Ivan Kalmar March 2018
Racism (specifically, racism against Muslims) played a large role in the background of the Czech presidential election in January 2018 that returned Miloš Zeman to Prague Castle. When it came to the “migrant question,” the contest was not even about whether Muslim migrants should be welcomed – no candidate wanted that. Rather, it was about who could be trusted as a sincere, rather than a feigned, racist.
The victorious Zeman’s credentials as one of Europe’s leading Islamophobes were unassailable. During the campaign, he repeated his belief that Islam was a dangerous ideology, and even muttered that the small Czech Muslim community was becoming radicalized. It was, rather, his sole opponent in the election’s second round, Jiří Drahoš, who was suspected of harboring some sympathy for those in need, regardless of race or creed. In 2015 Drahoš had added his name to a proclamation signed by 3,509 intellectuals, which warned against describing migrants as “harmful wildlife and parasites,” and exhorted politicians to ensure that all who seek shelter in Europe are offered “safety and dignified treatment.” During the debate with Zeman, though, Drahoš insisted that he had opposed admitting migrants “from the start.” This desperate turnaround convinced no one, and soon Zeman was able to toast a narrow but convincing victory: 51.4% against Drahoš’s 48.6.
In the background of the victory celebration, a drunken publicist with known racist views was being led away by police after punching a journalist. Meanwhile, on the lit-up stage, a beaming 45-year-old man of Asian appearance stood to the right of the president. This was Tomio Okamura, the loudest Islamophobe in the country, who is not satisfied with just “zero tolerance of immigration,” but wants to ban Islam outright.
The last time Okamura had such a good time was a month earlier, when at an international far-right fest in Prague he hosted Marine LePen and Geert Wilders. Keeping friends like these helped his Party of Direct Democracy come in third during last October’s parliamentary elections.
The parliamentary election was won by the billionaire Andrej Babiš, but for many complex reasons he has not been able to find coalition partners for a stable government. Even Babiš, who has vowed to “protect” Czechs from Muslim migrants, would find ruling with Okamura unpalatable. But if there are no other options, he’ll go for it. Such a step would warm Zeman’s heart. For others, it would toll the bells for Czech democracy.
On the bright side, that a man born in Japan is adored by Czech racists suggests that Czech racism is not as deep-seated as it might seem. Western observers who attribute it to a generalized East European proclivity to authoritarianism and ethno-religious intolerance are wrong. Czech democracy has relatively solid roots and, although sadly anti-Roma prejudice is rampant, rates of antisemitism in the country resemble more the situation in Canada rather than that of Poland.
Indiscriminate condemnation of East Europeans, which may itself be a form of racism, only encourages East European racism; it generates its own target. When during the 2015 migrant influx the European Union legislated compulsory refugee quotas for each member state, many eastern members objected to the imposition, though within the Czech government there was at first some debate about admitting refugees voluntarily. Yet the quotas were approved, in violation of the tradition that important EU decisions must be reached by consensus. The insult of collective criticism against the East of the Union was amplified by a number of EU officials calling the East Europeans ungrateful freeloaders (even though, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has shown, western businesses have taken out of the East of the EU more than EU subsidies have put in).
Such arrogance boosted populists like Okamura, Zeman, and Babiš, who fan the anti-migrant flames in a country where hardly any Muslims are planning to come.
The political mainstreaming of Czech Islamophobia has, to be sure, not been equally successful everywhere. The big cities voted overwhelmingly for Drahoš, while Zeman carried the countryside. The city elites, intellectual and economic, have integrated with global networks and exhibit a hip international lifestyle derided by the provincials as “the Prague café.” Many small-town Czechs resent this, just as many Britons or French similarly resent, from their almost equally all-white little towns, the cosmopolitan glamour of London and Paris.
If many a provincial Czech feels like a ridiculed “little guy” compared to the “Prague café,” so does, too, many a Czech compared to fellow Europeans in the West. A Czech small town is to Prague like the Czech Republic itself is to the West. Politicized Islamophobia is everywhere a revolt of the periphery, feeling left out by the rapidly developing centres of global culture and capital.
There are certainly many other reasons as well for the political success of Czech Islamophobia. Yet not all is lost. There were enough Drahoš voters even in the provinces to make the final vote close. Next time, he or another genuine democrat may prevail. That will require patiently addressing ordinary folks’ real grievances, while daring to stand up to racist solutions. The fight won’t be won by opportunistic pandering to the public’s fears and hates. That is something that Zeman, Babiš, and Okamura will always do much better by far.
Ivan Kalmar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Early Orientalism: Imagined Islam and the Notion of Sublime Power (Routledge, 2014). Currently, he is the principal investigator in a five-year project on Islamophobia and populism in Europe, with a focus on relationships, differences and similarities between the East and West of the European Union, including between the East and West in Germany.