An Open Letter to the Prospective 2016 Prague Summer Program Community

There are roughly ten thousand—primarily Sunni—Muslims in the Czech Republic. Most of them are early 90s refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and from countries of the former Soviet Union. They arrived in the Czech Republic as native speakers of Slavic languages, and so learned Czech relatively quickly and assimilated likewise. They are Slavic Muslims. Most are middle-class.

I’m unqualified to speak to the demographic and social complexities of Muslims’ presence in Europe or in North America. However, I know, really know, that prejudice is always morally wrong and strategically debilitating. What happened in Paris, what happened in San Bernardino  and whatever follows in the wake of these atrocities over the coming months, must be considered within as broad a perspective as possible.

I hold with those who insist upon a clear delineation between radical jihadists and Muslims in general, though I also eschew politically-correct commentaries that refuse to recognize that religious belief systems are ideologies, and that an ascendant interpretation of the Muslim faith is in fact an ideology centered on murder and subjugation of the “other”: us (“us” including Muslims who oppose radical jihadists).

Last July, one of the students in the PSP was a young woman from a Muslim country I’ll not name here. In social settings, outside the classroom and the other official program venues, she spoke of the nonviolent opposition that she and other young people in her country mount, when they can and almost exclusively online, against conservative powers that be. She expressed deep and abiding religious faith, but also a marvelous hardheadedness, a delightfully youthful opposition to authority. I can’t speak in any detail for fear of compromising her, but I can say that when I asked her if she ever thought of seeking asylum in the West, her answer was an unequivocal “no.” She loves her country, loves her culture, and wants to contribute to improving her society, making it freer, especially for women.

We, in America, should not be smug. Our kids are gunned down by cops; some cops too often find themselves in untenably dangerous circumstances. The Second Amendment is an anachronism causing, directly and indirectly, thousands of deaths each year. Our prisons are packed with nonviolent offenders who are themselves victims of antiquated drug laws. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few makes a mockery of our democracy. The commoditization of information, the dovetailing of news and entertainment, in the context of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, gins up fear and plays into the hands of terrorists. There is a very odd symbiotic relationship indeed between CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and all terrorist organizations. The news organizations are not altogether at fault. We are at fault for not better understanding that “news” is vital information, but that it is also breakfast cereal, roll-on deodorant, car insurance, Viagra, and dishwashing  detergent. As long as information is tied to a profit motive, there will be terrorists manipulating news coverage, and there will be trolls like Donald Trump lurking beneath the body politic.

The Prague Summer Program for Writers is going into its twenty-third year. In our first years, the carnage in what was then Yugoslavia raged. In 2002, nine months after 9/11, we conducted a somber yet joyous four weeks of celebrating literature and literary ambition. This coming July, 2016, we shall celebrate the victory of unfettered imagination over mere ideology. We’ll celebrate life over death. We’ll take ourselves just seriously enough, and we’ll know ourselves to be as safe as anyone deserves to be. We’ll celebrate the beauty of an ancient city, and know that the odds of danger are, if not minute, nearly so.

We’ll be safe in Prague. We’ll take good care of one another, and make sure that we have ample opportunity to experience deep edification as well as serious fun.

Richard Katrovas