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The Mainstreaming of Islamophobia in the Czech Republic

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Like in other Central European states, the migration crisis dominated the Czech media space since 2015. Unlike any time before, xenophobic and islamophobic attitudes have left the margins and literally dominated the Czech public space. Public individuals as well as mainstream media outlets have created and spread a strongly negative image of Islam and Muslims, actively nurtured fear of migrants and prevented a rational debate about the various levels of the crisis. In analyzing the obvious spread of a general phenomenon of islamophobia, it is important to discern its three components: islamophobic attitudes, anti-Islamist ideology and the spread of negative stereotypes in the public sphere.

Islamophobic attitudes have been present in the Czech public sphere for more than a decade. Since 2015, three processes took place: hirtherto marginal attitudes became mainstream and they have even been sanctioned by the highest political figures; a deliberate campaigning spread a new, aggressive form of anti-Islamism during the migration crises and stereotypes became political currency.

Three aspects of islamophobia

Islamophobia covers a wide spectrum of manifestations of prejudices, discrimination and hatred against Muslims. Like anti-Semitism, homophobia and anticiganism, and islamophobia is a manifestation of a feeling of superiority over a specific group. It leads to the degradation of this entire group of people based on perceived religion, national or ethnic identity, associated with a certain idea of Islam. The British Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as “an outlook or worldview involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.” [1]

The very fear of Islam and a criticism of Islam are not islamophobic per se. Islamophobia arises when a negative attitude to Islam is motivated by hostility towards Islam and by the intention to conquer or “to fight against Islam.”[2] In a historical perspective, islamophobia is a critical term depicting a deliberate misrepresentation of Islam within the colonial context. An early usage of the word is to be found in a book written by a French convert to Islam and an Algerian intellectual, both active in the sphere of experts within the context of colonial administration. Their notion of islamophobia equals a criticism of a long-standing conflictual relationship between Europe and the Muslim Near East, of its colonial supremacist ideology and more particularly of deliberate distortions of the image of Islam by Western academics and proselytisers. [3]

The modern concept of Islamophobia designs a negative and condescending perception of Islam not only by colonial state administrations but by the public at large. A criticism of the implication of colonialism into the discourse on Islam was inducted into academic circles by the critical studies of European colonialism and Orientalism in the 70s by Edward Said. Concomitantly, a person version was used as a criticism of Western imperialism by Iranian Shia revolutionaries.[4]

In Western Europe, negative attitudes against Muslims as such have proliferated in the last 15 years. Migrant workers from Muslim countries began to be perceived under the sole prism of their religious affiliation mainly due to the so-called “war on terror” and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Gradually speaking, the perception of Arab, Turkish and South-Asian minorities shifted from their status of guest workers to permanent migrants and finally to Muslims in the wake of 2001. Moreover, a number of social problems related to the integration of certain groups of migrants (housing, access to labour market etc.) got to be interpreted as a question their non-European “culture” and their lack of integration potential qua Muslims and not for example just Arabs or Turks.  Muslims generally became the internal “others” in relation to a supposedly homogeneous and original European or Western culture. In the last decade, the attacks in Europe in 2004 in Madrid, in 2007 in London and in 2015 in Paris, the anti-Western ideology and recruitment activities of global jihadism continue to lend to this perception a whole series of arguments.

Today’s islamophobia has left the realm of culturally condescending policies of colonial administration and uncritical academia to enter Europe’s very debate on social cohesion and cultural identity. Islamophobias today is a discriminatory attitude of a racist type targeting entire ethnic and religious groups; it is a tendency to perceive negatively, with hostility and generalizing prejudices towards nationalities and individuals related to Islam.

Like racism and xenophobia, “islamophobia” is not just a concept but also a negative label, used by opposing opinion makers to dismiss the others, or sometimes to boast. The concept of islamophobia therefore lost its critical dimension and become all too often a rhetoric weapon, a syndrome of feeling threatened, or a name of a certain illiberal identity.

It is therefore useful to discern between its various dimensions: islamophobic utterances and attitudes of individuals and groups; anti-Islamic ideology legitimising those utterances and attitudes, and negative stereotypes within the public space.

