A couple of weeks ago I have read an article in the New York Times that is still bothering me. Now it might be unexpected to find in this section an entry about a New York Times article, but this article had a quite Latvian specific topic. The fear of islam in Latvia. The article followed a Muslima – Līga Legzdiņa – in Latvia. As a Latvian woman she has converted together with her family to Islam. She is mainly recognised by wearing a niqab – a face veil. Although often mistaken and used as a synonym there is a difference between a burka and a niqab, as a niqab covers only the face, while a burka covers the whole body.
Racism and islamophobia in her environment is a loyal companion for Mrs Legzdiņa. While some people just stare at her, others are spitting and cursing at her, demanding her to leave Latvia and return to wherever she came from. Līga Legzdiņa faces the brutality of fear by the society every day. And now even the Latvian government tries to affect her clothing choice. The government and the Latvian Parliament are planning to adopt a law that will ban face veils out of the public sphere. Although there is no official number how many people are really wearing niqabs, the number is estimated to be as low as only three women. The explanation for the law is as banal as simple. The former president and descendent of a family who fled from Soviet occupation, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, can give the answers: “Anybody could be under a veil or under a burqa. You could carry a rocket launcher under your veil. It’s not funny.” Fortunately for her ancestors, the U.S.A. didn’t have the same opinion about people fleeing from the occupied Latvia after the Second World War. After all, they could have carried rocket launchers and bombs under their coats and in their luggage. To show the possibilities of gun hiding at the body I would like to refer to a video from a high school in the U.S.A. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ade7dO8dmd4).
“They are too many!”
Like the majority of the former Soviet Republics also Latvia faces a religious division. Although the whole Baltic region was the last region in Europe that was Christianised, Latvians and Estonians joined the Reformation. Only the inhabitants of Latgale, which was at this time a part of Polish-Lithuania, stayed Catholic. The last strong impact on religious life was the promoted Atheism in the Soviet Union. Although all kind of religions were suppressed by the soviet communist party, some of the immigrated Russians were orthodox and Old Believers (an old sect-like branch of orthodoxies). While the majority of Latvians are Lutherans (over 700 000) or Catholics (around 500 000), there are also smaller religious communities like the Old Believers which numbers are estimated to around 30 000 followers.
The Dievturi practice Neo-Paganism and are worshipping the old pagan Baltic gods, the number of this religious group is estimated to be around 650 people. Finally the Islam community is estimated between 350 to 2000 people. The government is expected to publish new data in August 2016. The estimated numbers are anyways questioning the theory of a loss of the Latvian culture. So there is no need even to use the phrase that Latvians are getting “overrun” by Islam.
To be fair, I’d like to have a look at the origins of the Latvian fear.
Money is a crucial point to understand the prejudices and has not really much to do with fear. But the fact that asylum seekers (mostly from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan) are getting 256€ per month, while many pensioners receive even less money, has led to suspicions. Many Latvians are demanding that the state money should be sent first to their own people instead of foreigners. During the financial crisis many expenses were cut and therefore the social aid payments were limited. Unfortunately these measures were not taken back, which results in a thin social system. Especially pensioners and unemployed people were hit hard by these cuts.
As the quote by former president Vīķe-Freiberga shows, many inhabitants are afraid of terrorism. Especially the Paris attacks in November 2015 had a huge impact on the public opinion towards Muslims. A quite popular case offered Alvis Hermanis, a theatre director. In winter 2015 Hermanis was employed in the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. While Latvians know him to be a rather lateral thinker and a non-conformist, the German public and the Thalia Theatre were shocked by his quitting. In a letter to the theatre he explained that he and his family don’t feel safe in Germany anymore. The theatre director criticized the German public government as being naive. In his opinion the rising numbers of accepted refugees will lead to higher danger of terrorism and harassment. As much as I don’t want to judge the subjective opinion of Hermanis, I think it would be worth to mention here that since last autumn neither the criminality nor the amount of terrorist attacks have increased in Germany. Nevertheless the fear of Islamist terrorism is present in Latvia and all over Europe, although these regions are mostly facing the peaceful majority of European Muslims.
While France and Great Britain had to deal with immigration from their former colonial Empires, Latvia had never to deal with immigration from Arabic or African countries. Although the first Muslim community was established in 1902, the small Islamic community in Latvia is rather a product of the settlement-policy of the Soviet Union – inhabitants from the central Asian soviet republics were sent to Latvia. Actually it seems that the whole colonial policy by the Soviet Union is a core for the fear of loss of culture. During the Soviet occupation thousands of Russians from all over the union had to settle in Latvia. Latvian language, Latvian culture and Latvian traditions were discriminated and almost eradicated which led to fear of losing the cultural heritage. However, with the new independence the situation has changed, as now Latvian is the only official language and Latvian culture is protected and present in everyday life. While today around 60% of the inhabitants are Latvians, around 30% are still Russians. The ethnic gap between Latvians and Russians brought many social and political problems as the modern Latvian republic refers mainly to the interwar Republic and therefore only people who were able ensure that their ancestors have lived in Latvia in the interwar republic could receive an automatic citizenship. Even today are several thousand Russians living without a citizenship and are registered as “Aliens”. As a result, many Russians refuse to learn the language or integrate themselves into Latvian communities, which established a parallel society. As it wouldn’t be hard enough to handle these problems, Russians tend to be weaker in social and financial terms, which led again to an even stronger denial to Latvian state, culture and language. This society lives mostly in small excluded communities. As the Russian community tries to keep their culture, the Latvians try to do the same in fear of losing their national heritage to the growing number of Russians.
The only experience with immigration was a forced one. A forced immigration that led not just to a divided society but to the many social and political problems that Latvia is facing today.
The endangered culture?
Although Latvia was indeed able to preserve their culture and their language during the Soviet occupation, it still is afraid of losing this culture. Instead of occupying Russians, now it’s the Islamic threat which is scary. The fear and prejudices towards Muslims is not just a result of fear because of terrorism or the feeling of being unfairly treated by the government. It’s also a lack of successful experience with immigration and a lack of experience with Islam culture. This fear and the feeling of “them” being too many will now lead to a strange law that will forbid to three persons the wearing of a face veil. Is the Latvian culture, which survived a century-long occupation really so weak that it has to be protected from a small number of veils? It’s finally time for Latvia to overcome the national trauma and to fight against the traditional fear of losing their culture. A culture that dictates what women must wear and a culture that dictates what women must not wear, have more in common than they would admit. In order to protect Latvia’s citizens, I hope that Vīķe-Freiberga is aware that coats and jackets also can be used to “carry a rocket launcher”. It’s going to be a cold winter in Latvia.