Czech-Arab center head Shadi Shanaah on Islamic radicalism, Islamophobia and multiculturalism

Shadi Shanaah, photo: Alžběta Švarcová

The terrorist attacks in Paris have put the spotlight on Europe’s Muslim minorities, triggering broad debate on Islamic radicalism, immigration policy and the concept of a multi-cultural Europe. In this special program we’ll take a closer look at the Czech Republic’s small Muslim community, how it is perceived by the majority population and how it has been impacted by the developments in Europe.

Shadi Shanaah,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
My guest in the studio is Shadi Shanaah, head of the Czech Arab Centre for Cultural Dialogue. Mr. Shanaah, the past events have put the Czech Muslim community very much in the spotlight with a debate on security and the danger of individuals coming under the influence of Islamic radicals. Do you perceive this as a serious threat in this country?

“I do not think there is a potential for radicalism. There is always some of course, but the Muslim population in the Czech Republic is exceptional in that mostly its members came here as students in the 1960s, 1970s and 80s at the invitation of communist governments. These people are of a leftist background and secular or I would say not many of them are practicing Muslims. Most of them are highly educated, they are dentists or engineers and so the composition of this minority is different from the guest workers who came to Germany, who had a lower education and who came from rural areas or poorer city suburbs. In the Czech Republic there are some ten thousand or a maximum of twenty thousand Muslims, but out of those it is only a few hundred who go to mosques regularly and who are members of the official Muslim community where you have to be registered. There are lots of Muslims from the former Soviet territories, from the Balkans, I would say there are Muslims of 70 to 80 different nationalities. ”

How do they live? Are they a closed society?

“They are very well integrated, they send their kids to Czech schools, they speak good Czech, they interact with the majority population, there is no Muslim ghetto …”

So you feel that they are not vulnerable to the arguments of extremists?

“I think not, though of course there is always a risk. The risk here is mainly in that the state does not recognize Islam as it recognizes other major religions, so the Muslim community in the Czech Republic has a lower degree of recognition by the state. And in this way the state also gives up a possible tool of controlling the community or having a regular dialogue with the head of the so-called community. There is no one community really, there are many organizations that claim they represent somebody, but it is very fragmented …”

Now that you mention this – the head of one such organization Mohamed Abbas has made some quite radical statements which may be reason for public concern. We have heard him defending Sharia law, we have heard him defending the practice of stoning….what kind of impact can those kind of statements make on people in Europe, in this country?

Photo: Public Domain
“Well, first of all, his organization has an ambitious name – they call themselves the Union of Muslims, but in reality they have between five and ten members so he really is speaking on behalf of himself, primarily. Secondly, most of the Muslims that I spoke to about these statements were deeply unhappy with Mr. Abbas but they cannot do anything about it because he claims that he is from from the Union of Muslims in the Czech Republic, no one is interested in that it has only five members and the media are happy to have a Muslim speak on behalf of other Muslims. I do not think that he represents the majority view on this point and also the fact that he does not speak Czech well does not help the situation. To explain something like Sharia in one or two sentences is very tricky even for a professional scholar who specializes in Sharia, by which I am not defending Mr. Abbas – I strongly disagree with his statements and so does the majority of Czech Muslims.”

We are constantly hearing that there are different interpretations of the Koran, of Islam. Is not the turmoil that we have seen in the Arab world and the fact that there are so many different possible interpretations that open the door to radicalism and extremism at the root of our fears here in Europe? Because if some people think that killing non-Muslims will get them straight to heaven then there are no limits to what they may do. …

“There is no denying that this has been a risk in the last few decades in the Muslim community and the Muslims have to deal with it. I think this risk exists inherently in any religion because any religion is open to interpretation and it is always politics and political goals that either move it in one direction or another. Right now it is the Muslim community and primarily the Arab region that is having political-socio-economic problems and so it is more vulnerable to this kind of interpretation. Ironically, the Muslim extremists do not recognize the official Muslim authorities. The official Muslim authorities are perceived by the extremists as being corrupt, as speaking on behalf of the state and not religion and so even if the official Muslim authority denounces the violence the extremists are in a state where they are completely isolated from any other opinion and ignore them. There is also a crisis of religious authority, there is basically no religious authority, because all the texts are now available on the internet for everyone to interpret and there are so many forums, so many people establishing a website where they say this is the way Muslims should behave and this is the right interpretation. I think Muslims themselves are quite confused, because basically in Islam you attach yourself to someone whom you trust. The authority you have is derived from the respect you gain among followers and a wider group of Muslims.”

But is that not an enormous danger? Then you can have these attacks by lone wolves, by people who believe they are doing the right thing when they go out and kill others?