Islamophobic attitudes transport fear and hostility that crystallized around a certain negative image of Islam as an anti-Western, aggressive and culturally inferior religious identity; those having islamophobic attitudes do not differentiate between Muslims; induce fear, portraying Islam as a threat, and our societies as threatened by an expansion of a hostile Islam; encourage a feeling an urgent threat that must be aggressively responded to. Islamophobic utterances are characterized by a larger conspiracy thinking, e.g. a project of a deliberate Islamization of the West.

Islamophobic attitutes mostly refer to a sophisticated, yet fact-proof ideology of anti-Islamism. An anti-Islamist ideology is, like any racism, is based on picking up a series of concrete negative characteristics (violent nature, misogyny, irrationality), ascribing them to a whole group of people (all Muslims) and subsequently explaining any negative fact (attacks, veiling) by the purported nature of the group as a whole. Anti-Islamism promotes an ideological construct with the following features: It creates an artificial image “of Islam”; it gives its own definition of Islam, without any substantial reference to complex, various, real of forms of Islam and without reference to individual Muslims and their self-understanding.

Anti-Islamists perceive Islam as a monolithic, static and unchanging set of dogmas and attitudes, as inferior the “West” because inherently archaic, misogynistic, violent and political. They deny its inner pluralism and its development, as well as the ability to adapt to the modern world and liberal democracy and perceive Islam as essentially a dogmatic ideology. Anti-islamist’s Islam is a “strawman”: a fictional image of Islam onto which anti-islamists hang a series of negative properties, eg. quotations from the Quran taken out of their context, negative social and political facts from the Muslim world. Then they ascribe those facts to the very essence of Islam, to their image of Islam in reality. The anti-Islamic ideology is therefore irrefutable by rational arguments, because any facts about Islam, its various forms, and Muslims forms of self-understanding have little to do with the anti-Islamist bogeyman. Anti-Islamists are not interested in reality but rather in a confirmation of their own attitudes. Anti-islamism is finally one of the dimensions of a new, illiberal, nationalist group identity.

Negative stereotypes concerning Islam and Muslims are subtle, but no less dangerous effects of islamophobic attitudes and anti-Islamist ideology.  Media spread around stereotypes, allow for imbalanced reporting and overuse sensationalism. Negative stereotypes within the political discourse are fruit of simplification, lack of knowledge, conceptual confusion and sometimes bias. Those negative stereotypes are perhaps the most serious effect of islamophobia. Negative, alarmist attitudes and at least some of the positions of anti-Islamism make it to the mainstream by channels that cannot be easily criticised for active islamophobia

Mainstreaming of islamophobic attitudes in the Czech Republic

Both within the political sphere and in the media, islamopbobia was a present, distinct, but marginal phenomenon since the years 2000. Islamophobic attitudes are a European mainstay since the 1990’s with regular peaks following violence related to Muslims in Europe or outside. Czech right extremist parties such as Národní strana (National party – NS) and Dělnická strana (Workers’ party – DSSS), as well as groups such as Národní odpor (National resistance) regularly target Muslims: they demonstrate in from of prayer rooms, sometimes attack them; protests against a building of a mosque (in Teplice in 2004, in Hradec Králové in 2010, Brno and Karlovy vary in 2013), they participate at anti-islamist meetings of European extreme right and make rejection of migration the topic of their electoral campaign.[5] Yet anti-Islamism is but an added dimension to existing nationalist and racist and often anti-Semitic agenda.

In the Czech media sphere, systematic islamophobic attitudes have largely been matter of the margins and of internet magazines. Eurabia.cz, “Truth about Islam” (pravdaoislamu.cz) and “Media about Islam” (mediaoislamu.cz) focus on Islam and a purported islamisation of Europe since 2005. The right-wing populist server eurabia.cz has on the one hand denied being islamophobic and points to its “balanced” publication about any topic related to Islam, including text by mainstream authors and academics. Yet it also gathers the largest number of dedicated right wing anti-Islamic writers since 2005.[6]

The first wave of islamophobic or at least Islam obsessed online publications dealt with the purported dangers of multiculturalism, a topic of the years 2000, following jihadi attacks in Europe. Islam and multiculturalism were clearly taken over from West European media where those questions were intensely debates. They were locally adapted for the Czech Republic whose Muslims are low in numbers and virtually invisible.)

