Global Extremes

Is central Europe afraid of religious tolerance?

In the middle of Europe, there is a new sort of religious radicalization emerging – that of religion-haters or religiophobes.

Egdūnas Račius
24 February 2020
Former mosque of Pasha Qasim in Pécs, Hungary, now used as a Catholic church.
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Flickr: Thanate Tan (CC BY 2.0)
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Many inside and outside of Europe consider nations of the Old Continent and their states to be secular if not altogether post-religious. Though it may be true, there is a curious phenomenon emerging in parts of it – regimes of governance of religion and practical politics related to them in a number of European countries, particularly in Central Europe, appear to be changing toward greater control of, if not intolerance toward, religion, or, to be more precise, certain forms of religiosity, foremost Islamic.

This paradox – putting religion center-stage in the domestic politics and national(ist) rhetoric by governments in some of the least religious nations – deserves a closer scrutiny. And this is what this piece is meant to do.

In July of 2019, Pew Research Center published a short piece by Jeff Diamant, called “Europe experienced a surge in government restrictions on religious activity over the last decade”, itself based on the Center’s report A Closer Look at How Religious Restrictions Have Risen Around the World, covering the period between 2007 and 2017. In his text, Diamant argues that “religious restrictions have in recent years become more common in Europe.” Though much of the purported increase in religious restrictions across Europe revolves around the bans on wearing religious clothing and symbols in public, bans on public worship and circumcision are also mentioned as elements of these restrictions. Unfortunately, although the original report, in its Government Restrictions Index (pp. 85-86), places some three dozen European countries in the category of “Moderate”, neither Diamant nor the original report discuss in any detail these purportedly increasing restrictions.

It would be misleading to argue that the claimed government restrictions on religious activity in Europe are related exclusively to followers of just one religion, namely, Islam; however, many, if not most, of them target Muslims also, who, in regards to their treatment by governments, often find themselves in the same basket as the so-called New Religious Movements and New Age Religions. This is certainly so in post-communist Central Europe, where fledgling Muslim communities (not exceeding several dozens of thousands), chiefly of immigrant background, have been struggling to institutionalize themselves and be accepted as just yet “another regular religious organization.”

Take, for instance, the law on religions in Hungary, which places hard conditions on newly formed religious collectivities wishing to be registered. Art. 14 of the law spells them out in the following manner: there need to be no less than one thousand full members; the religious collectivity may expect to be registered if “it has been operating internationally for at least 100 years or in an organised manner as an association in Hungary for at least 20 years;” and it is the Parliament which would vote on the decision to register or not to register such a religious collectivity. Entrusting the Parliament with such authority was almost immediately challenged in the Constitutional Court, which found the relevant parts of the law unconstitutional. However, unlike expected, rather than rectifying the law, lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment which transferred the contested provisions of the law to the country’s Constitution.

The current regime of governance of religion effectively forces all Muslims in the country to choose either to belong to one of the existing organizations or to go without one at all.

Following the law, any new, including Muslim, religious collectivities, which would wish to obtain official registration as “churches” (this is how religious organizations of any faith are officially labelled in Hungary), besides having to prove that they represent a historical branch of a certain religion, would also have to secure two thirds of the votes of the MPs, something that is hardly attainable by a vast majority of newly forming religious collectivities of any faith. Hungary’s estimated 30,000 Muslims are lucky enough to have established several of their religious organizations prior to the amendments, but the current regime of governance of religion effectively forces all Muslims in the country to choose either to belong to one of the existing organizations or to go without one at all.

Czech law on religions, although less stringent regarding initial registration of religious collectivities, makes it difficult for them to upgrade their status, for Section 1 of Article 11 stipulates that those registered religious organizations that wish to receive a higher recognition from the state need not only to have operated uninterruptedly for the past ten years but has to have “published without interruption annual reports on its activities in calendar years for a minimum of ten years prior to the date of submission.” Moreover, Section 4 of the same Article requires that the application for the recognition on the second level must include “original signatures of adherents of the church, who shall be citizens of the Czech Republic or aliens with permanent residence in the Czech Republic, in an amount at least equal to one (1) person for every one thousand (1,000) Czech nationals.” At present this translates into some 10,650 individuals, size of membership that most of new religious collectivities simply may not claim.

Thus, like in the Hungarian case, most of the smaller religious organizations, albeit they may have made it to the basic level of registration, may not hope in the foreseeable future to be able to attain a higher one, which would secure a plethora of their religious, social and even economic rights.

In the case of Czechia’s Muslims this means that, although the total number of its inhabitants of Muslim background is estimated to be around 20,000, it is unlikely they would choose to be members of a particular single Muslim religious collectivity. Therefore, the domestication and full institutionalization of Islam in Czechia remains a distant prospect, unless the set legal threshold is lowered or Muslim religious collectivity(ies) gets an exception. The latter option is also unlikely in the current atmosphere of increasing securitization of Islam by the country’s top political actors.

