Speaking for Muslims, Surrounded by Naysayers

Czech-Palestinian defends Islam against growing Islamophobia

By Alexandra Pastron

Sadi Shanaah is of Palestinian descent who grew up in the Czech Republic. Photos courtesy Shanaah.EU

Sadi Shanaah is an unlikely spokesman for a tiny Muslim minority. Photos courtesy Shanaah.EU

With blonde hair, light skin and striking blue eyes, Sadi Shanaah remembers that it was only his name that seemed “exotic” as a child growing up in Prague, a city where fair hair is the norm.

In many ways, he fit in well with a society of Slavs, but Shanaah’s background sets him apart, putting him at the forefront of a debate on Muslims in the Czech Republic.

Shanaah, 32, estimates that he has made about ten official media appearances in the past year in which he was commenting on Islam in the Czech Republic. However, he is careful to point out that he does not aim to represent Islam, but rather act as a voice for those who cannot or will not comment.

Shanaah’s most recent media appearance was on January 17, when he participated a in Radio Prague program dedicated to Islamic radicalism, prompted by the recent terrorist attack in Paris.

During the half-hour broadcast, Shanaah addressed the integration of Czech Muslims.

“They send their kids to Czech schools, they speak good Czech, they interact with the majority population, there is no Muslim ghetto,” said Shanaah, who is a political leader within the Czech Green Party.

In the Czech Republic it might seem odd to have any discussion about Muslims. The Islamic population makes up less than 0.1% of the general population, revealing that the Czech Republic has one of the smallest Muslim populations in Europe.

A former Eastern bloc country, the Czech Republic is predominantly atheist. The most recent census in 2011 recorded that 34% of Czechs have no religion, while 45% did not answer the question or otherwise left their beliefs unknown.

“They send their kids to Czech schools, they speak good Czech, they interact with the majority population, there is no Muslim ghetto.”

Despite this small presence, the topic of Muslim rights has recently come to be a pressing topic in the Czech Republic. Although he himself does not practice Islam, with his Middle Eastern name and Czech looks, Shanaah has come to be something of an unofficial spokesperson on the issue, through both social media and Islamic awareness projects.

This past year, several controversies over Islam have erupted in Czech media and national discourse.

Last April, the Czech police raided a Prague mosque during a prayer session in search of a man accused of translating a book into Czech that the police said promoted violence and racism. In August, the Czech ombudswoman, the public defender of equal treatment, spoke out defending two Muslim students who left a Czech nursing school after they were prohibited from wearing headscarves in class. In October, the Czech Interior Ministry struck down an ordinance in the Town of Teplice that banned people from covering their faces in public. The ban was supposedly aimed at the spa town’s thousands of Muslim tourists.

Furthermore, a month earlier, the Ministry of Education pulled support for a pro-tolerance school program about Islam, co-created by Shanaah, after alleged complaints from parents.

This program, titled “Muslims Through the Eyes of Czech Students,” is a 60-minute lesson plan designed to engage students around the age of 15 in a discussion about the basic tenets of Islam and the presence of Muslims in the Czech Republic. Shanaah helped set up the project with a grant from the US Embassy to provide funding for basic materials and a website.

Klara Popovova, the founder of the program, said that Shanaah had devoted considerable energy to promoting the school program.

“He always helped us when somebody attacked us or the project,” Popovova said. “He did his best to explain to people from media and other institutions what we are actually doing and that the aim of the project is just to inform and build a bridge to tolerance.”

Born to a Czech Catholic mother and Palestinian Muslim father, Shanaah, like many Czechs, does not identify with a church or a mosque. Soft but well-spoken, he stated that he does not like the function of an institution or person acting as an intermediary, but does consider himself a “believer.”

“Every person has this internal development and question about their identity,” Shanaah, who looks as if he would fit in well in Silicon Valley with lace-up loafers and grey jeans, said of his youth. “I never went through an identity crisis, there was never anything I had to solve or think about, I was who I was.”

But Shanaah recognizes that for others who do not so easily fit in, the Czech Republic can be forbidding, even racist.

“The problem of Islamophobia is a much bigger problem than just being anti-Muslim,” Shanaah said, “This is just a channel for some kind of negative energy that has happened to choose Muslims now. Before it was focused on Jews, still it is focused on Roma, but always it finds new avenues.”

That is why defending the rights of Muslims amidst a post-9/11 hostility and suspicion is a priority for Shanaah.

“Once you are in the debate you become the face or the spokesperson, even though I’m not involved in the Muslim organizations here,” said Shanaah. “But I felt it was important, primarily from the perspective of general human rights and general development of politics and society.”

