The Czech Muslim community: A beacon of piety in a predominantly atheist country

Photo: Antonio Melina/ABr

Less than a century ago, Europe's Muslim population was concentrated primarily in the Balkans. Nowadays, there are Muslims living all over the continent from Iceland to Georgia. In keeping with this trend, the Czech Republic also has a small but robust Muslim community. There are currently around 20,000 practising Muslims living in this country.

Photo: Antonio Melina/ABr
Most of the members of this community originally came here from Arab states to study and ended up staying. This is what happened to Jehad Hamarshieh, a Jordanian-born Palestinian who came here in 1987 to take a course in electrical engineering.

Like many Muslims now living in this country, his initial experience of Czech society was very positive:

"When I came here I felt like I was at home. The people were very nice. Every country has good and bad people, but I only ever had good people around me. The people were very friendly. There are very good people in the Czech Republic who know how to deal with foreigners."

Jehad liked it here so much that he decided to make his life in Prague. He married a Czech woman and started a family. His wife has since become one of a few hundred native Czechs who have converted to Islam:

"I got married in 1995. My wife at that time was a Christian. But she knew me - she knew that I didn't drink, that I didn't go womanising and so on. When we got married she remained a Christian and I stayed a Muslim. She saw how I acted and behaved towards her and her family and to everyone else. She began asking questions as to why I would do certain things etc. Then after two years she came to me and said 'OK, I want to be a Muslim like you.' I said you are welcome in Islam. I can't force you to become a Muslim. I can invite you."

Jehad now has children who are being brought up as Muslims, but whose lives are Czech in almost every other way:

"They are living normally. They go to school like any other Czech boys. We only tell them that we don't want them to eat any fat from the pigs and things like that. The teachers in the schools are really very good teachers. They understand and respect that it's not ok for them to eat these things and so on."

Vladimir Sanka is the director of the Islamic Centre in Prague. He himself is also a Czech convert to Islam. Such local conversions are still quite unusual in this country where many people have strong atheist leanings and some are quite wary of organised religions. Mr Sanka, however, says that the Muslim community here has become an accepted part of Czech life:

Vladimir Sanka
"I would say most of our society has a pretty normal attitude to us. We have chosen our religion freely and it's our way of life. We don't force anyone to follow our faith. Based on the principle of freedom of religion, we have a right to live here in Europe among others. I would personally say that on the whole we live well here and our small community doesn't have any major problems."

Mr Sanka says it's quite common for Muslims here to be actively involved in their communities and to embrace many aspects of Czech life:

"All the Muslims I know are interested in integrating with Czech society. I think this is the right attitude. We don't want to live in isolation or to create a closed society inside the Czech Republic. On the contrary, we want to enrich this society and live together with other people. We don't want to live in ghettoised districts and places like that."

Of course, despite the fact that Muslims here are treated with a lot of respect by many Czechs, there are some who view them with deep suspicion. This is partly due to highly publicised attacks by extremist Islamic terrorists such as last year's London bombings and the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. These events have created a climate of fear in the Western World and some people now even view Islam as a threat to their freedom and security.

In the Czech Republic, attitudes towards Muslims have also hardened in some quarters thanks to a small but highly visible number of people from Muslim North African countries, who have been arriving in this country since the early 1990s and have become involved in certain forms of racketeering including drug trafficking.

As a result, a lot of people now associate Muslims in the Czech Republic with these dodgy dealings even though many of these activities are also strictly forbidden in Islam. It's a problem Vladimir Sanka acknowledges. He says any reservations some Czechs might have about Muslims living in their midst would be dispelled fairly easily if they took the time to actually learn more about the true nature of Islam.

"Unfortunately, part of society has some prejudices or distorted information concerning Islam. Some people have a subconsciously mistrustful attitude towards us, precisely because they don't know Islam or anything about us, which can give rise to some fear and apprehension. But I think this can be overcome by informing them about our way of life."

This is a view echoed by Jehad Hamarshieh:

"Our prophet Mohammed said that religion means how to live with other people - how to live quietly with others without bothering or hurting them and to understand their needs. You are expected to give them the best of you. This is Islam. Islam is not what they are describing in the media and elsewhere. As Muslims, most of us know the things they are saying are not true."

In fact, instead of posing a danger to Czech society, there are some who say the strict moral code which most Muslims adhere to can only have a positive impact here.

Professor Lubos Kropacek from the Institute of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Charles University says the influence of religions like Islam can bring a moral dimension to Czech life, which has sometimes been lacking in this highly secular society, ever since the old certainties and beliefs of communism were swept aside in 1989.

"Would unbound freedom without any moral considerations still be freedom? I'm not sure. Unfortunately, in this country we had a bad experience in the early 1990s when many people started to understand freedom as meaning freedom to steal or to get rich very quickly by any means possible without any inbuilt moral mechanisms, which would stop them from behaving improperly. It is perhaps a dangerous aspect of a country as secular as the Czech Republic, that perhaps many people don't have these internal moral mechanisms."

Professor Kropacek says that religions like Islam can play a crucial role in fostering the so-called internal moral mechanisms, which may be lacking in some part of post-communist Czech society.

"In Islam, there are a number of good moral precepts, which play a positive role in social life. Being a Christian myself I feel that I should also respect the beliefs of Muslims, with whom we should conduct a dialogue and not clash with, either violently or non-violently."

This dialogue between Islam and other religions in the Czech Republic has seen the Muslim community make joint public statements with Jewish and Catholic leaders on ethical issues such as euthanasia. Valdimir Sanka agrees that Islam like other religions such as Christianity can set a moral example in many areas.

"The Muslim way of life is a very good and positive thing. We place great emphasis, for instance, on family life. This is becoming a lot less significant in the West and it is having a very negative effect on society. I could mention other things like our attitude to pornography, prostitution, alcoholism, drugs and so on. In this sense, our voice can also be beneficial for this society."

Jehad Hamarshieh has no doubt that Islam can have a very positive effect on Czech society if people will simply open their minds to the true nature of its teachings.

"We would ask ordinary people to be more understanding of what it means to follow Islam. Islam means peace. If you see an envelope with the word 'PEACE' written on it, you have to open it up and look inside to find out the meaning of this word."