The Arab spring marked a second wave of islamophobia, putting questions of Islam and democracy in the centre of public attention.  Since 2011 a specialized, local anti-Islamist movement has started to appear on social networks and generally in the internet.  Public online debates on news servers, blogs on main news servers and youtube channels have become sources of opinion making and community building for overtly and primarily anti-Islamist individuals. Led by a biology teacher, Martin Konvička, a number of online-discussants developed a systematically hostile discourse in internet discussions under any articles that were not dismissive of Arabs and Islam in general. By 2013 they have built up into an active facebook group called Islám v České republice nechceme (IVČRN – We do not want Islam in the Czech Republic) counting some 60 000 members. The facebook group was once closed down by facebook but reappeared and doubled its membership to 140 00 members before being closed down by facebook again in 2015. For comparison, extreme right wing parties have only thousands of members at their facebook groups. Slowly those loose groups started developing formal structures.

In summer 2011 a Czech chapter of the anti-Islamist European Defense League registered in the Czech Republic,[7] a continuation of a former group and portal opposed to building mosques in the Czech Republic, antimesita.cz (Anti-Mosque). The anti-Islamist activities were mostly limited to online campaigning against mosques, halal meat and spreading hoaxes concerning Muslims in Europe.

Even before the last crisis, the extreme right wing and anti-Islamists enlarged their focus from Muslims alone to perceived helpers of Islam and sought to increase political polarisation in the Czech Republic over matters related to Islam. Alongside Muslims, anti-discrimination activists are regularly harassed on-line and lists with perceived pro-Muslim liberals, with their names and sometimes addresses and phone numbers, were set up on a server called White Media. Anti-Islamists opposed empowering of the ombudsman Anna Šabatová, perceived as too liberal for her engagement in a headscarf affair.[8]

In 2015 anti-Islamist internet activism spilled over to the street, to mainstream media and finally to serious public tribunes such as the Czech parliament.  In the wake of the first Paris attacks, IVČRN started to hold public demonstrations on Prague, gathering a few thousands of people at a time.[9] It gained support from populist parliamentarian parties, among other by Tomio Okamura from the Dawn of Direct Democracy (Úsvit přímé demokracie) who joined in with overtly aggressive anti-Muslim utterances[10], by several of his copartisans from the Dawn and by the senator and leader of the president Zeman’s party, Jan Veleba. The jihadi attacks in particular and the Islam in Europe question in general was a controversial one from the onset. In a sensationalist move, mainstream media, including television, stared inviting extremist anti-Islamist activists to their prime time shows, giving them space and public legitimacy. The left the margins and their internet existence and became instant celebrities.

Finally, in spring 2015 the migration crisis erupted and attention shifted from Islam in Europe as such to a fear of an “Muslim invasion” to Europe. The migration crisis allowed overt islamophobic attitudes enter the media mainstream. From April to August Czech reporting on the quotas for refugee resettlement and on the Balkan border crisis were generally negative. The tone has somewhat changed when numerous Czech volunteer started bringing back their own, more differentiated stories and testimonials and when young Czechs could be depicted as agents within the larger story.

The last stage of the anti-Islamist mainstreaming was the public support given to IVČRN by the president Miloš Zeman. In October 2015 IVCRN was invited by populist parties and under the auspices of the president to organise a conference on Islam in the Senate, after it held a conference in October in the Parliament.[11] Then the president supported their arguments, e.g. stating that there a “moderate Muslim is a contradiction in terms”,[12] talking about a threat of a super-holocaust coming from the Islamic state[13] and stating that there was a Muslim invasion of Europe organised by the Muslims Brotherhood. Most symbolically, Konvička and his supporters were invited to the tribune together with the president on the anniversary of the 1989 revolution. At the end of 2015 IVCRN joined a political party called Blok proti islámu (BPI – Block against islam) that is poised to run in the regional elections in autumn 2016. Konvička was eventually indicted of inciting hatred and awaits trial.

