Can America Learn From Czech Muslims?

The recent hubbub about the construction of a Muslim community center near ground zero drove me to dig up a story I reported and wrote while studying in the Czech Republic last fall. Since I haven’t had much success shopping this around – a little too specific to the Czech Republic, probably – I’ve now decided to self-publish the feature here, as it seems the right time for this story. Obviously this is a personal blog, so my opinion and personal perspective are a little more available than they would be elsewhere, but hopefully that doesn’t impact how you respond to this.

Since I can say so here though, I really think opponents to the mosque in Lower Manhattan should reconsider whether the United States should be in the habit of debating core freedoms to the same extent as a much smaller nation that’s been a democracy for less time than I’ve been alive; this sort of thing is happening all over our country.

But maybe these thoughts should rest somewhere near the back of your mind as you read the story of Muneeb Hassan Alrawi’s mosque, one of only two that have been officially allowed in the Czech Republic.

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Czech Muslims at the Breaking Point of Past, Present, and Future
by Damon Beres

Muneeb Hassan Alrawi made a choice 25 years ago to leave his home in Iraq and lead his life as a Muslim in the Czech Republic, a nation wherein 96% of the population is ethnically Czech, and nearly 60% describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religion. At the time, there were a grand total of zero mosques nationwide for Muslims to worship in.

Over two decades later, the number has risen to two, and petitions for a third have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Alrawi, head of the Islamic Foundation in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second largest city, says a new mosque is necessary. The Muslim population has swelled to around 1,000 according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” released last November, and many will drive up to 75 miles just to participate in services at the mosque in Brno, an unassuming building plopped in the middle of a glum residential lot.

But as with before, he faces opposition from Czech political parties in a situation all too familiar to Muslims in Europe, whose struggles recently reached a fever pitch in the international media when Switzerland voted to ban the building of minarets, the iconic spires that stand tall outside traditional mosques.

“We are not happy with this,” said Alrawi of opposition from political parties against the mosque. Recently, Alrawi has faced resistance from the Czech National Party and Christian Democratic Party, all because of the Islamic Foundation’s plans to build another mosque in Brno.

In a move to combat the building of the mosque, which the National Party, a far-right group, reportedly decried as a step towards “Islamization” of the Czech Republic, referring to the fear that the nation would one day become an Islamic state, a small group of protesters recently gathered outside the mosque to distribute thousands of anti-Islam leaflets to passersby.

For Alrawi, the situation smacks of what the Islamic Foundation faced years ago when they first planned the building of a mosque in Brno.

“It was a long procedure,” said Alrawi. “It took two and a half or three years to allow this small building. A petition was signed against our plans to build the mosque.”

Brno’s mosque was finally built in 1998, but it faced staunch opposition from the Christian Democratic Party. The Czech Republic’s second mosque was built in Prague under similar circumstances a year later. However, it wasn’t until five years after that, in 2004, that Islam was officially recognized by the Czech government, which entitles the religion to state funding.

It’s 2009, and once again the Christian Democrats have stepped between the Islamic Foundation and a mosque.

“The time is not ripe,” said Cyril Svoboda, the chairman of the Czech Christian Democratic Party to Ceske Noviny, a Czech news publication. Svoboda, and the Christian Democrats by extension, take issue with what they perceive as fundamental values of the Islamic faith, which include, according to Cesky Noviny, the “death penalty for unfaithful women and renegades from Islam,” and the idea that “Muslims need not obey anyone who does not preach Islam”

“The Muslim community cannot [expect] our support [for] extending its space in Brno if these things keep appearing,” said Svoboda.

The flurry of mudslinging and prejudices are hardly unheard of in the European Union; Switzerland banned minarets, France has an official moratorium on Islamic veils in public schools, and Germany birthed an anti-Islam political party in 2008 after a proposal was made for the construction of a new mosque in the city of Cologne.

But the political posturing may belie what, for Alrawi, is actually a fairly comfortable situation. After leaving Iraq to study engineering, Alrawi came to appreciate the freedom granted by the Czech Republic. Though bureaucrats balked at the prospect of visibly representing Islam on the streets of Brno and Prague, the faith was worshipped in rented hostel rooms and apartments without fear of persecution, a compromise that worked for the small population of Muslims that immigrated in large part to pursue education in subjects like medicine.

Overall, Alrawi notes, “we are very, very happy with our position in the Czech Republic, and our human rights.” Islam’s profile has been raised such that even native Czechs, that famously insular and unreligious people, are converting.

“We are not bringing Islam to the people,” said Emir Omic, an imam in Prague, “they are coming to us.”

If the natives are growing more comfortable with Islam, a notion that hits the occasional speed bump (the affixation of a butchered pig’s head to the Prague mosque earlier this year, for instance), the question remains: what makes European officials so touchy about the Islamic faith?

A large component may be the rash of terrorist action carried out by Islamic extremists throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

“The presence of 9/11 was there,” said Alrawi of the motivation behind the Christian Democratic Party’s protests against the Islamic Foundation. When attacks hit European soil, as they did in the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the London bombings of 2005, which were executed by four British Muslims, skepticism towards Islam was bolstered even further.

But Islam has been a presence in Europe for far longer than the past decade, as has anti-Muslim discrimination. The reasons for that discrimination, however, can vary from country to country.

“In the west, it’s always an issue of radical rights, but that’s not the issue [in the Czech Republic],” said Karel Muller, a professor of contemporary European culture at New York University in Prague. “It’s more identifying against ‘traditional others,’ like homosexuals and Roma, not so much immigrants, as it is in France and Germany.”

The Muslim population in countries like France in Germany is considerably more embroiled in the nation’s history, which creates a different kind of tension than there is in the Czech Republic. While Czech society is acquainted with Alrawi, an immigrant who came to study engineering and one of a thousand Muslims in the country, Germans may be more familiar with descendants of Muslim workers imported in the 1960s to do menial labor, where any individual would only constitute an infinitesimal fraction of the nationwide Muslim population, now over four million.

“In Germany, there’s second or third generations, so they face an identity crisis,” explains Muller. “They tend to identify more with regional identities. They say, ‘I’m just a Berliner.’ We don’t have this third generation who say they should be fully fledged Czechs.”

In light of that, Muller says it’s hard to predict what the future will hold for Czech Muslims.

“Czechs are very skeptical about religious affiliation,” said Muller.  “Tolerance is not a virtue. It means, ‘you don’t mind.’ It’s indifference.”

What this indifference will ultimately mean at the start of the next decade for Alrawi’s mosque and the Islamic Foundation, the pig’s head, the indignant Christian Democrats and National Party members, of course, remains to be seen.

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One Response to “Can America Learn From Czech Muslims?”

  1. Wonderful article. I really love that last quote. “Tolerance is not a virtue. It means, ‘you don’t mind.’ It’s indifference.” I think their is, ironically, a more grudgingly un-avowed respect in the conservatives, in-spite of all there biggoted ideas, that isn’t there with liberals, and for structural reasons cannot be there. They don’t deny their right to appeal to metaphysical truth. This is fact why they are so threatning. Liberals often advocate tolerance because they have already violently neutered the thing in question. Behind every call for tolerance there is the violent threat that warns you not to get to close.

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