Czechs grapple with Islam and Syria refugees | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.01.2015
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Czechs grapple with Islam and Syria refugees

The Charlie Hebdo killings have cast a long shadow over Europe, intensifying debates over the integration of Muslim communities and also the issue of providing asylum to refugees.

The Czech Republic, for example, has a tiny Muslim population, yet it's seen a sharp rise in anti-Islam sentiments in recent months.

There's already been a debate over whether to accept 15 Syrian refugee children who need urgent medical assistance. But some in Europe want EU countries to share the burden of Syrian refugees more equally.

The French, German and Italian interior ministers recently suggested the 28 EU members accept 100,000 more Syrian refugees, divided up according to national quotas that would be drawn up in Brussels.

That proposal has caused considerable alarm in Prague, which says it would pose a serious security risk to the Czech Republic.

15 injured kids

“At the moment we're talking about 15 injured children,” Interior Minister Milan Chovanec told the online daily iDNES this week, adding that with family members accompanying them the total number would be around 70.

EU Home Affairs Council in Brussels 05.12.2014 Thomas de Maiziere

The Czech interior minister (left) speaking with his German counterpart, Thomas de Maiziere

On Wednesday morning the cabinet decided unanimously to accept 15 refugee children, who are currently being treated in Jordan.

“The children will be chosen according to how well we think they'll be able to integrate into Czech society, for example what religion they are,” Chovanec said.

“As for the adults who accompany them – all of them will undergo security screening, so we don't create a problem for ourselves here in the Czech Republic,” he went on.

“What we're against is the mandatory quotas being talked about in the European Union. We're against being required to accept 1,000 refugees on our territory,” Minister Chovanec told iDNES, arguing that the Czech Republic simply didn't have the capacity to accept them.

Refugees a drop in the ocean

The country currently has 700 places in its asylum centres, and some 3,000 people – 0.03% of the population of 10.5 million – hold refugee status. The Czechs say they would prefer to provide logistical and material help to countries bordering Syria that are struggling to cope with large numbers of refugees.

“Our ministers have probably forgotten about the time when it was Czechs who needed asylum,” Petr Honzejk, a commentator for Hospodarske noviny, told DW.

“What if the governments of Austria, Germany or the United States had behaved in the 70s and 80s in the same way as the Czech government is behaving today? What if they'd accepted just 15 Czech families fleeing the Communist regime and then said – OK, that's enough?” he asked.

“The argument that these refugees could import Middle Eastern terrorism to the Czech Republic is flawed. Large numbers of refugees fleeing Syria are fleeing from the same murderers who committed the crimes in Paris. The whole social and political debate in this country is taking a dangerous turn,” Honzejk told DW. And Petr Honzejk is not alone.

Moral obligation to help

“I'm convinced the Czech Republic has a moral obligation to accept Syrian refugees,” Dr Bronislav Ostransky, from the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, told DW.

“Of course we shouldn't underestimate the security risk. But I don't think accepting a couple of injured Syrian children with their families – who would be screened by the Czech security forces – represents a threat to us,” he went on.

“What I am totally against is this idea – mooted by Czech politicians – that these refugees should be selected according to their religion,” Dr Ostransky told DW.

So far the Czech Republic – with a permanent Muslim population barely numbering 3,000 - has seen no large scale protests against Islam. But that could change.

‘Walk your pigs in front of mosques'

Recently a populist half-Czech half-Japanese politician named Tomio Okamura called on Czechs not to buy kebabs and to walk their dogs and even pigs (if they had any) in front of mosques.

That call was ignored, and Mr Okamura ridiculed on social media. But a Facebook group called ‘Islam v Ceske Republice Nechceme' (We Don't Want Islam in the Czech Republic) has now garnered over 100,000 likes, and on Friday the group will hold a demonstration in front of Prague Castle.

The man who occupies that castle – Czech President Milos Zeman – is himself known for his hostile comments on Islam.

‘Moderate Muslims? No such thing'

In 2011 – while still in temporary political retirement – he told a security conference at the Czech Foreign Ministry that NATO's enemy was ‘an anti-civilization stretching from North Africa to Indonesia, made up of approximately two billion people, partly financed by drugs, partly financed by oil.'

Flash-Galerei Weihnachten in Europa Prag im Winter

In the same year, Mr Zeman told the magazine Reflex that ‘the notion of a moderate Muslim is as much of a contradiction in terms as a moderate Nazi'.

The handful of Czech Muslims are probably immune to such comments by now; though some still strive to present a different view of Islam.

Two truths

“During the events of 1968, Czech refugees were gradually taken in throughout the world, by various countries, including Syria, and no-one asked them what religion they were,” said Dr Charif Bahbouh, a Syrian who's lived in this country for 55 years. Dr Bahbouh runs a successful publishing business called Ibn Rushd.

“By the way – my publishing house is named after the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes),” he told DW.

“Ibn Rushd was a famous European, who wrote in Arabic, who was persecuted for trying to put forward the idea that two truths could live side by side,” he went on.

“It's just as true today. It's necessary to understand each other and tolerate each other's opinions. We live on one planet.”

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