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REPORTING ON DIVERSITY

Muslim community believes, even without mosque

EVEN AS an informal survey on Bratislava’s streets finds indifference toward Muslims as the predominant attitude, one nonetheless gets the impression that there is an underlying sense of fear.“The less we know about them, the more we are afraid,” said Alena Demianová, 47, an accountant.

EVEN AS an informal survey on Bratislava’s streets finds indifference toward Muslims as the predominant attitude, one nonetheless gets the impression that there is an underlying sense of fear.
“The less we know about them, the more we are afraid,” said Alena Demianová, 47, an accountant.

There are between 4,000 and 5,000 Muslims living in Slovakia, according to estimates of the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia, but the country remains the only European Union member state without a single mosque. It is difficult to determine the exact number, since Islam is not registered by the state as a recognised religion in Slovakia. The Muslim community here includes both foreign and domestic believers. Some immigrated here, many came to the former Czechoslovakia as part of study exchange programmes, and stayed on and now do business here. One such person is Mohamad Safwan Hasna, 43, the head of the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia and a translator.

“We finished studies here and were not members of General Union of Muslim Students in Slovakia anymore, so we decided to establish a new organisation,” he said.

The foundation was formed in 1999 and in 2009 the Cordoba Centre for Intercultural Dialogue – generally considered to be the central Islamic institution in Slovakia – opened in Bratislava. The foundation’s activities include common prayers, exhibitions and educational courses about Islam. It publishes a newsletter, hosts programmes for children and takes collections for the poor.

Hasna came from Syria to study here in 1991 and married a Slovak woman who converted to Islam before they met. He is accustomed to living among diverse religious communities as he grew up in a part of Syria where many Christians lived.

“Our house was surrounded by Christians, but we didn’t talk about religion,” he said, speaking from his Cordoba Centre office, surrounded by books in Arabic. “Nobody forbade me to play with other kids. We had the same language, same history, same desires – religion wasn’t important.”

Hasna says he tries to follow all main rules of Islam. He has made a pilgrimage to Mecca several times and tries to pray five times a day. On Fridays local Muslims – Arabs, Albanians, Bosnians and Slovaks – come to the Cordoba Centre to pray together.

“We used to meet with other Muslims, mostly during Ramadan, [and] every evening we have meetings and prayers together,” Hasna said.

One thing which worries Hasna is the continued failure of the state to recognise Islam as an official religion. In 2007, the Slovak parliament changed the law so that at least 20,000 members are required for recognition. This is impossible for a Muslim community of 5,000 people.

“The law has begun to be misused by various speculative organisations,” Ján Podmanický, an MP for the Smer party and one of submitters of the new law, told The Slovak Spectator.

Podmanický refers to some, including onetime Smer coalition partner the Slovak National Party, who have used the law to stoke tension within the Muslim community. Hasna is convinced that the law was targeting Muslims.

In the neighbouring Czech Republic, just 300 members are enough to constitute a religious community. There are 34 registered religious communities, as compared to 18 in Slovakia. Some of these 18 religious communities were automatically registered after the formation of independent Slovakia, but 13 of them would not meet the new rules since they have fewer than 20,000 members, according to the 2011 census.

Podmanický is convinced that since freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution, no one can prevent Muslims from practicing their faith.

“But it’s not the role of the Slovak Republic to provide state support and funding of religion which has no mass support of the population and is also not a traditional religion in Slovakia,” Podmanický said.

State recognition can help promote their activities and ensure legal protection, but a feeling of acceptance by Slovak society is also important for Muslims.

“We will survive, but it could improve our position in the eyes of Slovaks,” Hasna said. “I suppose that we are well integrated, so I don’t see the point of this rejection.”

Native Slovak Muslims

It is not only foreigners who take part in the Cordoba Centre’s Friday prayers. One Slovak who converted to Islam is Jozef Lenč.

“I’ve found belief by myself,” said Lenč, 34, a political science teacher at university, who converted to Islam when he was 25.

“When I was visiting my grandmother, I used to go to a Catholic church, but I missed something, especially from the historical point of view. Christian dogmas were accepted later, step by step, with the strong involvement of politics and other interests.”

