Populists helping ISIS sow fear, says sole Czech Muslim legislator Hassan Mezian

Hassan Mezian, photo: Martin Vlček, Wikimedia CC BY 3.0

Hassan Mezian is the only Muslim legislator in the Czech Parliament. The Social Democrat senator moved to Prague from Damascus to study medicine in 1967, and, apart from spells in his native Syria and elsewhere, has spent most of his life practicing in the central Bohemian town of Litoměřice. When we met at the Senate, our conversation took in Syria, Czech Muslim life, and growing anti-Muslim populism in politics. But first I was curious to hear about Dr. Mezian’s period treating Bedouins during his military service.

Hassan Mezian,  photo: Martin Vlček,  Wikimedia CC BY 3.0
“I was working for a time in the desert, in a Bedouin village, and I had to do everything for them.”

It must have been difficult being a doctor in the desert?

“Yes [laughs]. I had to treat everything: children, adults, to do small operations, obstetrics – only animals I didn’t treat [laughs].”

Given that you come from Syria, it must have been hard for you in the last four years to observe what’s been happening in the country?

“Yes. I still have friends and relatives there. I speak to them sometimes and the situation in Syria is very bad.

“The people there are very friendly. They didn’t distinguish between religions and ethnicities, and hospitality is in first place. I didn’t expect there could be this kind of violence in Syria.”

The situation in Syria is very bad,  photo: ČTK
Is there anything practical you have been able to do from the Czech Republic to help people in Syria?

“I’m trying to help them with the cooperation of my colleagues in the Senate and the Parliament of the Czech Republic. We are doing our best to help Syrians and the refugees.

“We are doing our best and what we can to make the violence in Syria end by diplomatic means.”

There was a lot of debate in this country about bringing something like 70 Syrians here for medical treatment. How did you view that discussion? Many Czech politicians seemed reluctant to take them in.

Refugees from Syria,  photo: Voice of America News,  Public Domain
“Well, 70 refugees from Syria means 15 children [and their families]. They’re sick, so it’s a humanitarian thing. It’s not a question to solve. We have to accept this, because the number is not very high.

“I’ve heard about higher numbers – maybe the European Union or other countries want [more] Syrians to come to the Czech Republic.

“[But] in my opinion the best we can do for Syria is to help them to end the violence. That’s the best thing to do, first of all.

Syrian refugee camp,  photo: Voice of America News,  Public Domain
“The second thing is that around 10 million Syrians are refugees. That’s half of the Syrian population that are not at home. There are four million in neighbouring countries and six million refugees are displaced inside Syria and are in a very bad situation.

“The best thing we can do for them – not only the Czech Republic but all the countries in the world – is to help Syrian people to live in their homes and to make the violence end.”

The movement We Don’t Need Islam,  photo: Archive of the movement
You are known as the only Czech Muslim legislator. Have you ever experienced xenophobia from Czechs as a Muslim?

“I’ve been living here for almost 47 years and I don’t solve the question of religion. I believe in God, but I don’t believe in God in the sense of being different, in a different religion from others.

“During that time I didn’t face serious xenophobia attacks. But only as a politician who has a Muslim name… some extremists write to me, I think from some movement like We Don’t Need Islam, or something like that.

Tomio Okamura on Facebook
“Or they want to walk dogs and pigs and so on beside Muslim temples…”

You’re referring here to [populist Dawn party founder] Tomio Okamura and his recent statement on Facebook.

“[Laughs] Yes, I know him personally and I don’t think that he means it. He wanted to maybe make some political points. I don’t believe that he means it.”

It seems to me that there isn’t much prejudice towards Muslims in the Czech Republic. Is that perhaps because many of them are from the professional classes? For instance, you’re a doctor, many Muslims are doctors or lawyers or they have other good jobs. Do you think that’s one reason there’s not much tension here?

Muslims in the Czech Republic,  photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová,  Czech Radio
“There’s no tension. The number of Muslims is very small and they are not solving the question of religion.

“As you say, they are doctors, lawyers, engineers. And they are presenting themselves by their work, not by their religion.”

And I guess many of them have Czech families also?

“Yes, that’s right. They have Czech families and they aren’t solving religion at all. They are almost even assimilated here.

Illustrative photo: Lenka Žižková
“They celebrate Christian celebrations. Even me at home, we celebrate Christmas… When I go to a church, I go to a church – it’s no problem for me.”

Sometimes I hear the term Czech Muslim community used. Is there really an actual active community?

“That’s a very nice question. For me the Czech Muslim community doesn’t exist. I realise I am Muslim when they ask me, Are you a Muslim [laughs]? There’s no Muslim community – you are right.”

That’s because people have been here for so long, and perhaps because there are so few of them?

“Yes, there are so few, and they are Czechs almost. Many Czech people don’t solve the question of religion and they are the same as other Czech people in this.”

Photo: Radio Prague International
Given the fact that there are so few Czech Muslims, why do you think that some populist politicians like Tomio Okamura, like some members of the Civic Democrats, are evidently attempting to use the… question of Muslims to create fear and as a way to campaign politically?

“It’s exactly the reason that you say – I don’t believe there is a real danger from Muslims.

ISIS’s aim is to make fear in the world,  photo: ČT24
“The real danger is from these populists, because when they want to make fear here they’re helping terrorist organisations such as ISIS and the like, because ISIS’s aim is to make fear in the world. And they’re helping them to achieve destabilisation.

“Maybe they don’t want to do this but to make political points – I don’t know.”

But given that there are so few Czech Muslims, why are they using this as a way to attain popularity?

Photo: ČTK
“I think either they are foolish or they’re cooperating with the terrorists. And I don’t believe they are making direct cooperation with the terrorists, so…”

They’re just stupid?

“They are stupid, yes [laughs].”

Are you worried by this trend of politicians like Okamura, even some members of the Civic Democrats, trying to attain popularity in this way?

Photo: ČT24
“I’m worried but not scared. I’m worried because they are making people fear and if they succeed it will be very bad for this country.

“Which is more dangerous? To have as enemies 70,000 terrorists in ISIS, or one and a half billion Muslims in the world? Do you want to make one and a half billion Muslims enemies? I don’t think that’s so wise.”

Miloš Zeman,  photo: David Sedlecký,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
What do you think of the pronouncements of President Miloš Zeman? He seems to take every opportunity to strongly criticize radical Muslims and it seems to be one of his main topics.

“In recent days I have perceived changes, I don’t know if small or big, in his position in that regard. I think especially after his visit to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

“I spoke to him and I asked him about that and I think there is some change in his opinions.

“It’s better to make friends with countries that are fighting against terrorism, like Jordan, the UAE, and other Muslim countries. Because 98 percent of the victims of terrorism are Muslims.”