Changing forms of islamophobia

Although being generally viewed as relatively liberal and tolerant, the Czech Republic has a history of discrimination and widespread negative attitude against its Roma minority. During the last year Islamophobic attitudes – in the form of hate speech, incitement to violence on the internet, public protests – have largely surpassed previous anticiganist expressions. The above described mainstreaming of Islamophobic attitudes has home-grown and imported sources in anti-Islamic ideologies and translated into widely shared stereotyping of Muslims in the public sphere. Anti-Islamism has developed in a space of latent islamophobia into a closed ideology thanks to active lecturing of ex-Muslims, anti-Islamist ideologues and influence media.

In 2007 Jiří Schneider linked anti-Islamism to a wide range of attitudes and current, above the Euro-scepticism: “The anti-Islam camp in the Czech Republic involves Euroskeptics of all sorts, evangelical Christian fundamentalists, secular liberal feminists, Roman-Catholic traditionalists, opponents of Turkish EU membership, proponents of the separation of church and state who view Islam as a religion of governance“.[14] Especially the neo-conservative inspired personalities such as Roman Joch have been vocal in their skepticism towards Islam. Until 2011, those attitudes could be subsumed mostly under a register of a criticism of Islam, being mostly concerned with forms of Islamism.

During the present crisis, a full blown anti-Islamist ideology had emerged. A tautological, fact-proof and rationally non-opposable kind of ideology is put forward by activists rather than academics. For them, Islam is a disease, people need to be cured; Islam is inherently violent, expansionist and political. Anyone opposing their views is labelled naïve (sluníčkář) or traitor (vlastizrádce). The positions of leading anti-Islamists are not only extreme, they are often absurd and hence in need of legitimation from foreign or somewhat authentic sources. Martin Konvička is well known for his pseudo-psychological lecture on Islam as “a psychosexual pathology”. [15]

For legitimation, the IVCRN often refer to ex-Muslims. They especially list a series of female ex-Muslims who offer to give testimony about their experience with Islam upon invitation in the Czech Republic. A prominent ex-Muslim convert, Lukáš Lhoťan, leads a campaign against the Prague Islamic community since 2010. His position is that Islam is no religion but an expansionist political ideology. In 2014, he was instrumental in indicting the community of spreading hatred which led to a medialized police razzia of the main Prague mosque on the outskirts of Prague. After having enjoyed trust as a representative of Czech Muslims for example by the US Embassy at their interreligious gatherings, Lhoťan has turned against his earlier coreligionists with vehemence and has gained following in the anti-Islamist camp.[16] A more trusted source of anti-Islamism is another ex-Muslim, Salman Hasan, an Iraqi Muslim converted to Christianity and a preacher against the “dangers of Islam”. Unlike Lhoťan and Konvička, Hasan has the aura of authentic experience (he lost members of his family to extremist in Iraq) and good intention (he engages in Christian missionary and charity work). Salman Hasan tours the Czech Republic, especially the periphery, with his message; unlike the activist in IVČRN he acceded to mainstream media without a need for previous controversy and unlike aggressive anti-Islamists he easily gains confidence even in educated, well off circles.

Besides domestic supply of anti-Islamists, the ideology draws on foreign sources for inspiration and support. According to the Czech interior ministry, Front National is a direct inspiration for Czech Anti-Islamists.[17] IVČRN cooperates with the German Pegida. Besides extreme right movements, IVČRN calls upon American neo-conservative sources, like the political entrepreneur Bill Warner. The former physicist and professional anti-Islam activist founded a Center for the Study of Political Islam in the Czech Republic[18]. He holds lectures about “Why people fear Islam?”, offers online courses on Islam and sells his numerous publications, among others, “Sharia for non-Muslims”. He is linked to larger anti-Islam opinion hubs like the Gates of Vienna website and Counter Jihad Report. He presents himself as a knower and student of Islam, he owns the website politicalislam.com and sells Czech translations of his books to seemingly avid Czech audience (for example to activist atheists).

