Fighting for Ethnic and Religious Tolerance in Central Europe: Muneeb’s Story

Muslim in faith, Czech at heart: Muneeb leads fellow participants from the Czech Republic and Slovakia at a recent NDI gathering on joint responses to growing religious and ethnic intolerance  

Muneeb has a quiet reserve that gives way to a beaming smile when you ask him about his work and life. A long-time resident of Brno, the capital of the Moravian region of the Czech Republic, Muneeb’s English is halting, so he is quick to turn to Czech, his everyday language for three decades. Muneeb is married, a father, and runs the Czech Center for Muslim Communities. He reserves his native Arabic for family and spiritual matters.

For Muneeb and other longtime residents of Muslim faith—many if not most Czech citizens—the refugee crisis has lifted the curtain on some unpleasant realities. The unprecedented wave of humanity from the greater Middle East has elicited sympathy and aid from many quarters of Czech society. But many other express fear about what the presence of foreigners means for their safety and identity—although few if any refugees have actually set foot on Czech soil, much less settled there.

The growing hostility is not reserved for refugees. In the Czech Republic and neighboring Slovakia, nativist and populist rhetoric denigrating Islam and its adherents is taking on a shrill tone, amplified in the media, promoted by far-right politicians, and often hateful, uninformed, and deliberately misleading. On occasion such rhetoric is uttered by government officials, giving rise to concerns that ethical---not to mention constitutional--principles of equal protection, regardless of race, confession, and ethnicity, are somehow negotiable.

Although the Czech Republic and Slovakia are relatively small countries, at 10 million and five million respectively, their societies are a rich, diverse kaleidoscope of nationalities and religions: Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africans who profess Islamic and Christian faiths, Orthodox and Catholic Ukrainians, and Buddhist and Confucian Vietnamese, among multitudes of others coming Western Europe and North and South America.

Some are refugees who didn’t necessarily choose either country. Others are migrants who decidedly did, attracted by economic opportunity and proximity to larger immigrant communities next door in Austria and Germany.

Still others, like Muneeb, showed up a long time ago, during the communist era, when then-Czechoslovakia hosted university and post-graduate students from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Muneeb came to Brno from his native Baghdad in the mid-1980s to train as an aeronautical engineer. He arrived in communist Czechoslovakia, went through the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Velvet Divorce of 1992, the building of a new democracy and free-market economy, membership in NATO and the European Union, the financial crash of 2008, and the political and social ferment that has ensued since. He set down roots, married a Bosnian refugee, and is raising his children. There isn’t much of anything that someone of Czech nationality has experienced in 30 years that Muneeb hasn’t. When the jokes start flying, Muneeb’s right in there, mixing it up in the Czechs’ particular brew of winking irreverence.

Muneeb does quite a bit of press these days, given the political turmoil surrounding migrants and Islam. Already quite well known, his public profile has grown as he communicates to ordinary Czechs about how the Islamic community adds to their society, rather than tears it down.

For Muneeb, the ideal is to combine personal identity and social integration, thereby serving up new role models who embrace Muslim identity and Czech society as one and indivisible. It’s what he feels about himself.

The onslaught of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Islamic prejudice is jarring to Muneeb, as keenly felt as are his abiding attachments to his home. Muneeb will not take the bus, concerned about vigilantes, although his children, sporting the latest gadgetry and preoccupations of teenagers the world over, jump on and off public transport with practiced nonchalance. Normalcy comes and goes. Returning from abroad, Muneeb and his family routinely face hours of inspection and questioning at airport customs, their well-worn Czech passports put to the side. The bank account of his mosque is suddenly suspended, and no explanation is given.

Muneeb recently traveled to Bratislava to join a group of leaders representing religious and ethnic minority groups in the Czech Republic and Slovakia at an event organized by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), with support from the U.S. State Department, to forge alliances that can help raise and expand public understanding of minority contributions in both countries. Muneeb bristles at the mention of ‘minority rights’ because he doesn’t feel like a minority. But that doesn’t sidetrack his focus on getting the word out about non-native citizens and residents.

Muneeb thinks messages about morality and ethics, based on fair and equal treatment, will win the day. Others go for practical appeals related to immigrant economic contributions, and foreign investors who prize a diverse labor force and social inclusivity. Muneeb likes the emotional, personal appeals for racial and religious tolerance used by human rights groups in the U.S. and Canada. Others respond to the harder, artsier, more provocative content found in Europe. Looking beyond their own governments, they all wonder what Brussels, and Washington, are prepared to do, if anything, to push back against a growing tide of populism and nativism.

Most participants didn’t know each other before NDI’s program, which also includes groups in Hungary and Poland and runs for two years. They warm to each other quickly, and talk turns to joint projects promoting tolerance and peace. At NDI’s workshop they feel strengthened and secure. But time is pressing. From outside the noise of intolerance can be heard.

Muneeb returns home to Brno, energized but pensive. He and his fellow participants will forge coalitions, propose projects, and get to work. It will be the first time for ‘crossover’ collaboration between their communities. Some wonder if it will work, if there is enough in common among Jews, Muslims, Christians, and a mix of ethnic groups to agree on what to prioritize, what to say, and how to say it. The will to cooperate is there but, when it gets down to concrete substance, can they agree?

It’s not altogether clear that they have the luxury of choosing. Circumstances being what they are these days, cooperation seems essential.