What Divides Czechs and Slovaks on Muslims?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because for Czechs, the echoes of history still ring loud today.
By Stephen Starr
For years, Jaromir Balda lived a mostly quiet life in the northern Czech Republic. But fueled by news reports and politicians spouting anti-immigrant diatribes on television, the 72-year-old developed outspoken political views. Balda began supporting the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Movement, and neighbors saw him drive around with a poster of an anti-immigrant politician in his car window.
Things got worse. Twice in the summer of 2017, Balda felled trees across a railway line near Prague. He left notes reading “Allahu Akbar” — “God is great” in Arabic — in a bungled attempt to blame Muslim immigrants. Both times trains plowed into the trees, though no one was hurt. Last year, he was sentenced to four years in jail, the first Czech person to be convicted on terrorism charges.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia were a single country for three-quarters of a century, 46 years of that locked together behind the Iron Curtain. Their languages, traditions and histories are closely intertwined. But when it comes to attitudes toward Muslims, Czechs and Slovaks take a very different view.
The Czech Republic is the least friendly country in Europe for Muslims, while Slovakia is nearly the friendliest in Eastern Europe.
A Pew Research poll conducted across 34 European countries between 2015 and 2017, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, found that just 12 percent of Czechs say they’d accept Muslims as members of their families. That and other surveys suggest that Czechs are far more hostile to Muslims than any other country in Europe. Of the 1,497 Slovaks surveyed, however, 47 percent said they’d willingly accept a Muslim as a family member. Of all participating post-Soviet states, only Croatia returned a higher acceptance rate.
In the 27 years since the two states split from their previous combined existence as Czechoslovakia, one has become far more tolerant than the other.
Czech Republic, or Czechia as it’s now officially known, has a small community of 11,000 well-integrated Muslims — 0.1 percent of the population. Just three mosques are open in the country, but Islamophobia is still rampant. The Czech government has refused to accept refugees, many of whom are Muslim, in the fallout of the 2015 migrant crisis.
Some academics have suggested the Czech opposition to Muslims is anchored to the country’s long history of invasion by larger, outside powers that kicked off in the early 17th century and continued for three hundred years under the Habsburgs.
The subjection continued until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. Thereafter, the First Czechoslovak Republic was formed, and for more than two decades enjoyed a precarious peace. With the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Czechs again faced outside threats, forced to cede territory to Germany in 1938 at the behest of European leaders and later occupied by the Nazis. With images of hundreds of thousands of immigrants walking into Europe dominating the media in 2015 and 2016, many on the country’s far-right linked the crisis to previous incursions on Czech territory.
“It was unscrupulously whipped up by commercial media,” says the University of Glasgow’s Jan Čulík of the anti-migrant sentiment. The media “have given wide coverage to Islamist attacks in Western Europe, but almost no coverage to extreme right-wing attacks against refugees.”
Slovaks, for their part, don’t seem to be as easily wound up. Though it hasn’t escaped the overwhelmingly anti-immigrant rhetoric that’s dominated political discussions in recent years, Slovakia has accepted some refugees and in 2018 claimed it would house Iraqi Christian asylum seekers and a small number of Syrian orphans (though that, say observers, has yet to happen). Slovakia has also helped its neighbor Austria temporarily house refugees during processing periods.
“The mainstream media used to report on Muslim-related issues in a very simplifying and often biased manner,” says Mohamad Safwan Hasna, president of the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia. “But I must say that this has greatly improved in recent years and during the so-called migration crisis they were actually somewhat fair. Since then the main source of anti-Muslim sentiment are politicians and fake news outlets.”
While Slovaks, like Czechs, suffered foreign rule for centuries, they haven’t had to live under the same perceived historical threat posed by Germany and appear to be more outward-looking. Slovakia joined the Euro currency in 2009 (the Czech Republic has not) and in recent years liberal, pro-human rights politicians have come to the fore.
“The difference in attitudes in Czech Republic and Slovakia is that Slovakia now has a liberal-minded president, Zuzana Čaputová, who openly espouses human rights,” says Čulík. “The Czech Republic, on the other hand, has President Miloš Zeman, a populist, who has been whipping up hatred against Muslims and who has repeatedly said that Islam is a criminal ideology.”
While Slovakia may be more accepting of Muslims and immigrants than its neighbors, it’s by no means a sanctuary. Islam is banned from being taught in schools and there isn’t a single mosque in the whole country to serve Slovakia’s 5,000 Muslims. “Yes, it is much better compared to [the] Czech Republic,” says Hasna of the Pew Research findings, “but it is still a horrible result.”
In fact, experts say Slovakia has many more extremist parties than its northern neighbor. Ex-Prime Minister Robert Fico averred in 2016 that “Islam has no place in this country.” But Fico — who was charged last month for his racist comments against the country’s Roma minority — is no longer commanding the spotlight as in the past. That could be a hopeful sign for Slovakia’s Muslims.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr