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Islamophobia is the fear of the unknown

Czech people have almost no experience with Islam.

Zaina Khammash.

Zaina Khammash is studying management information systems back home in Jordan. Within the Erasmus program, she came to study one semester at the Faculty of Economics and Administration of Masaryk University. She chose Brno, because she wanted to go somewhere else than most other students, for whom the first choice is usually Germany or France. But she has visited both these countries so she can compare how people react to her.

She wears a hijab, a scarf that Muslim women use to cover their hair, neck and chest. "People look at me a lot here, but I understand. It is something new and very different, because to meet a Muslim woman wearing a hijab is indeed very rare in the Czech Republic ," says Zaina.

Although her words are supported by statistics as well as experts, anti-Muslim feelings have been on the rise in recent years. This became apparent, among other things, due to an argument over wearing a hijab, when more than a year ago, a student from Somalia left a nursing school, because she was not allowed to wear her scarf during lessons. She turned to the ombudsman Anna Šabatová who described the school's policy as indirectly discriminating. Her statement is supported by other experts as well, who also point out that prohibiting a head scarf as an expression of religious believes has no basis in the Czech legislation. However, comments of Ms. Šabatová sparked strong and rather negative reactions among the public and some politicians.

Czechs are afraid of things they do not know
According to Miloš Mendel, a scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies, the Czech Republic is unprecedented among the EU countries in this respect. It is interesting that at the same time, Iceland and the Czech Republic have historically had barely any experience with Islam compared to other European countries.

"According to various indicators, it is here specifically that the Islamophobic atmosphere is the most rooted. Perhaps this is caused by a certain kind of Central European provincial thinking and our conservative reluctance to look beyond the ridges of our border mountains. And some role is certainly played by us subconsciously searching for someone to blame for all our economic difficulties," says Mendel, who works at the Department for the Study of Religions at the Faculty of Arts.

According to him, approximately two and half thousand practicing Muslims, including Czech converts, live in the Czech Republic. "No one has ever proven that there was a security risk for our state from their part," claims Mendel.

During a December discussion organized by the festival Week of Human Rights at the Faculty of Social Studies, founder of the project Klára Popovová pointed out that according to unofficial estimations, ten to twenty thousands of Muslims live in the Czech Republic, and although they are often referred to as a community, they come from approximately seventy different countries and various social strata, hence the group is extremely fragmented.

Nevertheless, some of the people who participated in the discussion perceives immigrants as a huge risk. They fear that relenting in such matters as wearing a head scarf can gradually lead to radical Islamists emerging here as well. They are also afraid of newly arriving Muslims and even fear that there might be a risk that they will start to democratically push through matters that will eventually lead to infringements of human rights.

Ms. Popovová and other experts were disproving this. Her main arguments were the mentioned fragmented nature of the group of Muslims living in the Czech Republic and the fact that our country has a very strict immigration policy. According to Mendel, such fears are completely groundless. "So far, it has never happened anywhere in Europe that Muslims or radical fundamentalists have created a political party or movement that would get into the Parliament. And it is not even a real prospect, " points out Mendel.

But many people see a risk also in relation to the fight against the radical organization Islamic State that is active in some parts of Iraq and Syria and which has been joined by European Muslims as well. Mendel admits that what is happening in Syria and Iraq should not be underestimated.

“There are indeed some safety hazard for European countries where hundreds of 'international' fighters come from, who have all kinds of motives for joining the Islamic State. However, the structure of this group is such a new phenomenon that for now, we are unable to objectively analyze it," says Mendel.

Education will help only partially
The growing hostility of Czechs towards Islam inspired the religious studies scholar Milan Fujda to choose the topic of Education and Fear of Islam for his workshop during the Week of Teaching at the Faculty of Arts. Within the project Center for Religions and Multicultural Education (CERME), he has been dealing with the issues of multi-cultural education for several years. “In the year-round CERME course for teachers, we did not want to simply introduce different religions and their bases, because that would only support creation of new stereotypes," says the scholar who sees the problem, among other things, in the classical representation of religions.

"When you look at Islamophobic servers or listen to such debates, people often boast about their knowledge of the Qur'an and claim that Islam is inherently violent. But this is obviously a complete non-sense. People in Muslim countries most often simply want to have a normal life, just like us, but due to some historical coincidences, they also happen to go to Mosques while we are more likely to go to church," says Fujda.

The strong islamophobia in the Czech Republic remains a mystery to him. “A very important factor is the lack of experience with Islam. There might also be some connection to our mentality from the Communist era when nobody was allowed to differ in any way. As a consequence, we have troubles dealing with blatant differences," suggests Fujda. Besides, he believes that negative attitudes towards Muslims are also fueled by media where Muslims are mostly presented only in connection with terrorism.

He emphasized that the stereotypical image of Islam as a violent religion which we must fear and from which we must defend democracy results from selective work with religious texts. Fundamentalists deal with the texts in a similar way.

"For example in Germany, many people converted to Islam through the initiative Read!, where the idea was offering Qur'ans to random passers-by. They read it and interpret it as they liked. But the established tradition (in Arab countries as well as in Europe or anywhere else) is not only the text, but also the collectively shared experience of many centuries which includes ways to bypass some practically problematic regulations, because life is more complex than what can be once and for all captured in a single piece of writing. Therefore, such interpretations that ignore centuries of experience may very well lead to a radical approach to a specific faith in any tradition, whether you are its supporter or its opponent," says the scholar.

"The emphasis on the authoritative text is what Islamophobes and radical promoters of Islam agree on. Fortunately, such fundamentalist attitude towards sacred texts is in principle rather marginal in any society. "Education might help to change these stereotypes. "The most efficient way to guide children towards more multicultural mindset and tolerance is simply to have representatives of different cultures and religions in the classrooms. Children sort out the differences among each other by themselves," suggests Fujda.

But such a scenario is not realistic. According to Fujda, more emphasis should be places on the importance of subjects such as social sciences, in which students should learn more about the principles of law, so that they understand that people should not be judged simply based on the fact that they wear scarves. Students should also learn about how media function so that they understand that it is not advisable to believe everything they read and that it might be a good idea to critically assess the presented information.

“It is also important to talk with students about what is happening in everyday interactions between people and during massive negotiations as well as about how patterns of thinking and decision-making in normal situations are shaped. We should help them cultivate the ability of sociological reading of other people's behavior. We all have this ability, since we are all “social animals". At the same time, students should be guided to really think of others as humans, not as abnormally acting monsters," points out Fujda.

Negative attitudes towards Muslims are also fueled by media where they are mostly presented only in connection with terrorism.

He adds that besides training Southern-Moravian teachers, the center for religious studies also published a study book and materials for teachers that should provide guidance on how to deal with the topic of multicultural education. "The materials also include newspaper articles and data with which the teachers can work in lessons," says Fujda.

However, he also believes that education is only one link in a long chain of means that could possibly lead to eliminating Islamophobia. For example, the Czech Republic has strong segregation policies in the schooling system and due to a certain reluctance to deal with social problems of some groups of people, various ghettos emerge. “If a group of people is segregated in this way, the majority can then easily create distorted views of the community based only on some supposedly authentic stories. But that is already concerning stereotypes about groups of Czech population other than Muslims," adds Fujda.

To convince people about the contrary when most Czechs consider Islam dangerous is rather hard according to Zaina Khammash as well. “Not only Europeans assume that Muslims are terrorists. Much of this is caused by media, where terrorists claim that they represent Islam. But that is not true at all," emphasizes the Jordanian student. She added that in order to know what the majority of a certain nation or religion is like, you would have to know the whole nation or religion.