Photo: Thomas Gray / freeimages
“That is a danger, yes. When you look at the extremists they do not consider the people they kill as civilians, because already they are in this stage of radicalization where in their head the people they are killing are actually combatants or enemies. The extremists think that they are doing the righteous thing, that the truth is on their side, that they are committing good which is completely perverse. And we cannot avoid lone wolves or groups of people doing these things. The only thing that we can do is to try to minimalize all the factors that contribute to increasing radicalization. There are multiple factors –from foreign policy to others. And this does not go for European states only but primarily for the Muslims themselves. But there again, there is the problem that there is no one Muslim community. Now we see some sort of mobilization on the part of Muslims to say clearly to the extremists that they do not want this and that they feel themselves to be part of the European society but because there is no one organization that can claim it speaks on behalf of Muslims it is very difficult to do that, to get all the Muslims together on the street to demonstrate because they are so fragmented. Until recently the Indonesian Muslim did not feel that he was in any way connected to a Tunisian extremist and so on…”

Here in the Czech Republic the Muslim community is very small –it makes up just 0.1 percent of the population, as opposed to 7.5 percent in France – so people do not know a great deal about it but even so, there has been opposition to the hijab being worn is schools and some people are opposed to the idea of having a mosque in their vicinity. What is it that Czechs fear? What is behind this opposition?

“I think that is not so complicated. The only information about Muslims that people get is from the media and the media usually report on things that are negatively linked with Muslims, because good news does not make news. So there is this perception that there is something wrong with Muslims and people do not want to risk anything by having a higher number of Muslims in the Czech Republic. So in a way there is a logic behind it which is rational, but people fail to put it in perspective and in the right proportions – in other words how big the risk is, what is the reason for this risk, what percentage the extremists have in the whole Muslim community – so some nuances and important context is missing. But I think that it is natural that you make assumptions that simplify things. That is human nature, so we cannot really be upset that people see Muslims as risky.”

“It is up to the social elites to explain and educate –not just as regards Muslims but any other issue that gets simplified –it is up to the elites to try to put it in perspective to start a normal dialogue and a debate in the society. As long as it is not polarized and as long as we do not have really hateful attacks on Muslims or vice versa, then it is fine, we can have such a debate.”

Photo: Czech Television
Your center tries to correct that, to raise awareness, spread information about this country’s Muslims, about Arabs living in the Czech Republic. How do you go about it and have you been successful in stablishing a Czech-Arab dialogue or are you still in the process of trying?

“Well, we like to focus on culture because I think that is the most powerful way of putting these meta-debates about theology, and sometimes very abstract debates on a lower level, on an individual level. That I think is the most important thing – that people have a personal experience and be able to imagine a concrete face and destiny behind the people that they speak about in an abstract way. So, film festivals, art exhibitions, that is the most powerful means of pointing out the fact that we all share the same worries, the same aspirations, the same daily problems –that we are basically the same people. You might say it is a sort of hippy message or too naïve and idealistic but I think that that is the core, the basics, and I think it is important to repeat this all the time because at the end of the day it is true really – we all have the daily worries of getting our children to school, educating them, and finding the money to live from one day to the next.”

“We do have one project – specifically about Muslims, that is true, but we are facing some obstacles – regrettably from the state institutions. Ironically, in the West the state actively tries to promote these kind of projects, but here the Ministry of Education tried to sabotage it. They removed the auspices they had previously given us, based on false reasons.”

I should explain that we are now talking about a hand-book for secondary school students explaining the basics of Islamic culture, history, religion.

“Yes, it is a complex project one part of which offers the history of Islam in a nutshell with links to further sources if the teacher wants to go into more detail.”

Why did the ministry withdraw its auspices? What happened there?

Photo: ICRC,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“They got swamped by an organized email campaign by a group that calls itself We Do Not Want Islam in the Czech Republic, that is basically the same group which calls itself the Czech Defense League which is modelled on the English Defense League. This group is capable of organizing letter campaigns to politicians and state officials and that is what happened – they got several emails complaining about this project from so-called parents, even though the project had not started –so it was a bit ridiculous that they were complaining about a project that they had no direct experience with. The minister was running in the Senate elections – this was in the run up to elections – he didn’t want to risk losing any votes so he came up with a reason to withdraw the auspices saying that according to ministerial experts the project was bad. But, several months later, after being pressed by lawyers the ministry acknowledged that there were no experts involved in evaluating this project so the reason must have been different. Then they changed the cited reason telling us that we had not managed the PR around the project well – but I do not know what we should have done –put up billboards saying that we are not Islamizing children? So it was a political step that the minister took, but we are pushing ahead with the project anyway and actually more schools have since become interested because the “noise” around the project attracted media attention and that was cheap PR for us. But we always say to the schools – and it is not just schools but also regional institutions who ask us to come and talk to police officers and state officials about Islam and Muslims – we always say please do not put this information on your web page, that you are having this project, because then you are going to suffer because this anti-Muslim group can really make your life unpleasant. ”

The government has also been cautious about taking in Syrian refugees – do you feel that the Czech administration is also stepping cautiously and is uncertain how far to go because of security issues?