Anti-islamism and alarmism related to the migration crises are most probably spread deliberately also by influence seeking media of suspected Russian provenance. The Czech ministry of interior quotes the Russian influence medias (Sputnik and Aeronet) as sources of deliberately alarming news about dangers related to Muslim immigration to Europe: they present distorted statistics and focus in the inability of Europe to counter the migration crisis.[19] Other less visible source of panic around Islam are online TVs, whose videos are widely circulating for example through emails among retired Czech who are not on the usual social media. One of them is the purportedly Catholic Gloria.tv, spreading news about War in Europe in several languages (German speaker, Slovak subtitles). The siege of Gloria TV is in Moscow. [20] Among the Czech politicians who support the anti-Islamist cause is Senator Veleba, who is also well known supporter of Putin.

Conclusion: Anti-Muslim stereotypes as political currency

In 2015, islamophobic attitudes have left their virtual margins and entered the public mainstream. It became acceptable to present far-fetched anti-Muslim opinions and borderline racist attitudes. The mainstreaming of islamophobic attitudes and the spread of anti-Islamist beliefs may well pay into the hands of populist parties in future elections, leading perhaps to more anti-Islamists present in representative bodies. Yet the most serious consequence of the rise of the islamophobia phenomenon in 2015 is the spread of negative stereotypes into mainstream media and political discourse and the polarization of public opinion.

Even after some improvement of reporting, media do not shun generalizations and simplification. It became acceptable even for journalists of public to work in non-objective and suggestive manner, when the talk is about Islam. The confusion between Islam and Islamism became a matter of opinion, not of facts, as a prominent radio journalist has shown, by pushing a rare voice of reason, prof. Tomáš Halík, into a conclusion he did not want to make about Islam being inherently fundamentalist.[21] A logic of suspicion became current: Muslims are talked about as if having shared essential characteristics, like resistance to modernity and to integration to a European political model and a general tendency to radicalize.

The stereotypisation of Muslims entered the political discourse of mainstream parties too. Petr Fiala, the leader of the right wing ODS, has made the otherness of Islam and the purported impossible integration of Muslims into one of his main topics. The Finance minister, Andrej Babiš, who will be campaigning for premiership next year, has, after some hesitation chosen to also pick up the migration issue. Even if the political mainstream stays short of overt islamophobic attitudes, the usage of stereotypes by main political leaders may actually confirm the suspicions among the general public rather than reassure them against purported dangers. A spiral of polarization and populist radicalization may well unfold in the coming year.

Yet, as this short study shows, anti-Islamism is far from being a simple default position of some inherently islamophobic public opinion. It is actively created and spread around by a number of ideologues and ex-Muslims, not unlike it is being promoted in the USA. Recently, the Center for American Progress in the United States has identified a network of foundations and “disinformation experts” connected to the American religious right and the neoconservatives, who specialise in promoting anti-Islamic attitudes. [22] It also feeds on a fractured media landscape: as two main dailies are owned by the finance minister and other mainstream media by a few magnates, the center loses credibility and the scissors between liberal and xenophobic opinion open, leaving the space to sensationalist, biased or foreign influenced news channels. An example for all: the eurabia.cz server was recently incorporated into more seriously looking Parliamentarian News (eurabia.parlementnilisty.cz), co-owned by a major lottery entrepreneur.

The Czech Republic generally lacks a moral authority figure, after the loss of Václav Havel. Recent eruption of all sorts of public debates about Islam, a strong civil society mobilization in favour of more solidarity with war victims and the development of independent online media may just slow down the descent into populism. The polarisation of other V4 public may well be the last warning against the rationality of radical political games.

