Czechs fear far-away Islam
“Islam bans the things we love - sitting in the grass on a beautiful day like this exposing skin to sun, with a beer and a sausage in hand,” said one of the speakers at a demonstration in Prague. “As soon as there are many Muslims here, they will not respect our rules.”
The May Day protest, organised by the far-right group Bloc Against Islam, did not mention refugees. Those who joined insist that the people currently coming to Europe are not refugees, but economic migrants, or worse – Islamic invaders.
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“If they were really running away from war, they would stay in neighbouring countries,” said one of the participants.
In the Czech Republic, the refugee crisis is widely framed as a danger of Muslim migration. Islam is a favourite argument of the outspoken president Milos Zeman against refugees.
Last October he warned that the migrants would enforce Sharia law, stoning unfaithful wives and cutting off hands of thieves. “We will be robbed of the beauty of our women, because they will be covered head to toe in burka,” he said.
In January he claimed the Muslim Brotherhood had organised the current exodus of refugees with funding from various Muslim countries and the goal of taking control of Europe.
“The integration of Muslims is practically impossible,” he insisted. The fierce anti-migrant rhetoric has boosted Zeman’s approval rating to an all-time high, according to various opinion polls.
The president is not the only one waging an anti-refugee campaign in the Czech Republic.
In May, the investigative reporting website Hlidaci Pes (Watchdog) published testimonies of several journalists from the third most-watched TV channel, Prima, that the management had instructed them to portray refugees as a threat.
A number of bogus stories about Muslims and refugees have been spreading on the internet.
Last December a false news story broke that asylum seekers raped two little girls in Kostelec nad Orlici and that the police banned the media from reporting on it.
With a refugee camp on the edge of the town, several other pieces of misinformation went around. In Kostelec, the mayor, Frantisek Kinsky, is eager to address any rumours that may cause panic. But elsewhere people do not know what to believe.
Only a very small number of Czechs have met a Muslim. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 Muslims live in the country, which is less than 0.2 percent of the population.
With the lack of personal experience, people are easily frightened by what they see on the internet. “Many share this content without even reading the whole story,” says Lukas Houdek of the initiative Hatefree, which specialises in exposing online hoaxes.
Muslims can do nothing right
While some are scared of refugees, others worry about radicalisation of society.
“Various groups are gradually hardening their arguments, which may turn into something else,” says Martin Buchtik, a sociologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Public Opinion Research Centre (CVVM), suggesting they could turn to violence.
In April the media reported that a young woman was punched in a tram for apparently no other reason than speaking Arabic. In a separate incident, someone threw blood-like paint on the wall of a family centre and stuck on the window an obituary of its director, who had collected donations for refugees.
“This would have caused an uproar four years ago. Today, the news has quickly faded,” says Buchtik.
It appears that Muslims can do little to improve their image.
A young Muslim woman,Eman Ghaleb, recently made headlines in the Czech Republic. Originally from Yemen, she has lived since the age of five in the northern spa town of Teplice, popular with clients from Gulf countries.
Willing to ease tensions caused by picnicking habits of some visitors, she started to clean the rubbish left behind and circulated leaflets explaining the code of conduct in the country.
Her initiative caught the public eye. But instead of praise, the head teacher of her school received dozens of emails calling for her dismissal. Writers argued that she wore a headscarf and accused her of spreading Islamic propaganda and being a danger for fellow students.
No tradition of public debate
So far there are few indications that Czechs need to worry about a Muslim invasion. The majority of asylum seekers are from the former Soviet Union.
“Refugees from the Middle East are more likely to go to countries where they get support from their communities,” says Martin Rozumek, the head of the NGO Organisation for Aid to Refugees.
“There are very few Muslims here and there is little risk that they will create ghettos.”
Samir, a refugee from Syria is proof that Muslims have no problem integrating. Although the Czech Republic was not his original destination – he was heading to Sweden where his cousins and friends live and was returned to Prague under the Dublin regulation - now that he has got asylum in the country, he is determined to make it his home.
He is keen to make Czech friends and learn Czech culture. He insisted that his three sons went to a normal Czech school, instead of an international one. “They now master Czech better than Arabic,” he says in impressive Czech.
Samir’s family sticks to their religion, but they are ready to make concessions. “Back in Syria my wife wore a black headscarf. Now we have bought different colours so that she fits in better,” he smiles.
The Czech Republic is not popular with refugees. A little over 90,000 have sought asylum there since the country’s independence in 1993 and just over 3,000 have succeeded. Fewer than 2,000 others have got subsidiary protection. At the end of May, there were 313 asylum seekers in refugee camps across the country.
”They are individuals rather than a refugee wave,“ says Rozumek. “We have a refugee crisis without refugees and people are scared of Islam, although we hardly have any Muslims here.”
He argues that the Czech Republic, with unemployment of 4.1 percent, lower than Germany, should take advantage of refugees to fill gaps in the labour market. “There are a number of professions which we are not able to fill with Czech citizens,” he says.
The issue of refugees has polarised Czech society. In a May poll by CVVM, 61 percent of respondents were against and 36 percent for accepting refugees under certain conditions.
“The migrant crisis has become the most important issue in the country,” says Martin Buchtik. “Sharp differences of opinion on this topic lead to such quarrels that families and friends are unable to speak together even about other subjects.”
Buchtik attributes this situation to the fact that Czechs do not have a long tradition of open public debate, which did not exist during Communism.
“The refugee crisis is one of those key topics which split society. There will be other such issues in the future and this experience will set the standard of how far it can go,” he says.
This article is the second in a series exploring the central European reaction to the migrant crisis. The first article was about Hungary