The Czech Republic has a tiny Muslim minority of 0.2 percent and yet they have been at the receiving end of increasing hate crimes.
“Don’t spread Islam in the Czech Republic! Otherwise we’ll kill you.” On January 4, racist and bigoted graffiti was discovered on the walls of a mosque in Brno, the Czech Republic's second largest city. The country’s first ever mosque, which was built in 1998, has survived many attacks from the far-right as well as radical leftist groups.
A piece of pork was hung on the mosque’s front door and pig bones were scattered around its entrance in 2013. Two years later, its windows were smashed and the entrance wall was sprayed with engine oil.
There are 20,000 Muslims in the Czech Republic, or Czechia, representing 0.2 percent of the country's 10.8 million population. Despite being a tiny minority, they have often faced hostility and antagonism from the majority community, which, according to a study conducted by Harvard University, displays a higher level of racial bias, particularly toward Muslims, compared to any other European country.
"People are very racist in Brno and there is always some incident taking place there, especially with regards to the mosque or Muslims. They hate Muslims. Pretty much the entire eastern Europe is very racist and anti-Muslim," said Manzoor Hussain Sahi, a 36-year-old Pakistani national who spent three years in Prague as a student.
Because of growing hate crimes targeting Czech Republic's Muslims, Sahi said, he left the country and recently moved to Ireland.
"To be honest, in academic institutes, there is no islamophobia. I and my Muslim colleagues did not face any kind of hate related to Islam in academia. It's only in public. They really feel afraid by seeing a Muslim standing next to them. But this thing again happens in some specific groups. People feel unsafe when they see veil-wearing women," he said.
"During my stay, I experienced one incident in Brno. I was travelling with my friend and one guy started screaming at me but all the other passengers requested him to get off the bus otherwise they will throw him away. At the next stop, he got off."
Defensive nationalism is the main feature of modern day Czechia. The fear of annihilation at the hands of immigrants stoked by far-right politicians across the central European nations has also enveloped the country, which to this day defines its territorial nationality with language. So if you don’t speak Czech, you are a suspect and in worst case scenarios an ‘evil’ foreigner.
One of the most atheist countries in the world, the Czech Republic ranks in third place, following China and Japan, for its number of convinced atheists. The communist era and ongoing secularisation has left just 20 percent of the population with formal affiliation to any religion. About 10.3 percent practise the Catholic branch of Christianity, 0.8 percent are protestants, and nine percent follow other faiths.
Arabs who came to study in Czech Republic and those from the Caucasus and Balkans largely comprise Czechia's Muslim community. Though the minority keeps a low profile, isolated controversies arise from time to time. At times the issue can be as trivial as allowing halal slaughter or hijab-clad girls in schools.
The smouldering bigotry against Muslims took a brazen turn as refugees from war-affected Middle Eastern countries arrived in ones and twos in eastern and central Europe from 2015 onwards.
The Czech Republic has to accept around 4,300 people seeking asylum, which is about 410 refugees per one million of its population, according to the European Union refugee quota system.
The government of Czechia refused to comply with the EU-designated quota, only taking 12 refugees. President Milos Zeman justified the move saying: “Our country simply cannot afford to risk terrorist attacks like what occurred in France and Germany. By accepting migrants we would create fertile ground for barbaric attacks.”
Instead of meeting the quota, Zeman built two massive detention centres for asylum seekers. Ever since the country has earned the reputation of being the most opposed country toward the EU quota, following Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
The obvious manifestation of this systemic antipathy toward minorities, especially Muslims, is dog-whistle politics. The far-right groups have become emboldened with time to openly mock Muslims and directly attack their faith. In 2016, a group called Block Against Islam gathered in traditional Muslim garbs outside the Saudi Embassy in Prague. They put up a show called “To Mecca with Humour - against Terrorsim and for Democracy” and marched around a portable toilet in an attempt to copy Muslim pilgrims taking rounds of the Holy Kaaba.
The mosque goers in Brno are often harassed by the far-right Workers’ Party of Social Justice (DSSS). The mosque property has been damaged a few times and worshippers have been verbally abused. In one particular incident DSSS members hosted a lingerie fashion show with the aim of teaching "Western values" to Muslims.
Martin Konvicka, head of an Islamophobic initiative staged an imaginary invasion of the Czech Republic by ISIS. During the event, called “The Occupation of Prague - Event in Support of Democracy”, members of the anti-Islamic Martin Konvicka Initiative (IMK) also performed a mock beheading. Again in 2016, Konvicka provoked outrage by setting fire to the Quran in front of the recently vandalised mosque in Brno.
The unabashed display of hatred towards the Muslim minority, with an attempt to dehumanise them, has had a social fallout. The incidents of bullying and spitting on Muslims have been reported. Once a girl was thrown off a bus because another passenger thought she was wearing a headscarf. Several Muslim tourists have complained about receiving angry glares and verbal abuse especially if they are visibly Muslim. Hijabi women are often found at the receiving end.
In light of growing intolerance toward Muslims, a 45-year-old Algerian Muslim, Karim S, migrated from Prague after spending 10 years in the city. He says he became tired of changing perceptions toward Muslims and how a significant number of Czech people completely misunderstood Islam: “This pressure forced me to leave the Czech Republic and move to France. In Skalka [his former neighbourhood], the graffiti and hate messages are everywhere, even in children’s parks.”
NOTE: The article came from TRT World’s Eyes on Discrimination (EOD) Centre, which monitors and reports on offences, hate crimes and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, or other related social categories.