Riga, Brivibas Street 104 – the only mosque in Latvia. Actually, not a mosque in the traditional sense – just an apartment adapted for the needs of a mosque. Islam is an unwelcomed stranger in Latvia – often misunderstood and not very much liked.
I felt good in the mosque, listening to the Khutbah in Russian by Imam Mamoon, a tall Sudanese, who serves the needs of Muslims in the capital. Didn’t meet any Latvian speaking woman but received warm welcome from the Tatar and Russian ladies, who invited me to partake in a modest meal as soon as I entered. I was later told that also Latvian girls do come to the mosque – mostly married to Muslim foreigners. On the men’s side, however, I heard voices speaking Russian, Latvian, and English.
Muslim, therefore unwanted – such intolerant view is wide spread in the Latvian society, as nearly half of the population (45% of Latvians and 41% of minorities) admit that they would not wish to see Muslims as their neighbors. This harsh judgment is shaped partly by the history of this country and partly by the global events of the last decade.
The first presence of Muslims in Latvia was registered in 1838, although the first official congregation was formed much later – in 1902. Ever since the beginnings, Muslim congregations have had close ties with Tatar, Uzbek and Azerbaijan minorities’ organizations, because the culture of these nations was historically based in Islam. Thus, this ethnic and religious difference automatically labeled Muslims as ‘the others’ in the broader mostly Christian scene of Latvia.
The historic injustice of the Soviet Occupation after the Second World War added to the dislike towards Muslims. Fifty years long Soviet period brought to Latvia a large influx of unwelcomed immigrants from the Asian republics. Feeling the pressure on the national identity, the locals developed a reasonable aversion towards the immigrants.
9/11 changed the whole world – Latvia was not an exception. Such juicy epithets as ‘Islamic terrorists,’ ‘Islamic radicals,’ and ‘Islamic extremists’ flooded the media and resulted in associating with Islam nearly every possible kind of atrocities. If Islam was in the news, it meant explosions or suicide bombers. The good news, however, is that in all the years Muslims reside in Latvia, no act of violence has been registered on their account.
Since Latvia joined the European Union, a new phobia has surfaced – the fear of repeated immigration floods, which could pose a serious threat to this small nation of only 2.4 million. Thus, anything ‘unusual’ has come to mean also ‘unwanted.’
However, despite the not so favorable setting in Latvia, the Muslim community is continuing to expand. Currently, the estimated numbers of Muslims in the country range from five to ten thousands. Seven existing Muslim congregations (five in the capital and two in other smaller cities) are united under the Latvian Muslim Organizations Association. In the recent years, Muslims have been working on obtaining the permission to build the first purpose-built mosque in Latvia. The translation of the Quran from Arabic into Latvian also is on the way.
Looking at the general scene of Islam in today’s Latvia, I am happy to see young, eager minds, who are ready to prove to the quite prejudiced locals that Islam is also for Latvians. As happy I am to see that the new generation of locals is more open to diversity than their parents used to be. May Allah (swt) bless this nation with the light of Islam, Ameen.