The Phobia of New Things


BRATISLAVA – Slovakia, like its neighbors in Central Europe, has one of the tiniest percentages of Muslims in the entire European Union: an estimated 5,000 in a population of 5.4 million.

Yet that doesn’t mean off-the-beaten-path Slovakia isn’t worried by trends across the Western half of the continent.

It sees France, which this month moved a step closer to banning the full-faced veil; Belgium, which last month did the same; Sweden, still besieged over a cartoon of Mohammad; and Switzerland, which barred minarets six months ago and has one canton trying to forbid the full-body burqa.

Slovakia wants no part of that. The state has effectively capped its Muslim community with a combination of legalistic and bureaucratic hurdles: tight rules in immigration, asylum and residency. The community, meanwhile, says authorities in the capital, Bratislava, have for years blocked it from building the country's first mosque.

It’s not just that post-Communist Slovakia has enough of its own troubles, from economic crisis to inter-ethnic tensions with its two largest minorities. And it’s not necessarily anti-Muslim sentiment, though the post-9/11 era has surely injected a dose of Islamophobia into this deeply Catholic nation.

Mohamad Safwan Hasna has one hunch why. The Syrian-born head of The Islamic Foundation of Slovakia has lived here for 20 years, speaks fluent Slovak, and married a local Muslim convert.

“I have to be diplomatic,” Hasna says with a smile. “The Slovaks are conservative. They’re not interested in others. They don’t feel the need to learn about other cultures. It’s something about the mentality. But the youth are more open-minded and curious.”

Hasna is speaking to me after he sat on a panel discussion about the meaning of religious symbols. (Like the rare head scarf spotted on a Muslim woman in Bratislava.) The chat is part of a broader series of events organized by a local human-rights group, “The Week of New Minorities.” Laco Oravec, of the Milan Simecka Foundation, has another explanation: xenophobia.

It fuels a “high rate of negative attitudes and stereotypes against foreigners and migrants,” he says, even though Slovakia has the second-lowest rate of foreigners of all 27 E.U. members. (Some Slovaks certainly seem surprised to find an American like me living here. Going on four years, too.)

However, as the standard of living crawls toward that of their Western counterparts, Slovakia may inevitably find itself a more and more appealing destination for anyone fleeing persecution or economic hardship back home. Especially, from the East and the South.

The need to “sensitize the majority” is one motivation behind the new-immigrants event, which is now in its fifth year, says Oravec, the Simecka programs director.

New immigrants here are “invisible and weak,” he says. “We wanted to provide space for domestic discussion, mostly to predict the future situation in Slovakia and how we can prepare for that.”

To be fair, the Slovaks have a narrative familiar to small nations. While Hungarians, Germans, Czechs and Jews historically populated the region’s cities, the Slovaks were village folk. After the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, and tumult of two world wars, Slovakia joined the Czech lands behind barbed wire, watchtowers and machine guns. Virtually no movement, in or out.

Slovakia had its minorities, namely ethnic Hungarians and the Roma, more pejoratively known around here as “the Gypsies.” But religious minorities? Catholicism dominates.

While the Czechs rank as one of the world’s most atheistic nations, many of my Slovak university students shared with me how during Communism their grandparents would, on religious holidays, slip off to church in another town or village, to not risk being fingered by local informants as religious-types.

The church, after all, was a perceived threat to Party rule.

From one day to the next, the barbed wire was snipped, borders opened and newly independent Slovakia and Czech Republic were thrust into one of Europe’s great challenges: navigating the shoals of migration. Add to this all that’s happened in the post-9/11 universe. That helps explain Slovakia’s understandable leeriness about being sucked into the Islam-versus-the-West vortex.

Both countries are also members of the NATO military alliance, pitching in with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Plus, Prague has had a couple brushes with terrorism.

In 2000, Saddam Hussein allegedly ordered the bombing of Radio Free Europe’s headquarters in Prague: the U.S. Congress-backed radio network had begun broadcasting into Iraq two years earlier. And in October 2006, Prague police were alerted to possible attacks on a soft target: the Jewish community.

After the Swiss banned construction of minarets last year, a December poll out here suggested that if put to a referendum, 78 percent of Czechs and 70 percent of Slovaks would vote against minarets, with another 54 and 56 percent, respectively, also willing to ban mosques.

The Czech Republic, at least, has made its 10,000 to 12,000 Muslims feel just a bit more welcome: it allowed the first mosque to be built in 1998, in the second-largest city, Brno, and the second in Prague the following year. To this day, though, no minaret for either.

I taught two semesters in Brno, at Masaryk University. One of my journalism students, Martina, wanted to explore the local Muslim community, in a feature story for my class. I just reviewed what she wrote and was reminded of one interesting detail she learned: a majority of the small handful of Czechs who convert to Islam are actually women. (The same is said to be true in Slovakia.)

Martina also produced some colorful quotes.

When she asked the community’s leader to analyze why more women than Czech men converted, he replied with a laugh, “The Muslim men are good-looking, good-smelling and don’t even drink. I understand for many Czech women, this is like a dream.”

A Czech female convert lent credence.

“Islam first spoke to me when a Muslim doctor came to the hospital where I worked as a nurse,” she said. “He was so different from other men: so cultivated, proud and high-principled.”

As for the Slovak public, long conditioned by nasty dictatorship to never challenge authority, the lingering tendency is to keep the head down, and acquiesce to rulers and their policies.

Sitting beside Hasna on the panel was a Slovak religion and ethics teacher, Dusan Jaura. He put it this way: “We’re like a child who thinks father is the best, and we don’t question what he does.”

Afterward, he traced for me the link to immigration and asylum policy.

“While Europe has been dealing with these issues for years, even decades, we have to run through these things in months,” says Jaura, 40, who teaches at a bilingual high school in Bratislava. “We’re trying to postpone them and go as slowly as possible.”

Slovaks may scoff at the notion of their modest country as an attractive “target,” but the consensus is that the coming years will see more pressure on Slovakia to pry its doors open wider.

If this unfolds, Jaura says he’s optimistic because of the younger generation – like his English-speaking students, who travel more easily among foreign cultures.

It’s also significant that a few Slovak groups like Simecka are even thinking about these things.

“My hope is that this phobia of new things will be reduced,” says Jaura. “And, that we’ll have greater tolerance for those who are not like us.”