Intercultural Relations

After the September 11th attacks many intercultural problems, that may have existed before, have finally come to the forefront of public discussions. In this week's edition of Talking Point, Nicole Klement looks at intercultural relations in the Czech Republic in the light of the global fight against "terrorism".

The conflict between the United States and the Taliban movement has started many discussions on the topic of intercultural relations. It seems that with most NATO countries laying the blame for the attacks on Bin Ladin and the Taliban movement, many civilian Muslims are being pigeon holed in the process. The word terrorist has sadly become synonymous with Muslim and this fact has changed the lives of many Muslims around the world.

I spoke with Umber Hamid who is Pakistani and a practising Muslim. She resides in Europe, and spoke about how life has changed due to a shift in attitude towards Muslims after the September 11th attacks in the United States.

"Well there is definitely not the kind of feeling I felt before the current political situation. There is a fear or judgement because people do look at me differently and maybe they are not looking at me differently because I'm Pakistani, maybe they are looking at me just to figure out where I am from and what I'm doing. But, that puts me on the defensive. I don't know why they are looking at me like that. I don't know how the stereotypes are affecting them and in turn those stereotypes affect me and the way that I deal with those people. "

Ms. Hamid further reacted to recent generalisations about Islam that have surfaced in the media in response to select Muslim fundamentalists who attacked the United States.

"I don't agree at all with what happened. And I don't agree with the action that was taken for the result that they were hoping to achieve. But, what happens is that when all Muslims are categorised you find yourself defending things that you simply would not have defended before. Because, although you have done nothing, the fact that you are a Muslim puts you on the defensive. People speak to you differently. Maybe in this case the onus is upon me to stop and not respond in a reactionary way because that just contributes to the problem."

Ms. Hamid also has certain hesitations about travelling here in the Czech Republic.

"Simply because of what is going on in the world today, it has nothing to do with myself as a person- what I've done and what I am doing. I am just another person travelling through the Czech Republic wanting to see the country and I have to think twice before I can do that because of stereotypes and just the fear really of someone passing some sort of judgement. You just don't want to have to deal with these sorts of things, you are travelling, having a good time and you're here to see a beautiful country and the furthest thing from your mind should be how will I be treated because I'm a Pakistani."

The attitude of many Czechs is similar. The attacks may have brought to the surface intercultural problems that, while existing before, are now finally coming to the forefront. Until recently, many Czechs did not know that a fairly large Muslim community exists in the Republic and that the community has been fighting for recognition. The fact that the Czech government has not yet officially registered Islam as a religion presents a major challenge in many aspects of everyday life.

Mr. Muni Hassan, a Czech Muslim and the chairman of the Islamic foundation in Brno shares his thoughts on the challenges faced by the Muslim community within the Czech Republic.

"With respect to life for Muslims in the Czech Republic, well, in the early 1990's Czechs did not know much about Muslims. They had never really been exposed to foreigners and were very poorly informed and so Islam was quite foreign and even sometimes feared. Today things are better but the media continues to portray Islam, in not the best light, so we continue to see some problems. As far as legislation goes we did have some problems setting up a Mosque in Brno because it was the first in the Czech Republic. Neighbours and so on were not supportive but now it stands three years already. Our biggest problem is that the state doesn't recognise it as an officially registered religion but only as a cultural organisation. Before the war we were recognised but communism wasn't supportive of religion so we lost recognition. Now the law needs us, as well as any other newly registered religion, to have 10,000 signatures with personal information and people here are scared to give their information so it becomes quite impossible to become a registered religion".

Mr. Hassan explains why he feels it is important for the Muslim Community to fight for recognition within the Czech Republic. He had this to say...

"The Czech Republic's recognition of Islam would make a big difference. It would be registered and people would not be able to say, as they have in the past, get out of our country. If their was recognition we would not longer be foreigners we could have more rights. How could Prague host Forum 2000 when they don't even have Islam registered as a religion?"

Mr. Hassan mentioned the Forum 2000 the main topic of which was globalization and so I asked him what he felt about and its effect on intercultural relations...

"The problem is that the interest of the developed Western world in the East is purely profit-based. And Muslims were quick to realize this. There is a very strong feeling among our people that the rich Western nations -the United States, Great Britain and others- are not really interested in development and aid. That they care little about the problems of the region or promoting good relations with the Muslim world and thus narrowing the cultural crevice that divides us. Their interest was purely a business interest in a new market."

I end this weeks talking point with excerpts from the fifth Forum 2000 conference to which Mr. Hassan refers. The forum was host to dignitaries, heads of state and religious leaders from around the world who met to discuss the topic of globalisation. An important part of their discussions revolved around the effects of globalisation on intercultural relations....

John Shattuck former U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic spoke up on behalf of Muslims world wide...

"There is no cultural responsibility for crimes against humanity in the sense that they have been just committed on September 11th. No more than the people of Serbia were guilty for the crimes of Milosovic, should the people of the Islamic World, or indeed the people of Afghanistan very specifically defined, be held responsible in any way. Guilt is individual, responsibility is individual."

Hassan Hassan bin Talal, Prince of the Jordanian Hashemite Royal Dynasty began his speech at the forum by explaining that although the vast majority of Muslims do not support terrorism, the Afghan people can not be blamed for their acceptance of Bin Ladin. He spoke of the harsh life in Afghanistan, where there is poverty and very little infrastructure.

"Afghanistan ranks among the most destitute, war weary nations in the world. Seventy percent of the population is estimated to be under-nourished and only thirteen percent have access to clean water. In most aspects Afghanistan is worse off than any other country in the world. Of 187 countries only seven have lower life expectancy than Afghanistan. Enter Bin Ladin money, the opening of schools, the opening of roads, a convenient safe haven for crime and a grey economy."

Prince Talal indirectly, reminds us that one cannot judge another until he walks in his shoes. With Bin Ladin, came money and Afghanis were finally being offered financial investment. Although the money may not have come in the most traditional form, how can we possibly judge them for their acceptance of it. While the actions of the Taliban are not being condoned here, it is an undeniable fact that had the September 11th attacks never occurred, the world would have remained blind to long term problematic intercultural relations. The attacks did manage to open our eyes to the Muslim Community and its problems and has given us a chance to begin the process of narrowing the cultural divide.

Mr. Hassan believes strongly that the first step on the road to narrowing this divide is to make a clear distinction between the actions of individuals and races or religions.

"When someone uses the name of Islam to justify a terrorist attack, I feel they are abusing Islam and it is actually defamation of the religion. Terrorism has no place in Islam, it is actually condemned. And it is unfair to use one person, who commits a terrorist act, as an example of all Muslim people. It would be like judging every Christian through one Christian's actions. You cannot judge a religion by the actions of one believer or a nation by the actions of one national."

Author: Nicole Klement
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