in other parts of the world, the percentage of strong disapproval and actually fear of Islam is above average in the Czech Republic.”

Compared to countries such as Germany, Great Britain and France, where millions of Muslims live, Hošek said these negative attitudes seem disproportionate.

This lack of exposure means most Czechs’ understanding of the religion comes from the media which regularly feature bloody clashes with Islamic religious extremists.

“It’s the abstract fear. It’s not the fear of concrete people because when you know them, you know that they do not represent any danger,” Kraus said. “It’s an abstract fear of the unknown that is omnipresent, it’s obvious.”

Hlaváček said he understands this fear.

“I’m scared of radicals, too. The radicals in the Islamic State want to kill me first. Maybe they talk about the West, but the Islamic State doesn’t like so called weak Muslims,” he said.

Richard Hlavacek
Richard Hlaváček

Hlaváček considers his cultural interests a potential target.

“I like Jazz music so maybe that makes me less Muslim to them. That’s what people don’t realize. We are the first people who are scared of the Islamic State because if they one day come here, they’re going to look for me first.”

But Chris Lettner, executive director of The Prague Society, a group that promotes international cooperation in Central Europe, said inviting more Muslims to the country won’t necessarily make people less Islamophobic.

“While it is definitely true that most Czechs have no personal experience with Islam whatsoever, a lot of Czechs do have personal experience with the Roma minority,”Lettner said. “They are still being stereotyped and marginalized and looked down upon even though the Czechs do have contact with them.”

In Germany and Austria, where Muslim communities are much larger, Lettner said, Islamophobia still exists.

“Just because there are a lot in the country doesn’t mean that there is a lot of meaningful cultural exchange between the two. In Germany, most people’s exchange with Muslims is essentially limited to going to the Muslim market and buying vegetables and going to the Kebab shop around the corner,” he said.

Lettner said those who are committed enough to go to rallies and protests against Muslims wouldn’t have much more meaningful exchange with them, even if there were more in the country.

A voice to the discomfort

Although feelings of subtle hostility toward all religious groups, including Muslims, have been on Czech minds for some time, the advent of social media in addition to traditional media has agitated their tensions.

“These tendencies in the Czech society were always like that, but they had no platform to present it,” said Jaroslav Valůch, who runs Kliktivisti.cz, an anti-hate campaign that uses social media to promote peace. “Social media made it way more easy to share anything with large amounts of people in the opened space for hatred and propaganda.”

One particular group created a Facebook page titled “We Don’t Want Islam in the Czech Republic” that has more than 120,000 likes, which Valůch said is considered a popular and successful page in the country. Likes spike in concurrence with international events involving Muslim extremism, he said, such as the videos of ISIS members beheading journalists and the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

“I’m not sure if it’s representative, but it’s definitely becoming mainstream,” he said. “It’s no longer a matter of small hate groups.”

Social media is being used as a tool, Valůch said, to mobilize hatred.

“Just by following the news, yes, there would be some fears and some Islamophobia,” he said. “But they’re actively working instigating the hate among the people.”

From a post-monitoring analysis report in February, Valůch and his team found that for the first time, Muslims became the greatest target of hate speech, instead of the Roma or LGBT community.

“We can see that in a society, a huge spike in hatred toward one group has the potential to strengthen hatred toward other groups, which means that apparently in the Czech Republic, we have a large amount of people who really don’t care who they hate.” he said. “They just switch from one target to another.”

Fear and hatred toward Islam in the Czech Republic is likely to persist unless a new, more radical group emerges or ISIS becomes less extreme, Valůch said.

“If we see some successes in combating the Islamic State, I think the Islamophobia would decrease and people would go back to their traditional enemy, which would be the Roma people,” he said.

Valůch said his organization pushes out content to counter the anti-Islam propaganda, but finding effective ways to fight the hatred is challenging.

“This can work only to a certain level because there are people who are frustrated — frustrated from social situations, from politicians, from corruption and this frustration is targeted toward other groups,” he said. “That makes the fight against hate speech way more difficult. The roots are not just that people are misinformed. It’s simply because they are somehow not satisfied with their lives, not satisfied with the development of society after 1989.”

Another, more powerful voice projecting anti-Muslim sentiments resides in government. Czech President Miloš Zeman compared Muslims to Nazis, in a 2014 speech delivered on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“I will not be calmed down by statements that it is only small marginal groups,” Zeman said in the speech. “I believe, on the contrary, that this xenophobia and this racism or anti-Semitism stem from the very nature of the ideology on which these fanatical groups rely.”

In addition, Tomio Okamura, head of the Dawn of Direct Democracy party, has urged Czechs to take action against Muslims, including boycotting kebab shops and protesting against Islam.

Hlaváček said he feels embarrassed by their behavior.

“It’s just another verification of what I already thought about our politicians,” he said, regarding the quota rejection.

Moving Forward

Votes from their constituencies weigh heavy on most politicians’ decisions, Lettner said. What’s most needed, he said, is transparency.

I think the government should say what they plan to do — how much money, how many refugees, what is actually going to happen,” he said.

When making these kinds of decisions, Sládková said governments needs to think on a long-term scale.

“If we really want to be a globalized world, we should notice all parts of the world, not only the short direction from Libya to Italy,” Sládková said. “I think that there are people in need of assistance all over the world.”

But rejection of the quotas alone, Sládková said, does not solve anything.

“To reject it and be against it does not solve any issues,” Sládková said. “So I would rather see them more sensitive to the problem and more open to discussion on the European level.”

More than anything, Valůch said the key to a more peaceful world is opening up a conversation.

“We need more discussion about what it means to integrate refugees, what it means to live in a global world,” he said.