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The Czech Republic is rife with xenophobia — with hardly any foreigners.
The Czech Republic, a country that regards itself as intrinsically democratic and tolerant, is in the grips of a strong wave of anti-refugee and anti-Islamic hysteria. Motivated by fear of the unknown and fanned by openly racist media, the darkening mood has encouraged surprisingly extreme discourse on social networks like Facebook.
A certain amount of fear is perhaps understandable. After the deportation of a large German minority from Czechoslovakia in 1945 and after 40 years of communism, Central European countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary are highly homogeneous and predominantly white. Historically, the Czechs and the Slovaks defined their nationality in terms of language, meaning that if you did not speak Czech or Slovak you were an alien, not to be accepted or trusted.
Xenophobia and racism tend to be strongest where people have never met foreigners or persons of another skin color. But the intensity of the venom directed at immigrants — of whom there are very few in the Czech Republic — in public discourse is staggering.
The Czech Republic recently decided to accept 15 sick Syrian children for treatment in Czech hospitals. Remarkably, in an Internet poll attached to a newspaper article reporting on the story, 83 percent of readers disagreed with the decision.
Those few dozen refugees who occasionally stray onto Czech territory while trying to reach Germany are now being rounded by up Czech police, handcuffed, and incarcerated in immigrant detention centers in Bělá pod Bezdězem and Vyšní Lhoty. Their money and mobile telephones are systematically confiscated.
Several hundred refugees are currently being held, and in a recent riot, many demanded that they be released and allowed to continue their journey to Germany, where they have relatives. The Czech government maintains that it has the right to arrest them and send them back to the first European country by which they originally entered the EU. This usually means Greece or Italy, countries that can hardly cope with an overwhelming influx of refugees and desperately need other EU countries to take on some of the burden.
In a promising development, a Czech court decreed that the government has no legal basis for imprisoning and holding refugees, and released an Iranian refugee and his family from incarceration. But the Czech Home Office does not regard the Iranian case as a precedent and continues to detain the remaining refugees, although a few have been released in the past few days and allowed to continue to Germany. A handful of members of pro-immigration NGOs recently demonstrated in Bělá in support of the refugees. Some refugees in Bělá complain that they are not being given sufficient food in the detention center and are undernourished.
In a TV interview with the widely read tabloid newspaper Blesk, Czech President Miloš Zeman told refugees that if they did not like the Czech Republic’s handling of their situation, they should leave: “No one has invited you,” he said. Paradoxically, to leave is exactly what these refugees would like to — but cannot — do. Zeman expressed satisfaction that riot police was mobilized against the refugees in Bělá, advocating that more force be used against them.
“Some people might regard what I am saying as an appeal to the basest human instincts, but it is the same attitude as that of the Hungarians and of the British Prime Minister David Cameron,” he added. Zeman was elected President in a direct election two and a half years ago on what, at the time, seemed like a left-wing ticket, but has recently started to make increasingly populist, authoritarian and right-wing statements.
On August 17, several hundred Czech academics made a public appeal, demanding that politicians and the media drop the current anti-immigration discourse. Jiří Ovčáček, the spokesperson of President Zeman, rejected the appeal as divisive and elitist.
Commentators have pointed out that the current anti-refugee hysteria is a symptom of a major change of values in the post-communist Czech Republic over the past two years or so. While in the 1990s or 2000s life in the Czech Republic was not perfect, the country was at least pretending that it was aiming to become a Western democracy. Corruption may have been a problem, but it was more or less hidden and whenever it came into the open, it created a scandal.
The situation seems to have changed. The media are no longer bothered by scandalous behavior and politicians flaunt political positions they would have been ashamed of in the past. It is perhaps not surprising in a country where the finance minister’s post is held by Andrej Babiš, one of the most powerful Czech oligarchs, who owns two national newspapers and whose private business receives contracts from his own Ministry. Similar indifference now seems to apply to issues like racism. The phenomenon was succinctly summed up in a recent cartoon: In 2013, a beer-bellied “ordinary Czech” would have said, “I am not a racist, but…” and then he would badmouth non-whites; in 2015, the same “ordinary Czech” says, “I am a racist. So what?”
Social media and the internet have greatly contributed to the legitimization of views that, until recently, would have been regarded as intolerable. A young woman’s recent post on Facebook — in language that would be considered to be from the extreme fringe in other Western countries — is typical of the new national mood: “Our peculiar ethno-cultural microcosm is very precious to us and we mean to protect it jealously. Our grandfathers paid for it with their blood, and we’re sure as hell not going to share it with uninvited guests. After all, our historical experience teaches us that only enemies come uninvited. Kindly mind your own business and stop meddling with our affairs, maybe?”
In the same vein, much intolerance also been aired by a highly popular Czech language website Parlamentní listy (“Parliamentary Newsletter” — the name is a misnomer, the website has nothing to do with Czech Parliament, it is a purely commercial venture). The site prides itself on being “absolutely open to all views,” but its editorial policy is based on a confrontation of emotional, extreme, usually unsubstantiated, often paranoid opinions.
The website has 600,000 individual readers per month and politicians kowtow to it. Its business model is based on whipping up the emotions of a frustrated contingent of the Czech public, and it publishes widely read-articles likening refugees to “invaders.”
Statements that all refugees and “darkies” should be executed, drowned or sent to gas chambers are regular features on the debating fora of major Czech newspapers and on Facebook. When a boat near the Libyan shore capsized last week and more than 200 refugees drowned, one of the Czech readers reacted by commenting: “Swim harder, darkie. See whether you can reach Europe.” Isolated verbal and physical attacks on dark-skinned people or on people wearing headscarves have also taken place.
Activists led by Martin Konvička, a lecturer at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice, have founded an organization called “We do not want Islam in the Czech Republic” and presented an anti-immigration petition signed by 140,000 people to the Czech Parliament in June. Konvička and his followers argue that Islam is a criminal, murderous “ideology” that should be outlawed. In an interview, President Zeman publicly agreed with Konvička, who has now turned his organization into a political party called “The Anti-Islamic Bloc” and plans to run in the upcoming elections.
In a widely watched video interview, Czech TV interviewer Martin Veselovský confronted Konvička about a number of highly inflammatory statements he had made on Facebook, including a call for “concentration camps” for Muslims. Konvička was evasive and said that these statements were “only made on Facebook.”
Last month, Konvička’s activists and other extreme-right-wingers staged an anti-refugee demonstration in Prague to which they brought gallows and nooses and threatened the “pro-refugee” government and liberal citizens. No one has been charged for this: The Czech police carried out an assessment and said that bringing gallows and nooses to a demonstration does not constitute a criminal offence. Most Czechs do not speak foreign languages and thus cannot compare what the local media tells them with what is really going on abroad. Nevertheless, even in this context, the current fear and loathing directed at foreigners and refugees is remarkable, in particular since there are only a few hundred refugees in the Czech Republic and most of those who make it across the border do not even want to stay.
Jan Čulík works as Senior Lecturer in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Czech-language cultural and political internet daily Britské listy.
*This article was originally published on Politico, on 21st August 2015.