Refugee crisis breeds Islamophobia in Eastern Europe
PRAGUE // The police had been patient under the broiling sun. But when the make-believe Haj worshippers draped a black cloth over a mocked up Kaaba, Islam’s holiest symbol, their patience finally snapped.
They moved swiftly to stop the deeply offensive portrayal of the pilgrimage to Mecca after the watching local officials ruled that it broke statutes against defaming religion.
The contentious scenes were the climax of an anti-Islam demonstration provocatively staged outside Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Prague, the Czech capital, 10 days ago. It was the latest in a series of stunts by a fringe far-right group designed to cause the maximum shock.
While the scene drew just a few onlookers and made barely a ripple in the national news, it came at a time when Islamophobia has entered the political mainstream in the Czech Republic and other eastern European countries following the migrant crisis that has seen more than one million refugees from Syria and elsewhere flood into Germany over the past year.
Political leaders in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland have all rigidly opposed a quota system proposed by the European Union to disperse refugees among members, as advocated by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the European Commission, the EU’s ruling executive.
The commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has tried to push through a proposal to distribute 160,000 asylum seekers around the 28-nation bloc, to ease the burden on Italy and Greece, where many refugees first arrive from the Middle East and North Africa after perilous journeys across the sea. But opposition from eastern European nations has threatened to torpedo the scheme, prompting the commission last May to threaten to levy €250,000 (Dh1.03 million) per indiviaul migrant on countries which refused to accept refugees.
Still the issue remains in limbo. Although Poland has agreed to accept 7,000 asylum seekers, Slovakia and Hungary have mounted a legal challenge against the quota plan in the European Court of Justice.
Robert Fico, Slovakia’s Left-wing populist prime minister, declared this year that Islam “has no place in Slovakia”, adding that Muslim migrants would “change the face of the country”. True to that belief, Slovakia has so far offered refuge to only around 50 Christian migrants from Iraq.
Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orban, is also mobilising anti-Islamic sentiment in a bid to win support in an October 2 referendum, which asks voters whether they support the EU’s quota plan. Mr Orban, who has called migrants “poison”, recently announced that the country would build a border barrier to reinforce the razor-wire fence it constructed along its southern frontiers with Serbia, Croatia and Romania in 2015, after more than 177,000 refugees sought asylum in Hungary, although only 146 were accepted.
Yet, eastern European Islamophobia is “an artificially trumped-up issue” used by politicians in societies with little direct contact with Muslims, according to Professor Jan Urban, a political commentator at the University of New York in Prague.
“With the exception of Hungary, none of these countries has any direct experience of the refugee flow,” he said. “You can see the same trend in the former East Germany. There are far fewer refugees there than in the west, yet it’s the number one issue there.
“[But] the consequences are much more serious than in the west because it’s so unreal. It’s turning democratic Czech politics upside down and leading to the rise of populist parties. Mainstream politicians have realised that the refugee scare is something the electorate will react to and are scared of losing support to more radical voices. So they are competing to be in the front line of this issue.”
There is no more striking example than Milos Zeman, the Czech president, who has advocated building a border fence to keep migrants out, and urged Czechs to arm themselves to defend against possible Islamist terror attacks and called on volunteer firefighters to guard the borders against migrants.
In a recent interview, Mr Zeman, a Social Democrat, rejected suggestions that Muslim immigrants could integrate into the Czech Republic — a country famed for its beer drinking culture and high pork diet — and warned that they would create “isolated ghettos and no-go areas”.
He also dismissed the idea of “moderate Muslims”, saying they could easily become radicalised in the same way as ordinary Germans in the 1930s were inspired to become fanatical followers of Hitler.
Yet Islam has little visible presence in the Czech Republic. No minarets feature among Prague’s famous baroque skyline, while the country’s most recent census in 2011 revealed only around 3,500 Muslims out of a total population of 10.5 million, although experts estimate the true figure is closer to 20,000, with most declining to identify their religion.
Most came from Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, while others arrived from the former Soviet Union. There are also believed to be several hundred Czech converts, as well as small numbers from the Middle East and North Africa.
Feeding the fear and suspicion of eastern European nations, many believe, is a shared background of post-Second World War communism until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that provided them with little historic experience of mass immigration — or Islam. Shut off from the increasing multiculturalism that characterised much of the west during the Cold War, eastern Europeans heard relatively little about the atrocities the Nazis committed against some ethnic groups, particularly Jews, during the Second World War — hearing instead that the main victims were Communists.
“It’s a very unfortunate legacy of Communist isolation that people were for decades not used to foreigners, people of different skin colour, orientation or religion,” said Professor Urban. “West Germany in 1945 was fortunate that it had to go through denazification under the scrutiny of the western powers. Populism in the former Communist countries has risen because of that lack of anything similar and the inability to deal with the legacy of Communism.”
At the demonstration in Prague, the leader of the group Martin Konvicka, a university lecturer, made clear the intention was primarily to offend, with the stunts designed to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment in the Czech Republic.
“The Czech Republic has one of the highest rates of secularism of any European country,” said the 46-year-old — a slight, strutting, cropped-haired figure in a blue suit and open-necked shirt, before launching into an Islamophobic diatribe.
His group — known as the Martin Konvicka Initiative — caused an uproar in Prague’s historic Old Town Square last month after entering the area dressed as ISIL terrorists and firing off air rifles, causing panicked tourists, to flee.
The stunt drew widespread condemnation.
His event 10 days ago ended with several of the demonstrators, being herded into a police van by officers in riot gear.
Amid the hardline rhetoric, analysts believe Islam and migrants are little more than a pretext exploited by populists to create an external enemy.
“Events such as this weekend’s have nothing to do with Muslims in [the Czech Republic], not even with Islam per se,” Zora Hesova, a research fellow specialising in Muslim integration in Europe at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank, wrote in an email. “It is a new brand of anti-systemic populism driven by a small number of power seeking extremists, who keep forming “movements”, disintegrating, and fighting with each other.
“They have found themselves a great topic, supported by everything that comes out of Syria, linked with anti-islamist individuals in the west. They also found out that provocation works well via mainstream media, which is addicted to the bizarre and the scandalous. [But] I would not make them into some great expression of latent Islamophobia.”
Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM