Our new series “Articles of Faith” will explore questions of faith and religion among expats living in Prague and beyond. In this first edition, Ryan Scott speaks to members of the small but growing Muslim community in the Czech Republic.
One of the most oft repeated facts about this country is that it is among the most irreligious in the world. A little under half of people polled in 2012’s Global Index on Atheism and Religiosity claimed to have no religion and thirty per cent identified as atheists.
Yet many believers form part of the broader expat community. Though I’m personally not one of them, I wanted to know how this supposedly atheist society treated its various religious minorities and how believers related in return. The response from members of the Muslim community was as diverse as the members themselves.
“For me it was quite easy,” Shahrir, a medical student from Malaysia said about his experience of first coming here. “In the Czech Republic we have a lot of halal shops.”
Hazim, another medical student from Malaysia, was also generally positive about his experience here. “The Muslim community here is quite large and if we have any problems, anything to do with the Czech language, we can ask [Czech speakers in the community],” he said.
The non-Muslims in their university course organized events, such as dinner parties, so the two could socialize and even bring their own food.
As to the reactions of the broader Czech community, the men agreed most Czechs were not so interested. “When we talk about [Islam], they don’t care much,” Hazim said.
Ahmed Hamdi came to former Czechoslovakia from Yemen just before the Velvet Revolution as part of a study program. Back in the nineties, his opportunities for religious expression were limited.
“It was hard here. No mosque. No halal food shops,” he said. He and some fellow students organized a hall for Friday prayer. Now he thinks the situation has improved.
Mr Rashid of Shalamar Foods has been in Prague for about the same amount of time. “I can say when I was single I was very far away from my religion,” he said. He credits his wife with bringing him back to his faith. Mr Rashid admitted he found going on the Hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the pillars of Islam – strengthened his faith.
Now his Muslim children are attending school and amongst themselves speak Czech. The director of the school where the boys attend has become used to the family’s dietary requirements, though at first she was more resistant.
In Mr Rashid, I could see something typical of all religious people – as sense that faith can ebb and flow.
“Sometimes you feel more strongly toward your country. You are more patriotic. Sometimes more toward your faith. You are more religious. These waves sometimes come back,” he said.
Diversity Is the Key
“Not all Muslims in the Czech Republic are practicing,” said Vladimír Sáňka chairman of the Czech Muslim community. They do not uphold the basic pillars of Islam like daily prayer and fasting. Some Muslims here may drink, some Muslim women may not wear a headscarf, but while Islam was clear on these rules, Mr Sáňka pointed out observance was a personal matter.
Over time the community has grown, from about 1,000 in 1990 to around 4,000 today with believers from many nations including the Arabic speaking world, Russia, Ukraine, central Asian states, the Balkans, Pakistan, Turkey. Malaysia, Indonesia and Arabic-speaking nations. Among them are around 800 Czech converts to the faith, of which 70–80 % are women. Interestingly this proportion is close to a figure reported in Britain. Most of the Muslims in the Czech Republic are Sunni.
The main mosque in Prague stands in Kyje. Built in 1999, the building itself does not face Mecca; however the arch patterns on the floor of the prayer hall point to Islam’s holiest city. A smaller prayer hall is located in the city center and another mosque, found in Brno, was built in 1998.
Ms V, who requested to use an alias, is one of the Czech women who have embraced Islam. She has been a Muslim for twenty years, having converted when she was 17. Ms V’s interest in religion started earlier, though it was not easy given she came from a family of non-believers. She consulted the Bible first before reading the Koran.
“I bought the Koran and other books and I found that it was right.” she said.
As to why such a large proportion of Czech converts are women, Ms V said, “It isn’t a normal disparity. I think women are more open, more perceptive. A lot of women when they hear about something, they read about it and evaluate it.” Ms V in contrast to the views of mainstream society sees Islam when practiced properly as giving many rights, possibilities and choices to women.
The national diversity of the Muslim community came up in many of the conversations. Mr Rashid said a British friend of his said the diversity was great and thought it more diverse than the UK, where the size of the community allowed people to congregate in national groups.
Orkhan, who is from Azerbaijan, believes the diversity is inherent to Islam and not the small size of the community. “Islam can’t be ‘uninternational’,” he said.
Orkhan described himself as practically an atheist when he arrived in the Czech Republic. I asked Orkhan to what extent living in the Czech Republic influenced his decision. In part the decision emerged from the very reason he came: to further his career and realize his personal dreams.
“You see that was actually what you sought and that can be your goal and then you start looking for some other things… the truth I would say,” he said. The search led him to Islam.
Speaking with these different people, I couldn’t help but come back to the question I had asked Shahrir and Hazim: how does mainstream Czech society respond? I asked the question with reluctance because it presupposes Muslims are outsiders when they work and live with us. Yet, given the present climate I couldn’t avoid it.
“I always differentiate between governments and people,” said Orkhan. It is not a matter of mere opinion but religious teaching. Orkhan said Islam views generalizations as a sin, so he wouldn’t make any sweeping statements about Czech people. “We should have an individual approach to everyone,” he said. Any opinion about government policy could only be based on thorough research.
“There isn’t an easy answer to that,” Mr Sáňka said. “It depends on the people. You will find very accommodating opinions, very accommodating positions. People have gotten to know us.” At the same time he acknowledged that Islamophobic elements exist which spread misinformation.
Ms V echoed the view that individual reactions varied. However of all the respondents, she saw Islamaphobia as a larger threat. Consequently, she did not wear the hijab for fear of intolerance. It was the same reason she chose to remain anonymous. “Today there are fewer incidents, but they are more serious and dangerous,” she said in a follow-up email.
Mr Rashid did not find Czechs anti-Islamic. The one example he could give of Islamphobia was an incident at a train station. A young Czech woman started to ask his wife, who was in her hijab, what she was doing there. However the other Czechs present took their side and called the young woman mad. “One old lady at the station said she felt sorry for her for what she is saying,” Rashid said.
In his eyes, most of the hostility stems from the media. Most of the people I spoke with shared this view. Media sensationalism fed this distorted view. Yet, the people I spoke to still saw the media as an opportunity for dialogue. Perhaps, Orkhan express it best of all.
“I hope we will have more questions and more articles. Not only on Muslims but on other communities as well,” he said.
Do you practice your religion in your home away from home? How has your faith wavered or strengthened since coming to the Czech Republic? We want to hear from you.