Czech Republic: Celebrating the Westernness

I remember my first days in Prague, full of curiosity and passion for trying to understand how the social aspect of human existence is characterized in the Czech Republic. After all, I was coming from a city—Istanbul—with a population of more than 15 million people, and it contained every extreme of Eastern and Western culture (along with many fusions between the two). I knew that it would be nothing like that. On the other hand, I was expecting to find another type of fusion in Prague: a blend of post-communism and Westernization. I was interested in how such a blend would find its reflections in identities and shape individual behavior.

Prague, Czech Republic


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Is it possible to make generalizations or be objective about a culture?

It has been two and a half years, but I still feel the picture is not complete to make any generalizations about it. One may question whether it is appropriate to try to make generalizations about any culture at all. After all, doesn’t every culture accommodate several diversities and dynamics within itself? True, yet, as an outsider living in a foreign culture, you are always in search for a pattern so that you know how to adapt. Besides that, your opinion is repeatedly, as if being an outsider provided an advantage for making objective remarks about what the culture you live in. Put aside the fact that there is no such thing as being objective, because I am an outsider that I think I cannot be objective. For example, everything I see, watch or notice in this country, I take it for granted and say “it must be part of the culture,” more than any insider who can detect what is an exception and what is part of the common trend. So, keeping in mind that both generalizing and objectivity are impossible, let me offer a few personal observations.

About the young generation

As an instructor involved in the higher education sector in Prague, most of my encounters with Czechs have been in the classroom with students between 18 and 22.  Even though different nationalities are present, Czechs constitute the majority. These encounters are interesting as the discussions revolve around politics and international relations. In a session on political ideologies, for instance, we discuss  Communism and what it is like to live in a culture that has a Communist heritage. I am puzzled by the fact that the question does not create much effect on the students and that the period of communism is completely remote for them. To many, only grandmothers used to tell what it was like and how they were used to not having bananas – a rare imported fruit. These grandmothers used to harvest fruits from their gardens rather than buying them from a market. I think to myself ‘OK, this generation has not experienced even the fall of Communism, but are they really that isolated from their country’s late history? Doesn’t it have any effect on their own life?’ Then in another session of the course, my astonishment is doubled, as the very same students are so eager to talk about the merits and triumphs of liberal democracy, such as how great it feels to be free. Freedoms are understood in terms of being able to express whatever you want, go wherever you like, do whatever you want. Listening to them carefully, I notice an appreciation and pride in their voice for being part of the Western world and a relief of being distant from the East and particularly from the ‘Islamic’ Middle East. They are convinced that liberal democracy is the best form of government. Why shouldn’t it be? Their individual freedoms are not disturbed by any external force, they are secure, they live far from the threats of the world that they watch on TV.

Later on I realize that observations I obtain from the classes are not only limited with my own students. As a researcher, I also find out through interviews and some survey results that indifference to political and foreign policy matters is quite habitual among the young generation. Thus, it is indeed the triumph of liberal democracy: the values pertaining to Communism are already wiped away and it has almost become a fictional story told by grandparents. In this way, I find that the identities of young people constitute an extreme dimension of the Czech culture, which is “a celebration of being Western.”

Bureaucracy

On the other extreme side, I believe the Czech institutions have what I consider as the shadow of Communism. The difficulty in communication with the staff is customary in public institutions not only in terms of a lack of common language but also in terms of attitude. It is almost impossible to bypass the bureaucracy. Whatever you need (i.e., renewal of residence permit, hospital registration, birth certificate of a newborn, even application for scientific grants), you have to go through several personal numbers, permits, licenses, rules and regulations. It is a true challenge for a foreigner to deal with these unless they have a Czech partner who can call and find out from the relevant offices what is needed and then gather the paperwork. For Czechs, surely it is nothing unusual, as they have coped with it all their life.

Czechs and “The Other”

As a political scientist coming from Turkey, I was also curious about how Czechs perceive my home country. Turkey and Czech Republic are culturally very different. One distinction that catches the eye early on is perhaps their understandings of religion. While the Czech Republic is an exceptionally secular society, even anti-religious in some aspects, in Turkey, where the dominant religion is Islam, religion plays a stronger role in public life. To find out more, I conducted a research project on the perceptions of Turkey in Central Europe, and I learned about stereotypes in Czech society. Some Czechs, although holding positive views toward Turkey—especially after visiting the west coast of the country as tourists—would not feel happy about its future integration with the EU. This opinion could be summed up as ‘I appreciate the practices and beliefs of the other, which is interesting for me to see and understand, but I wouldn’t like these practices and beliefs to preoccupy my own life.’ On the other hand, there are also some Czechs who are seriously biased against the country as a result of the subconscious impact of media since ‘Islam’ is overstressed in the Czech news relating to Turkey. Thus, although there are not many Muslims living in the Czech Republic, Islamophobia is quite prevalent. It would be an interesting research project to understand why this is so; yet my personal assumption is that Islamophobia also comes as a result of the celebration of Westernness in the Czech Republic. In other words, as opposed to their liberal, secure, modern Western world, the Muslim world constitutes the world of insecurity, oppression and backwardness for the Czechs. It is through othering the Muslims that they know their Western identity and media plays a fundamental role in constructing both identities.

Pelin Ayan Musil

Pelin Ayan Musil

is a faculty member and chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Anglo-American University in Prague. She is the co-director of the research project titled Public Portrayal of Turkey in Visegrad Countries and author of the book, Authoritarian Party Structures and Democratic Political Setting in Turkey.