 

[1] „Islamophobia: A Challenge for us all“, available at: http://www.runnymedetrust.org/publications/17/32.html; p. 5

[2] Étienne Dinet,  Sliman Ben Ibrahim, L’Orient vu de l’OccidentEssai Critique, (Paris: H. Piazza, 1925), 176-183, quoted by Bridge Initiative Team in: Define “Islamophobia:” The Right Word for a Real Problem. Available at: http://bridge.georgetown.edu/islamophobia-the-right-word-for-a-real-problem/

[3] “ Islamophobie ” : une invention française, Divergences, 8. 7. 2012, available at: http://divergences.be/spip.php?article3159

[4] “ Islamophobie ” : une invention française, Divergences, 8. 7. 2012,  available at: http://divergences.be/spip.php?article3159

[5] „Imigrace jako ultrapravicové téma ve volbách do Evropského parlamentu“, Migrace Online, 21. 10. 2009, available at: http://migraceonline.cz/cz/e-knihovna/imigrace-jako-ultrapravicove-tema-ve-volbach-do-evropskeho-parlamentu

[6] Migrace online, „Strukturální a obsahová analýza serveru Eurabia.cz“, 27. 06. 2007, available at: http://www.migraceonline.cz/cz/e-knihovna/strukturalni-a-obsahova-analyza-serveru-eurabia-cz

[7] David Mrva, „Czech Defence League v kontextu antidžihádistického hnutí“, Rexter 02/2012, available at: http://casopis.rexter.cz/rexter_02_2014.pdf

[8] „Islamophobia on the rise“, Prague Post, 31. 12. 2014, available at: http://www.praguepost.com/czech-news/43563-islamophobia-on-the-rise

[9] “Czech Republic: Protests against Islam and for religious freedom in front of Prague Castle”, Romea.cz, 17-01-2015, available at: http://www.romea.cz/en/ news/czech/czech-republic-protests-against-islam-and-for-religious-freedom-in-front-ofprague-castle

[10] „Tomio Okamura, who heads the Czech opposition Dawn of Direct Democracy movement, has called on people on Facebook to bother Muslims in the Czech Republic by “walking pigs” in the vicinity of mosques, for example, which, he emphasised, is no incitement to intolerance.“ – „MP urges Czechs: Walk your pigs near mosques“, 03. 01. 2015, Islamophobia watch, available at: http://www.islamophobiawatch.co.uk/category/czech-republic/

[11] The konference was cancelled due to lacking procedure: „Konference islamofobů v Senátu nebude. A někde jinde?“, available at: http://www.tyden.cz/rubriky/domaci/politika/konference-islamofobu-v-senatu-nebude-a-nekde-jinde_359865.html

[12] See the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance report: „Zpráva ECRI Česká Republika“, Ocotber 2015, available at: http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/Country-by-country/Czech_Republic/CZE-CbC-V-2015-035-CZE.pdf

[13] „Full text: Zeman’s speech at Holocaust event“, Prague Post 27. 01. 2015, available at: http://www.praguepost.com/eu-news/44022-full-text-zeman-s-speech-at-holocaust-event

[14] „Muslim Minorities and Czech Society,“ Jiří Schneider, in: Islam and Tolerance in Wider Europe, ed. By y Pamela Kilpadi, Open Society Institute, Budapest 2007

[15] Link on youtube available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBfORFXRgXg

[16] „The only reliable Muslim is an ex-Muslim“, web of the anti-Islamist IVCRN: „Jediný skutečně spolehlivý muslim je exmuslim“, available at: http://www.ivcrn.cz/jediny-skutecne-spolehlivy-muslim-je-exmuslim/

[17] Extremismus Souhrnná situační zpráva 1. čtvrtletí roku 2015, available at mvcr.cz

[18] More concretely in Lidická 700, Brno, according to its facebook page.

[19] „Ministerstvo vnitra: Islamofobní a protimigrantské nálady jsou hlavním tématem extremistů“, 21. 10. 2015, manipulatori.cz; available at: http://manipulatori.cz/ministerstvo-vnitra-islamofobni-a-protimigrantske-nalady-jsou-hlavnim-tematem-extremistu/

[20] See https://gloria.tv/imprint/

[21] available at: http://media.rozhlas.cz/_audio/03534913.mp3

[22] „Fear Inc.!, report Center for American Progress, viz https://www.americanprogress.org/…/fear-inc-2-0

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