THE SLOVAK Spectator met with Mohamad Safwan Hasna, head of the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia, on February 20 to discuss the problems of the 5,000 Muslims living in Slovakia and the challenges facing the millions of followers of Islam across Europe.

Hasna came to the former Czechoslovakia some 12 years ago to study medicine and, aside from heading the Islamic organisation, also works as a judicial translator. His wife is among the roughly 150 Slovaks who are known to have converted to Islam.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why does a Slovak turn to Islam?

Mohamad Safwan Hasna (MSH): Mostly problems with dogma, problems with things such as the holy trinity and confessions.

TSS: Are they usually people who were Christians before?

MSH: You could say that. They are mostly people who belonged to some church before.

TSS: What do most Muslims living in Slovakia do?

MSH: They are usually students or entrepreneurs. You have to differentiate between the local Muslim community and the communities in Western Europe. There it's mostly [made up of] workers, because of different historical circumstances. In Slovakia, it's mostly [made up of] educated people. The difference is huge.

TSS: How does Slovak society perceive Muslims?

MSH: It varies, but mostly neutrally - neither positively, nor negatively.

TSS: What could upset that balance?

MSH: Something could lead to a short-term loss of that neutrality if, God forbid, there was some attack that was attributed to Muslims. But everything would eventually turn for the better.

TSS: Until now, Slovaks have never been directly affected by terrorist attacks. Could their attitudes change if they themselves or Slovak soldiers in Iraq became victims?

MSH: I can't tell you what the reaction [to an attack on Slovak troops] in Iraq would be. But that's a little different from 9/11 and people see it that way.

TSS: What role has the Slovak media played in forming citizens' opinions about Muslims?

MSH: I'm very disappointed in them. In most cases their reporting is very biased, one-sided, and subjective. Unfortunately, they don't try to present an accurate picture of things - they're often unwilling to go deeper and analyse. They don't draw a thick line between Islam and the regrettable acts of some individuals and show that the religion is not responsible.

TSS: Are they being superficial or is it intentional?

MSH:Both can be true. The problem of the entire journalistic community in Slovakia is that a lot of information comes second-hand. There are some good reports, but that's perhaps 10 percent. This can only cause tension and increase intolerance. The media have a great responsibility, but they don't behave accordingly.

TSS: The EU is a hot topic in Slovakia today. If Turkey gets to join the union, will it have an impact on the situation of Muslims in Europe?

MSH:Definitely: It would improve the situation of Muslims. But the question is whether it will get in. I don't want to make predictions, but in the next 20 years, Turkey will not be able to join.

TSS: Why?

MSH: One of the reasons could be religion. Then there is the threat of a military regime overthrowing the democratic government, which could happen at any time. There is the problem with the Kurds. There are several issues.

TSS: Many European politicians keep talking mainly about religion.

MSH: European analysts, politicians, and journalists divide over the issue of Turkey into two main groups. There are the pragmatics and then there are radicals. It is good that they express their views. I think Turkey doesn't have all the European traits; it doesn't belong to Europe with all its body, soul, and history. So critics are right in saying that history, values, and developments [between Europe and Turkey] are different.

TSS: Do you think the process of democratisation would help the Islamic world?

MSH: When it comes to authoritarian regimes, it certainly would. But not when it comes to Islam itself. The foundations and basic pillars will never change. They did not change in Christianity or Judaism; from the perspective of the faithful, those things don't change.

TSS: Are most Muslim communities in Europe isolated from the majority population?

MSH: It's hard to generalise. In Sweden, where there are around 300,000 Muslims, integration is going in the right direction. We are definitely against negative assimilation. We want positive integration; we want to introduce the good elements [of our culture] that are acceptable [for the local population] into this place. Muslims who live and have families here should be loyal [to this country]. I have no problem with civic identity. Religion is a different matter. In that aspect, we should respect ourselves.

TSS: What are the greatest problems Muslims living in Slovakia face today?

MSH: The construction of an Islamic cultural and educational centre in Bratislava's Old Town is the greatest problem at the moment. In the past, the municipality was unwilling to approve its construction. We are currently involved in negotiations again and I hope it will get better.