Finally, in Slovakia, law on religions, since 2016, in the wake of the so-called “refugee crisis”, was amended and now stipulates that the minimum number of members of the religious community seeking to register its religious organization is 50,000 (up from the earlier 20,000) and that they have to “have residential address in the territory of the Slovak Republic and [be] Slovak citizens” (Art. 11). Though the President vetoed the amendments, arguing that they curtailed religious freedoms and rights, his veto was overturned and the amendments were passed by two-thirds in the Parliament.

The membership requirement is arguably the highest in Europe and it effectively kills off the chances of any new faith communities institutionalizing their religion in the country. The minor faith communities thus are forced to register according to the Law on Civic Associations of 1990 (which, incidentally, explicitly states that the Law does not cover religious collectivities (Section 1, Point 1c)) and operate as NGOs, what effectively strips them of many of the rights that registered religious organizations have, including building and owning temples and other property, establishing institutions of religious education, providing pastoral care, lobbying for diet, religious feasts and clothing related rights and other.

Slovakia is the only country in Europe, where Muslims do not (and may not) have a single registered religious organization.

Passing of the latest amendments has been widely seen as putting a choker on Muslims so that they do not form a religious organization and institutionalize Islam in the country. Some observers even have labeled the process of the amendment of the law ‘criminalization of Islam in Slovakia.’ Slovakia is then unique in Europe – it is the only country in Europe, where Muslims do not (and may not) have a single registered religious organization.

In the process of the securitization of migration in Central Europe in the wake of the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015-2016, government rhetoric and subsequent policy outcomes related to general governance of religions, specifically pertaining to Islam, are often accompanied by ingrained othering of either Islam and Muslims in general or specific forms of Islamic religiosity and their adherents. So, for instance, the Czech President Miloš Zeman has said that he is sure that “there is a strong connection between the wave of migrants and the wave of jihadis,” and that he is “against Islamic migration.” Similarly, Andrej Babiš, the leader of the winning ANO party in the 2017 Czech parliamentary elections and the prime minister to be, promised “to protect the Czech Republic from Muslims:” ‘If there will be more Muslims than Belgians in Brussels, that’s their problem. I don’t want that here. They won’t be telling us who should live here.’”

The Hungarian Prime Minister has also expressed similar views. There are dozens of public statements from Viktor Orban asserting that both Islam and Muslims do not belong to/in Europe, yet seek to invade or conquer it. His comrades in the governing Fidesz party also express Muslimophobic sentiments. So, for instance, the head of the Fidesz parliamentary group Lajos Kósa is reported to have stated in October 2015 (during the peak of the so-called “refugee crisis”) that “Muslim culture is so radically different from European culture that there is no hope of integration.”

The securitization of Islam in Hungary appears to have gone so far as the government considering banning the building of mosques; in a TV interview, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Gergely Gulyás (himself member of the ruling Fidesz), hinted at this, and conceded that the government is “forced” “to treat the presence of Islam in the country as a matter of national security, not of freedom of religion.”

Islam and Muslims have been increasingly securitized on both social and political levels.

Likewise, in Slovakia, despite the fact that there have been no instances of Muslim religious radicalization in the country, and its population of Muslim background is estimated not to exceed 5,000, since the onset of the so-called “refugee crisis’, Islam and Muslims have been increasingly securitized on both social and political levels.

The then Prime Minister Robert Fico made numerous negative remarks and statements about migrating people, whom he likened to Muslims. For instance, in November 2015, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Fico publicly announced the Slovak government was “monitoring every single Muslim currently present in the territory of Slovakia.” Later, in 2016, Fico publicly proclaimed that “Islam has no place in Slovakia” (Colborne, 2017) and that he firmly stood by his objective to prevent “emergence of a united Muslim community in Slovakia.” (Colborne, 2017).

Depending on how one sees the things and on one’s employed methodology, in the light of the above-provided revelations, the regimes of governance of religions can be judged differently. Pew Research Center’s report places the three countries, like most others in Europe, under the “Moderate” category. However, the laws on religions in them appear to be much more restrictive of religious activities of “non-traditional” religious collectivities than elsewhere in Europe, and certainly so within the EU context.

This is attested to in the report’s assessment of General laws and policies category (p. 123), where Czechia’s score is 6.0 (up from 2.7 in 2007), while Slovakia and Hungary’s 5.3 (4.7) and 4.7 (0.7), respectively. And although these countries are not the worst-scoring in Europe, the increase, in a negative sense, in their performance, and particularly in Hungary but also Czechia, is appalling.

And all this in countries, whose societies pride themselves in being among the least religious in Europe, if not the world. Someone has suggested that these countries have become afraid of religion in general, hence the restrictive legal regimes of governance of religions. Although the real reasons behind the down-slide of these countries in respect to freedom of and tolerance toward religion may lie elsewhere, one fact is clear – in the middle of Europe, there is a new sort of religious radicalization emerging – that of religion-haters or religiophobes. That their primary target group appears to be Muslims, is another question.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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