The mosques of Lithuania | NLIF

The mosques of Lithuania

FOR the past few weeks, even as Germany has tried to drag Europe into welcoming Syrian migrants, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been debating a ban on burqas. There have been no reports of burqas being sighted in the Baltics, so the idea of prohibiting them seems rather superfluous, like banning nude sunbathing in Antarctica. In Lithuania, when the burqa ban was first proposed by the chairman of the country’s national security committee, most officials dismissed it as absurd. (“I suggest you look around the streets to see how many women cover their faces,” says the country’s justice minister, Juozas Bernatonis. “I have seen none.”) Yet the very discussion testifies to the fear triggered in central and eastern Europe by the European Union’s plans to cope with its migrant crisis by distributing asylum seekers among its member states.

The migrant question has opened up a bitter divide between western countries’ need to deal with the migrant crisis and eastern countries’ desire to have nothing to do with it. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has taken the EU’s eastern members to task for their reluctance to accept Muslim asylum seekers. Slovakia’s Robert Fico calls the EU’s demands “ridiculous”; Hungary’s Viktor Orban warns that Europeans will become minorities in their own countries. The contributions requested of eastern European countries are small—even under the expanded redistribution plan announced by the EU plan last week, Lithuania is to receive 1105 asylum seekers, while Germany has already admitted hundreds of thousands. But the hostility is intense. One conservative Lithuanian politician said Syrian migrants did not deserve asylum, as they had failed to defend their own country. “You can take the refugee out of Africa,” another remarked on his Facebook page, “but how do you take the Africa out of the refugee?”

One person who finds anti-Muslim sentiment troubling is Adas Jakubauskas (pictured), the chairman of the Lithuanian Tatar Union. “It hurts me as a Muslim and a believer when politicians engage in this [burqa-ban] publicity,” says Mr Jakubauskas. An instructor in law at a university in Vilnius, Mr Jakubauskas looks like any typical Lithuanian professional, but it might be misleading to call him “well-integrated”: the Lithuanian Tatars have no need to integrate, having been in the country since the late 1300s.

Lithuania’s Tatar community numbers about 3200, and traces its roots to the White Horde, one of the western successor states to the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan. The Lithuanian Tatars, also known as Lipka Tatars, served as cavalry in the armies of the Polish and Lithuanian states up through the 18th century. They have retained their Sunni Muslim faith, though they have lost their original Turkic language, and now speak Lithuanian.

There are currently traditional wooden mosques in three Lithuanian villages, and a larger brick one in the city of Kaunas. The mosques, with their peaked roofs and small steeple-like minarets, look entirely at home in the eastern European countryside. They are staffed by imams sent from Turkey. Halal meat remains difficult to obtain; the more observant members of the community slaughter animals themselves.

The Tatars are a reminder of a period when much of eastern Europe was known for its religious tolerance and diversity. The united Polish-Lithuanian kingdom that lasted until the late 18th century was home to the world’s largest Jewish community, and also hosted significant numbers of Protestants. This history is slighted by Lithuania’s current educational system; Mr Jakubauskas says textbooks devote only a few paragraphs to the Tatars. Today the country is far more homogeneous. The population is 89% Catholic, and the largest ethnic minorities are Polish (7%) and Russian (6%).

Taisija Oral, author of a PhD thesis on Lithuanian minorities, says the country is nervous about immigration in part because it joined the multiculturalism debate too late. From 1945-1990 the Baltic states were republics of the Soviet Union. During the 1970s when the West was developing its discourse of diversity, the Soviet sphere was subjected to the analogous doctrine of a Russian-led “socialist brotherhood of peoples”.

“It was a model of identity that was imposed from the outside, which has now become an anti-model,” Ms Oral says. In countries with memories of Stalinist population transfers, centrally-planned schemes for assigning ethnic groups to unfamiliar territories have unpleasant historical echoes. Another obstacle is Lithuania’s self-image as a victim nation, always at risk of losing its language and identity. The Baltic states’ movements for independence from the Soviet Union were based on their historical ethnic and linguistic characters, which immigrants seem to threaten. And by the time they joined the EU in 2004, the rest of Europe had largely soured on immigration.

Attitudes towards migrants often divide along age and class lines. “Our monthly pension is €250 ($275), and I have heard they will pay these refugees more and give them a place to stay, too. Is that fair?” pensioner Vilija Burokiene asks. Egle Sukyte, a 30-year old banker who commutes between Vilnius and Copenhagen, is as liberal as any Westerner: “Everybody should come. We aren‘t better than them, we are just luckier to have been born here.”

There are probably far more Lithuanians like Ms Burokiene than there are like Ms Sukyte. But the burden-sharing plan will be decided in Brussels, where western countries have more votes than eastern ones do. Leonidas Donskis, a philosophy professor and former member of the European Parliament, says Lithuania will simply have to recognise that EU membership entails responsibilities. “The world graciously absorbed many Lithuanian displaced persons after the second world war,” Mr Donskis says. ”The time has come for us to play the role that others have played for us.“ Acknowledging the country’s own history of multiculturalism might make that prospect less threatening.

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