“I think that in general we do not have a strategy, plan or vision in the field of immigration so that is something that is hindering any kind of policies in this area…”

But in this particular case they did state security concerns linked to extremism as the reason for not wanting to accept a larger number of refugees…

“Yes, but again, that was a populist thing to say and there was little evidence to justify the argument. Because the refugees we are accepting are children or traumatized people, mothers with children and of course we would need to accept the husbands or closest family because the children cannot be here alone. But to say that these people, who fled to save their lives from the extremists, would come here to commit the same extremist acts that they ran from is really illogical.”

Photo: dcubillas / freeimages
In the past decade or so, many people have questioned the concept of multiculturalism in Europe –particularly in the wake of such terrorist attacks. Do you feel that it is still viable, that it works or can work in Europe?

“Yes, we have heard criticism from key politicians like Angela Merkel or Nicolas Sarkozy from France but the truth is that multicultural policies were never actually implemented in Germany or in France. They have been implemented to some degree in the UK, in the Netherlands, Canada, Australia but there is confusion as to what multiculturalism actually is. I think it is a pool from which we can take different combinations of different policies. It differs from country to country and you have to go about it in a smart way, to have a smart policy and not overdo it. There is a danger in that sometimes bad policies can actually fragment the immigrant community even more because they actually encourage people to form a more autonomous group and claim that they are culturally specific and that they want extra considerations …so we have to be careful. There is no single manual for multiculturalism and it is difficult to put the blame there because it is such a wide concept. I think people just need a scapegoat or sometimes when they criticize multiculturalism what they are really criticizing is immigration policy, which is not the same thing. We will have a debate about immigration and integration issues, a hard, difficult debate and of course there are always alternatives –we can close up, manage the immigration or even put immigrants into camps - but then we must have a debate about the consequences and weigh the pros and cons of such a move. So I think that these quick judgments about multiculturalism were just statements that people and primarily politicians felt the need to make so that it would appear that they are doing something and that they understand the anxiety and it was taking a shortcut on an issue that deserves much more complex debate. ”

We should maybe say that you yourself are half Palestinian, half Czech. Have you –or your friends or family – encountered anti-Muslim sentiments in this country?

“Well, I personally receive a lot of threats, a lot of messages that really make me uncomfortable and sometimes I get really nervous when I am leaving my flat for the rest of my family. My father, who is the only Muslim from my family living in the Czech Republic has met with general racism, especially in the 90s when groups of skinheads would pick him out as someone who has a darker complexion …”

So xenophobia, basically…

“Yes, it was not necessarily because he is a Muslim. With Arabs, if they do not have the external symbols of Islam and are not walking around dressed in a manner associated with Islam then they are not identifiable as such, but they can be mistaken for Roma and get a beating for that too from the xenophobes and anti-Roma people. So the usual targets are those who are visibly associated with Islam, like women in hijab, but I do not have such relatives in my family so I do not have personal experience with this, only when women tell me what is happening to them. Or another target may be a mosque because it is connected with Islam. But Muslim men and women can be mistaken for Italians and we have Muslims who are white so they would pass unnoticed. It is interesting to note that the Muslim community – or the organizations that exist – discourage Muslims from reporting on these incidents, unlike for example the Jewish community that actively collects all anti-Semitic attacks. They have a list and when they come to politicians or speak in public they can say – see we have had a ten percent increaser or decrease in the number of attacks.”

Photo: Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil,  CC BY 3.0 BR
Why are Muslims discouraged from reporting attacks?

“Well, when a Muslim comes and says to the organization I am having problems, I was verbally or non-verbally attacked they tell him it is better if you don’t report it, there will only be more problems from that, keep your head down -we do not want this extra focus on us, it would only lead to worse things, so just ignore it. And that is also why we do not have the situation mapped in greater detail.”

What kind of a life would you like for your children in this country?

“My aspirations are similar to other peoples, so it is nothing exceptional. I want them to have a good education, to be healthy and happy and I share the general concern of people who know we are living better lives than before but we are somehow anxious because we anticipate that the quality of life will be lower for our children because of global challenges like climate change and other things like poverty, the gap growing between the poor and the rich…we are nervous about many, many things. I do not know to what extent this is justified, we have global media and so we know about every disaster …but there is an anxiety for the next generation, what kind of the world they will be living in –and I hope that my children will contribute to making the world a better place.”