Lenč found a book about Islam and tried to study more about it. He also wanted to study in an Arab country, but he stayed here.

“I knew a lot about Islam, I already tried fasting during Ramadan, so it was just a small step to become a Muslim,” said Lenč, mentioning that his family and friends did not have a problem accepting it. “My mother even stopped cooking pork when I come for lunch.”

Lenč admits that the general opinion of Muslims is largely negative in Slovakia.

“People can’t understand how Islam has freed me,” Lenč said. “I really don’t have any addictions. I don’t drink.”

Among the most likely explanations for a negative image of Islam in Slovakia is a lack of knowledge and the generally skewed perception of Islam presented in the media. Islamic fundamentalists are often shown on the news referring to the Koran when trying to excuse their acts of terror. Lenč, in contrast, sees the Koran as a manual to life.

“It is like when you buy a washing machine and you get manual with it – and whether you will break it down in a week or you will wash only white clothes there, because pages are white, it’s entirely up to you. Reading a manual is your own responsibility,” he said.

Fight to build a mosque

Slovakia is the only European country without a single mosque. The Islamic Foundation has tried to obtain a permit to build a mosque in Bratislava, but had its application rejected. Hasna has since given up the fight, although the foundation still owns the land on which it wanted to build one outside the city centre in Patrónka.

“It would be nice if there was one mosque in Bratislava,” said Azim Farhadi, a 39-year-old native of Afghanistan. “It is fine to have three places to pray, but I would prefer unity.”

Farhadi came to Slovakia nearly 16 years ago as a political refugee. After getting asylum, he started to learn Slovak and after a few years studied journalism in Bratislava. Even though he is a Muslim, he embraces some Christian traditions.

“I love Christmas – it’s snowing, I like historical movies. During Christmas I am a bigger Christian than my neighbour,” Farhadi said with smile.

Farhadi grew up in Afganistan in a Muslim family, but like Hasna, had ample experience with other cultures and religions.

“Our neighbour in Kabul, a wife of a diplomat, was from Czechoslovakia, so we knew something about this country and also about other religions,” he said.

Although Farhadi has not had a lot of bad experiences personally, he said that mainly older people are afraid of Islam.

“Older people are not as informed as younger ones; they acquire information mostly from the media,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a shame what the Slovak media is doing.”

Farhadi has produced a programme about the integration of foreigners for Slovak television. He cited his fellow journalists’ choice of the word Islamist to refer to religious extremists. In the eyes of the public, the word becomes closely associated with Islam itself.

Muslims must be invisible

Elena Gallová Kriglerová, director of the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture (CVEK) in Bratislava, agreed with Farhadi’s criticism of the media.

“The media is creating a sense of fear out of Islam,” she said. “Usually they don’t do it consciously, but the prejudice of journalists plays a significant role here.”

CVEK conducted several surveys about the opinion of Slovaks on minorities and foreigners. Nearly 70 percent of respondents somewhat or altogether disapproved of the state allowing Muslims to practice their faith. Half agreed that Islamic religious and cultural centres in Slovakia should not be permitted.

“People are afraid that if we’ll allow a mosque here, Muslims will start to move here in droves, then they will try to turn us to Islam and they will dominate here,” Kriglerová said.

Kriglerová attributes some of the prejudice to history – during communism Slovaks were not used to foreigners and diversity – but also adds that strong Christian conservatism may also be one of the reasons.

“One hundred years ago, under the Bratislava Castle, you could find the Catholic St Martin’s Cathedral, a Jewish synagogue, the Orthodox Church and there was a mosque as well – next to each other,” she said. “Today only Catholic and Orthodox churches remain on that place.”

She also notes that the failure of the state to recognise Islam as an official religion must result in the community feeling rejected and disregarded by Slovak society.

“They must practice their religion so that it is not visible,” Kriglerová said.

The articles included in the “Reporting on Diversity” supplement were created by authors enrolled in the “Reporting on Diversity” programme organised by The Slovak Spectator in cooperation with the Journalism Department at Comenius University and with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Bratislava. The programme seeks to train young journalists and journalism students for covering ethnicity, gender, race and religious issues, as well as other phenomena related to various communities and the challenges they face in Slovakia. The articles were prepared in line with strict journalistic ethical and reporting standards.

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