TSS: Is it because the Old Town is in the hands of Christian parties?

MSH: It is because of the unwillingness of the former Old Town mayor [Andrej Ďurkovský, a member of the Christian Democratic Movement elected Bratislava's mayor in the 2002 municipal elections].

TSS: What is the problem?

MSH: Some people are unwilling to share space with someone else and some people don't want anything different here. But I don't think that it reflects the attitudes of the majority of the population. They are neutral, similar [to other countries] elsewhere.

Sure, there is some prejudice. But it is not always reflected in deeds. After the tragic events of 9/11 there were some verbal insults. Luckily, no one was physically attacked.

And it needs to be stressed that we don't know who was behind [the 9/11 attacks]. If they were followers of Islam, then it was a mistake, because Islam doesn't allow the unjustified use of force. That's the result of an incorrect interpretation of religious texts. But I don't know, I have not yet seen totally reliable evidence [that Muslims were behind the attacks].

TSS: Are you against all violence?

MSH: No, only against the unjustified use of violence.

TSS: Where's the line between what's justified and what's not?

MSH: That's very questionable. I can't say in general. Even Christianity or Judaism or any other ideology acknowledges that force has to be used for self-defence.

TSS: You say that it's not certain that Muslims were behind the 9/11 terrorist acts. What other possibilities are there?

MSH: I don't know; I don't have a theory. It could have been a conspiracy, or then again it could not be. I'm not 100 percent certain that Arabs were there.

TSS: But what alternative explanations are there?

MSH: Admittedly, this one appears to be most probable. But I'm telling you what I feel. It really is a problem to verify it. If they were really there, it was a huge mistake. It is unparalleled. They privatised Islam and acted on its behalf, as though they represented all Muslims. This is not being emphasised in the media - that they only represented themselves and not [all of] us. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and the overwhelming majority is opposed to such behaviour.

TSS: What sort of conspiracy are we talking about, a US conspiracy to justify its actions against the Muslim world?

MSH: I don't know. Honestly, I have no specific theory. But there are many people that have doubts. Even throughout the world.

TSS: How do you feel about the official Slovak position on Iraq and Slovakia's clear support for US policies?

MSH: I would have welcomed a more conservative approach. I would have liked to see Slovakia on the side of the "old Europe", which had a more sober attitude to what was going on in Iraq. It is not a fortunate solution that the US invaded [Iraq]. Now they have enormous problems. God knows when it will all end. The position of Germany and France, and in fact most countries of the world, was, in my opinion, right.

On the other hand it needs to be said that Saddam Hussein was a dictator who tormented his people and silenced opponents and had done a lot of harm in Iraq. That cannot be denied.

TSS: Do you think Slovakia's foreign policy alienated the local Muslim community?

MSH: It's hard to judge, because I don't know the opinions of all. I don't think they were thrilled by this attitude.

TSS: A lot of effort is being put into the fight against terrorism, which is, in the eyes of Europeans, connected with Islam. Have you experienced any increase in security attention towards members of the Muslim community?

MSH: No, we have not, but I suppose it exists. There were no specific cases.

TSS: Will the conflict between Islam and Christianity intensify?

MSH: Religion is never the problem. The problem lies mainly in economy and geopolitics. Naturally, religion is exploited in these struggles, because it has great motivational strength.

TSS: But if we look at the dispute over whether girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in schools, which they have in France, that's hardly a matter of economy or geopolitics.

MSH: In this one case it isn't. That's a desperate attempt by some French to preserve their identity at the expense of religious rights and freedoms. The French secularism is based on the foundations that formed it; there is religious sentiment somewhere behind it. It's hard to get rid of and it only transforms into other forms. What the French did will lead to the increased isolation of Muslims.

TSS: What activities is your organisation involved in?

MSH: There are many things, from organising common prayers, and events, through exhibitions and seminars, to charity. We've contributed to the victims of floods and visited refugee camps to try to deliver food and clothing there. We try to present Slovakia in the Islamic world.

TSS: From what sources are you financed?

MSH: Mainly from the contributions of members and entrepreneurs. We don't accept finances from any governments, in order to keep our independence.