Czech Republic’s small Muslim community prone to hatred | News on Islamophobia

Prague, Czech Republic – Walking through the idyllic streets of Prague a few blocks from famous Wenceslas Square, Palestinian-born Raed Shaikh, 38, stopped to point out a halal grocery store that he and the city’s handful of other Muslim residents frequented.

He then waved to a Middle Eastern restaurant on the right, hidden behind a small mosque.

“Here is the highest concentration of Muslims in Prague,” the IT project manager laughed.

Although no exact figures exist, the Muslim community in the Czech Republic is small, between 5,000 and 20,000, or less than 0.02% of the total population.

Just a part lives in Prague.

Muslims in Prague, Czech Republic [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

Yet Islam has become a hot topic in Czech national politics, where the power to resolve the country’s suspended parliament may rest with a politician whose only policy is “No to Islam.” No to terrorism”.

Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura and his Party of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) arrived in parliament as the third strongest party after the recent national elections in October, with no discernible policy other than to drive Islam out of the Czech Republic altogether.

The campaign slogan was compelling enough to win the newly formed SPD significant votes in its first-ever election race.

Having forged ties with other far-right movements in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Okamura hopes to achieve his goal through ongoing coalition talks with controversial billionaire Andrej Babis, who is expected to become the country’s next prime minister.

Babis’s Dissatisfied Citizens Action (ANO) won the October elections decisively but failed to secure a simple majority. Now he must form a coalition with a fragmented parliament that has proven unwilling to work with the populist agribusiness mogul who at election time was being investigated for fraud.

Muslims leave the country amid rising Islamophobia

Some Prague Muslims fear that circumstances could lead to an alliance with Okamura, giving him an unprecedented platform – a worrying prospect given the ANO and SPD’s shared disregard for Muslim refugees.

“We have to fight for what our ancestors built here. If there will be more Muslims than Belgians in Brussels, that’s their problem. I don’t want that here. They won’t tell us who should live here,” Babis told reporters in June.

This type of increasingly anti-migrant rhetoric has deeply fueled Islamophobia. For members of Prague’s small Muslim community, this is a sign of worrying times.

Most of the Muslims here are doctors, engineers and computer people etc. but some political parties are trying to change our rights and eliminate Islam.

Vladimir Sanka, board member of the Muslim Community of Prague association

“Many of our friends have already left, and if [Islamophobia] was not the first reason, it would certainly be the second”, says Sheikh.

Currently, Islam is recognized as a religion in the Czech Republic, but its followers are limited to several basic privileges enjoyed by other faiths, including the right to establish schools, hold legally recognized marriages, and hold ceremonies nuns in public spaces.

“Most of the Muslims here are doctors, engineers and computer scientists, etc., but some [political] […]are trying to change our rights and eliminate Islam,” said Vladimir Sanka, a 58-year-old Czech Muslim who is a board member of the Muslim Community of Prague association.

“No one can ban freedom of religion”

As negotiations between the two sides are ongoing, Okamura has previously told local media that the ANO has pledged to consider a restriction on asylum for Muslims and a ban on ‘Sharia’, or Islamic law. , and that the SPD would not support Babis unless an agreement was reached. .

Lubomir Kopecek, a political analyst at Masaryk University in Brno, said an alliance at this stage is unlikely, but by no means unfeasible.

“If an ANO and Okamura government happens in the coming weeks or months, it could change a lot of things,” he said, referring to religious freedoms.

Even if the two parties aligned, they would find it difficult to enforce such a ban, the head of the Constitutional Court, Pavel Rychetsky, told local media, saying: ‘No one can ban freedom of religion and belief’ .

Less than 1% of the country's population is Muslim [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera]Less than 1% of the country’s population is Muslim [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera]

However, this decision would not be unprecedented for the region.

Slovakia passed a law last year effectively banning Islam from acquiring official religious status.

Worse still, growing anti-Islam sentiment has led to an upsurge in hate speech and even physical attacks against Muslims who settled here long before the refugee crisis.

In July, local media reported that two Muslim women were escorting a group of children to a water park in Prague when a third woman began verbally and physically assaulting them.

One of the victims was Shaikh’s wife.

“It’s getting harder and harder here, unfortunately,” he said.

Shaikh, who twice debated the issue with Okamura on Czech television in 2015, said it had become difficult for his community to find a place in Prague to gather for Eid al-Fitr – the celebration at the end of Ramadan – in recent years.

The big halls want nothing to do with Muslims.

“It wasn’t a problem for 23 years, but a few years ago it became mission impossible,” Shaikh said.

Czechs have ‘the highest level of racial prejudice in Europe’

Like its eastern neighbors Poland and Hungary, the Czech Republic’s attitude towards migrants deteriorated in 2015 after an escalation of attacks in Western Europe and as the refugee crisis continued to develop.

Despite having a very small number of Muslims and having never been the victim of attacks, the perceived threat of attacks coupled with a tradition of nativism – for example, the long-standing persecution of ethnic Roma – has left the country vulnerable populism and far-right attitudes. .

According to a Harvard University survey published earlier in 2017, from the hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, Czechs exhibited a higher level of implicit racial prejudice than in any other European country.

In Prague, politicians including President Milos Zeman have sought an advantage by taking tough stances on Muslims, fiercely opposing EU refugee quotas, taking only 12 of some 2,700 refugees granted by the European Commission.

This stance has led to inflammatory rhetoric, with Zeman noting that integrating Muslims into Czech society is “virtually impossible”.

The anti-Islamic group known as Block Against Islam gathered at the Saudi Embassy in Prague to mock the Hajj pilgrimage in September 2016 [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera]The anti-Islamic group known as Block Against Islam gathered at the Saudi Embassy in Prague to mock the Hajj pilgrimage in September 2016 [Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera]

Such rhetoric has paved the way for anti-Islam groups like Block Against Islam, which is known for staging extravagant events last year including dressing in traditional Muslim garb and mocking the Hajj pilgrimage while marching around of portable toilets supposed to resemble the Holy Kaaba. in Mecca.

In a separate event, the group staged a mock Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) invasion of the Old City Square, which included a mock decapitation.

“They are a small group, but they want to provoke a reaction and hope that we will react so that they can say that they told us,” Sanka said.

Compounding the problem, the Czech Republic has been the victim of a destabilizing disinformation campaign – widely seen as perpetrated by the Kremlin – which hopes to see Czechs turn against Western-backed democratic politics in favor of illiberal autocrats.

To do this, dozens of fake news agencies created in recent years have focused on creating a false narrative against Muslims with the aim of rallying the population towards the populists.

HateFree, a government-run anti-discrimination organization, has debunked around 100 anti-Muslim hoax stories in the Czech Republic over the past few years.

“We don’t have the capacity to do much here, but we’re still in a very difficult position,” Shaikh said of his small community.

“On every street corner, on every television and newspaper, you can see their position and their fear, so it’s no wonder people are afraid.”

Protesters march during an anti-immigrant rally in Prague on September 12, 2015 [David W Cerny/Reuters]Protesters march during an anti-immigrant rally in Prague on September 12, 2015 [David W Cerny/Reuters]

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