Czechs have very little exposure directly to the Muslim faith, which may, in part be why they are so suspicious when it comes to the topic, one academic noted.

“It is a lack of education in any religion, including Christianity and Judaism. And even more importantly it is lack of will to question uncomfortable truths, to open the way to critical thinking.”

Salim Murad, a professor of political science at the University of Southern Bohemia, stated that Muslims are generally perceived as a threat, due to lack of education on religion.

“I believe it is in fact not only a problem of lack of education when we speak about this particular religion,” Murad said, “It is a lack of education in any religion, including Christianity and Judaism. And even more importantly it is lack of will to question uncomfortable truths, to open the way to critical thinking.”

Alongside his work in Islamic awareness and education, Shanaah also founded the non-governmental organization Insaan: Czech-Arab Centre for Cultural Dialogue in 2011. The organization coordinates art showings, film screenings and panel discussions centered on Arabic culture that are open to anyone who is interested.

“Everyone knows that Arabs had a great society 1,000 years ago, but what is happening now is what is missing,” Shanaah said of the aim behind the organization. “The idea was not to deal with politics or religion since we hear a lot about them. I wanted to do something new, there is Arab jazz, Arab sci-fi – something to connect people here.”

Shanaah’s efforts resemble those of activist groups in Western Europe. Starting in the 1960s, Muslims from North Africa migrated to the region to join the unskilled labor force at a time of high employment. They were often from traditional, rural areas and maintained these traditions over generations even when surrounded with liberal Western practices.

In France, surveys show an estimated 5-10% of the population practices Islam. In Belgium, Muslims account for 6% of the country, making it the largest minority religion.

Most Muslims in the Czech Republic emigrated primarily from the Middle East starting in the 1960s, but their work and educational profile were vastly different from their fellow migrants headed West.

During this time, the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was offering incentives for top Middle Eastern students to attend universities in the country as a way of strengthening ties with communist-friendly countries. Graduates often stayed in Czechoslovakia and became high-achieving doctors and engineers, integrating without problems and rarely adhering to a conservative religious ideology.

Shanaah’s father was one of these students, arriving in Czechoslovakia intending to study medicine. Ultimately, he graduated from the Czech University of Agriculture and continued on to get his PhD. Shanaah describes his father as “Muslim by nature” in that he grew up in an Arab country and came from a Muslim family, but does not still go to the mosque.

Upon completing his studies, Shanaah’s father was called to serve his compulsory military service in Jordan, so Shanaah, then 5 years old, and his mother went with him. They moved into what Shanaah described as more of a “slum,” rather than a “classic refugee camp.” There, he came to know the Muslim side of his family, who all chipped in to send him to private school in Irbid.

Shanaah himself recently became a father. He met his wife, who is from Moscow, while both were studying at Cairo University in Egypt. Shanaah ultimately received his undergraduate degree in international and European economic studies from the University of New York in Prague and completed a masters in philosophy in contemporary European Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Shanaah works full-time as a program coordinator at the Prague headquarters for Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung, the German based political movement that advocates protection of the environment, human rights and democracy.

This neatly dovetails with his extracurricular work of speaking out on minority rights in the Czech Republic.

When Shanaah first tried combating Islamophobia online, he would refer people to his relatives’ Facebook profiles and tell them about his family in an attempt to represent his Muslim relatives as he sees them, as “normal people with normal problems and desires and hopes.”

“Most Czech Muslims are fed up having to apologize all the time for everything and to spend all their time explaining they are not fanatics wishing to enslave the world, so they mind their own business and ignore the rising tide of fear, suspicion and hatred,” said Shanaah.

This past May, Prague Post reported that two-thirds of Czechs fear Islam, based on data collected by the European Union voting advice application, EUVOX.

Since the New Year, the group We Do Not Want Islam in the Czech Republic has staged several anti-Islam rallies. At one such rally there were about 600 people in attendance outside Prague Castle, while only about 20 people attended a counter rally to defend the rights of Muslims.

The negative attention that Czech Muslims have been hoping to avoid reaches Shanaah, primarily through email and social media.

“Mostly it is about ‘dealing with traitors’ and some hints at deportation, shooting or hanging. A lot of ‘go back to the desert’ — I was born in Prague!” Shanaah said. “What I think is most absurd is the way these people care ostentatiously about women’s rights and in the same breath they label Muslim women with the most insulting words possible.”

Alexandra Pastron is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is Pasadena, California.

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Categories: Spring 2015 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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