The Guest Blog

Guest post by Michael Colborne, a Canadian journalist based in Prague who covers all things central and eastern Europe. He tweets at @ColborneMichael.


It’s not easy being a Muslim in Slovakia.


Never mind that there are only 5,000 of them in the entire country of 5.5 million people.


Never mind that they don’t even have an official mosque anywhere in the country – Slovakia’s the only European Union country that doesn’t – or that many of those Muslims have lived, studied and worked in Slovakia for years.


Slovakia’s politicians, including the man at the very top, have made it clear that Muslims are public enemy number one. Prime Minister Robert Fico, a man re-elected last year despite being mired in a series of scandals, jumped on the anti-Muslim train in the wake of the European refugee crisis in 2015.


“Islam has no place in Slovakia,” he said after being elected in May 2016.


In the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, Fico flat-out stated that his government was “monitoring every single Muslim currently present in the territory of Slovakia.” Later in 2016 he told journalists that one of his three fundamentally unchangeable positions was his stance “against the emergence of a united Muslim community in Slovakia.”


Of course, it’s not just Fico. The far-right People’s Party, led by accused neo-Nazi Marian Kotleba, has made harsh Islamophobic rhetoric a key part of its message – rhetoric that’s helped him and his party become the third-most popular party in the country, and the most popular among Slovakia’s youth.


For Kotleba and friends, Muslims are “scum” and people “who are, so to say, of an extremely explosive nature.”


“The problem is that Islam is more than just a religion,” one of Kotleba’s MPs, Natalia Grausova, once said. “It is a cruel, disgusting and inhuman political system.”


“Every normal European – Christian or atheist – should fear this satanic-pedophile creation of the devil, which is the religion of Islam” said Stanislav Mizik, another People’s Party MP.


But it’s become more than just words for some of Slovakia’s Muslims.


In June, after a gathering of far-right groups held a protest against immigration and the “Islamization of Europe” in central Bratislava, several far-right protesters spotted an Arab family with children outside the main train station, and attacked them with stones and bottles.


One of the attackers was Milan Mazurek, an MP of Kotleba’s People’s Party.


This wasn’t an isolated incident. Mohamad Safwan Hasna, the Chairman of Islamic Foundation in Slovakia, told me last month about several other incidents, including when a gang of youth barged into a Turkish restaurant in Piestany and told the Arab owners “we’ll get rid of you” and “we’ll kill you all.”


Hasna also told me about a Somali woman in Bratislava who was assaulted while getting on a tram – the attackers yelling words like “terrorist,” “black” and “dirty” – and, in a separate incident, was strangled by her headscarf in a tram full of people.


According to Hasna, no one helped her.


Anti-Muslim sentiment, according to Jana Kadlecikova, a researcher at the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture in Bratislava, isn’t exactly unpopular in Slovakia. Results of recent surveys with high school students, says Kadlecikova, show that they have the more negative attitudes towards migrants and Muslims than any other minority, and a recent Eurobarometer survey show that fewer than one in three Slovaks think their country should help refugees, one of the lowest figures in the European Union.


What drives attitudes like these? I’d argue, above all else, it’s fear. As Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has suggested, many in central and eastern Europe fear multiculturalism, and associate it with the chaos and conflict of the 1930s and 40s. Others fear that migration means speeding up the projected population declines many of these countries are expected to experience over the next few decades. Many seem to fear that all Muslims are the same – jihadists and terrorists – and that the only reason they’re coming to their country is to do to them what they see them do on TV.


And, as is too often the case, politicians are helping stoke these fears. No one is seriously suggesting Slovakia take in hundreds of thousands of Muslims, as Fico once suggested was possible. Even the EU deal in 2015 to relocate 140,000 asylum seekers across the EU had allocated only 1,000 to Slovakia – who ended up only taking in 16 and then, along with Hungary, took the entire deal to court.


None of this, though, is any reason for western Europeans (or Canadians, like me) to look down our noses at eastern Europeans like they’re some backwards, backwoods people. These same fears and prejudices run rampant in our own countries – after all, in January six Muslims were killed in a mosque in my tolerant, “sunny ways” home country, not Slovakia.


But Slovakia’s politicians remind us of what seems to have become a universal truth for governments in the 21st century: it’s all too easy to prey on people’s fear of a group that’s quite literally unknown to them. It’s all too easy to essentialize an entire group of 1.8 billion people, equate each and every one with a threat against the nation and position yourself as the only one who can protect you and your family from a phantom menace – all while hoping you forget about everything else that’s going on in the country.


But it doesn’t matter how phantom the menace may be. Real people, like the Arab family outside the train station or the Somali woman on the tram, are the ones who suffer.


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