Controversial book highlights divisions in Czech Muslim community

Photo: CTK

A recent dramatic police raid of two Islamic centres in Prague has put the spotlight on the country’s Muslim community. Community leaders have denounced the operation as excessive but the police have charged one man over the distribution of an allegedly xenophobic book. So why did Czech Muslims publish a book by a radical Wahabi author? In this edition of In Focus, we discuss the situation of the Czech Muslim community with Bronislav Ostřanský from the Czech Academy of Sciences. I first asked him about the book, The Fundamentals of Tawheed by Bilal Philips, whose Czech edition was the apparent cause of the police raid.

Bronislav Ostřanský,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“I don’t think most Muslims would say Bilal Philips is their favourite author. He represents the Salafi or Wahabi interpretation of Islam, the most rigid way of understanding Islam.

“Many Muslim don’t like his work at all – when I was living in Egypt, I often heard that this radical way of Islam interpretation could be understood in the West as hostile and very rigid.

“But even here in the Czech Republic, many Muslims shared with me their doubts about the choice of this book. But I think it would completely wrong to assume that because a book by Bilal Philips was published here, the entire Czech Muslim community would be inclined to Salafism or Wahabism.”

So why do you think the community lent its name to the publication of the book’s Czech edition? Why would they want this particular book available in Czech?

“Well, my knowledge here is quite limited. But we should stress that within the Czech Muslim community, there are various streams. Some Czech Muslims prefer Salafism while other like Islam influenced by Suffism.

“If you take a closer look at the list of their publications, you’ll also find an introduction to Islam for non-Muslims entitled Islam: A Profound Insight by Ahmad Hemaya. This book offers a very friendly, open and tolerant understanding of Islam.”

So what kind of community are Czech Muslims?

“It’s difficult to generalize. Czech Muslims are divided in many streams and platforms. There have also been many personal quarrels and hostilities affecting not just the community as such but also its image in the media.

“Most articles in the Czech media about the Muslim community over the last decade have not been covering the interpretation of Islam and other spiritual issues but reflected personal arguments among Muslim leaders, and so on.”

What do we actually know about the community? The latest official data came in 2007 in a report commissioned by the Interior Ministry; the report found there were between 11,000 and 12,000 Muslims living in the country, most of them having immigrated in the 1970s and 80s as students. Do these people still account for the majority of the community today?

Bilal Philips,  photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim,  GNU Free Documentation License,  version 1.2
“I think so. But there are no official statics of Czech Muslims available. The figure you mentioned is only an estimate. In the last population census three years ago, only about 3,000 people declared themselves as Muslim but community leaders estimate the real number could be between 10,000 and 20,000. Critics of Islam for their part say there could be over 50,000 Muslims living here.

“As for the composition of the community, it’s true that most Czech Muslims are of Arab origin. They came as students from countries like Libya, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and, since the 1990s, many Muslims have come from the Caucasus, the Balkans.

“There are basically three groups of Muslims here: Czech converts, about 400 or 500 of them, who are mostly women. Then there are Muslims of foreign origin who are either Czech citizens or permanent residents. This is the group that came mostly from the Arab countries in the 1970s and 80s. And the third group are students and entrepreneurs who have been coming here in recent years and who are not permanently settled here. They came from a number of places such as Turkey, the Arab countries and even from Germany.”

When we look at the history of the Muslim community of the Czech lands, I understand it was formed in the 1930s but was only later officially recognized…

“Czech Muslims first tried to get officially registered before WWII but were not successful. They were first officially recognized during the Nazi-established Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. But their registration was abolished after the war, just like all legal acts from the time of the Nazi occupation.

“That’s why after the fall of Communism, Muslims in Czechoslovakia had to start from scratch. The process was however quite complicated and long so they decided to follow a different pat: they formed the Islamic Foundation of Brno and later of Prague as a basis for organizing their activities.

“The first mosque was established in Brno in 1998 amid a lot of media attention and controversies. But when the next mosque opened in Prague the following year, it wasn’t even covered in the media.”

In September, the Muslim community will have been registered for 10 years. If they also gather 10,000 signatures in their support, they will be entitled to establish Islamic schools and will be granted some other rights too. How important is this for Czech Muslims?

“I think that the so-called second level of registration has mainly a symbolic value for Czech Muslims. For them, this is a step towards being considered equal to other churches and religious groups. Whether or not they will use this opportunity to set up their own schools and courses, that’s only secondary.

Photo: CTK
“As far as I know, they are still not sure if they want to have their own schools because the obvious question is who would go there. As I said, the number of Czech-speaking Muslims with children is very limited.

“There are of course many Arab-speaking Muslims. But I think the existing courses held at mosques seem to be sufficient from the practical point of view. So this second stage of registration will mostly have a symbolic meaning.”