Two petitions, two societies, one dilemma

After a period of adopting a “none of my business” standpoint, Czechs have finally begun to openly discuss the recent refugee crisis in the EU. The topic and whether the Czech public agrees with or rejects the quotas or shows empathy or disdain to the refugees, will shape the election campaigns in the years to come.

Photo: WikimediaCommons/ Itsyoungrapper


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At the beginning of September, two petitions, both initiated by scientists, were circulated in the Czech Republic, the first by an entomologist, Martin Konvička, and the second one by a group of young naturalists, Lukáš Novák, Anna Vanclová and Martin Blažek. Both petitions represent the opinions and the divisions within Czech society (that we already wrote about), which manifested themselves for the first time during the 2013 presidential election campaign. 1

Konvička’s petition, which launched in May and closed with 180,000 signatures, demands the Czech government’s rejection of all EU proposals that apply compulsory quotas for the distribution of refugees, arguing that granting asylum should remain the domain of national states. It also says that if the EU continues to pressure the Czech government, parliament should initiate a national referendum on this topic. 2 But the petition’s agenda goes further than criticizing an EU decision – it also attacks Islam and immigrants, claiming that, “massive acceptance of culturally very odd, mostly Muslim immigrants, present an enormous security and economic risk for our country and its democratic establishment.”

The second petition, which was launched in August, has only garnered 13,000 signatures, but still remains open. It calls for the application of common sense to the refugee crisis. 3

It protests against the way ethnic hatred and religious intolerance are being ignited by the proliferation of rumors, false news and panic, which leads to dehumanization and discrimination of a vulnerable group of people. It criticizes the media and politicians for being silent when sound statement is needed; and then demagogic when they sense an opportunity to gain cheap points in popularity or viewership. The petition also rejects refugees being described as people invading our country only to rape, kill and misuse the social benefit system. The petition asks politicians to act as real statesmen, following laws and international treaties, and securing the refugees fair treatment, regardless of their ethnicity or religious identity.

Mr. Konvička, who has recently become the chairman of the Bloc Against Islam movement, 4 has already voiced his political ambitions and joined forces with the Dawn – National Coalition party to run in the regional and parliamentary elections. 5

Both the party and the movement are calling for a state of emergency declaration and army deployment to the borders. They also demand the Czech Republic leave Schengen and introduce a referendum with the option to leave NATO; while blaming the EU for artificially creating the crisis to subdue national state sovereignty. 6

The refugee crisis is proving to be a welcomed topic – an issue where extremists such as Konvička can meet the mainstream. Here they will not only attract extreme, separatist groups, but can suppress their normally marginal ideas, in order to stay in line with the overall opinions of the Czech public to gain favor. And recent polls confirm that the Czech political field is ready for someone to “reap the harvest”:

  • 74% of Czechs support the reestablishment of the border controls within the Schengen area. 7
  • 52% agree that the EU member states should share responsibilities for the refugees among themselves; 47% disagree. 8
  • 89% perceive the recent arrival of refugees as a problem for the CR; 51% seeing it as very big, while 36% see it as a rather big problem. 9
  • 25% of Czechs are very unsatisfied and 32% rather unsatisfied with the way the Czech government is dealing with the refugee crisis. 10
  • 61% of Czechs agree with the statement that both the CR and the EU should return refugees to their countries of origin, where aid should then be provided to them; 32% suggest returning refugees without any subsequent help. 11
  • 44% of Czechs think that the Czech state should not help the refugees at all; 37% think the state should help refugees in need regardless their religion; and 19% think the state should only help Christian refugees. 12

Professionals step in

But it will more than likely not be Mr. Konvička, clearly a “one issue” man, that transforms this topic into real political capital. More experienced political matadors have already lined up, grabbing at the chance to instrumentalize the refugee crisis and people’s fear and misunderstanding of Islam. They sense an opportunity for cheap PR or to revivify their fading political careers.

President Zeman is keen on keeping his electorate active, prepared and “ready” in the case he decides to run for a second term. Moreover, one must not forget he is still looking for a political platform that will enable him to “intrude” on parliament and practice everyday politics, as he loves to do it. His refusal to enter a refugee camp saying, “I only meet people I invited,” is certainly in line with politicians such as Konvička or Tomio Okamura; and it should be of no surprise that the latter suggested that Zeman put down the current “treacherous” government to establish a non-political government, as he did in 2013-2014. 13

Former President Václav Klaus who ended his presidential career with overly criticized and controversial amnesty in 2013 has also recently begun to test the mood. He launched a third petition called “Against immigration,” urging the government to secure the internal security and intangibility of state borders by using all means necessary, including the police and army.  14 He claims that massive migration presents a crucial threat to the stability of Europe and our future. The petition clearly goes against the one launched by the group of naturalists mentioned above, accusing them of elitism and alluding to their manipulation by unspecified political interest groups. While the petition’s initiators concede that they are not indifferent to the suffering of victims of conflict, they also say that the media is silencing and scandalizing the Czech public majority’s justified fears of a “disastrous inflow of migrants.”

But Klaus is only a lightweight in comparison to the Minister of Finance, leader of 2011’s ANO movement and billionaire, Andrej Babiš, who, as recent polls suggest, is a front runner for a future prime minister post. 15 In order to do so, he must beat the Social Democrats and apparently will not hesitate to exploit every issue, including the refugee crisis, to tip the polls in his favor. Negative stereotyping of Muslims or refugees has proven an easy task for him. In a recent television programme he said that, “the refugee crisis threatens the Czech Republic more than Russia and the war in Ukraine.” While he has warned of their integration prospects saying that, “Europe faces an invasion of nations which have a different religion, different work ethic and a different relation to women. These nations will not integrate.” 16

We simply do not want them!

Are we trapped in a classical dilemma of democracy, where the majority is entitled to vote freely to limit democracy or even abandon it totally? If we ignore the results of hypothetical elections and opinion polls on this issue – those saying: “We do not want the refugees in our country,” and, “We do not care about the EU and the UN or human rights; we are scared and do not want to be persuaded; we have already decided,” and, “If you do not want to respect the will of the majority, then do not dare speak of democracy.” – then people’s belief that democracy is the “rule of the people,” will be shattered.

But if we respect the results of such elections, our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights, such as the freedom of religion, will be limited; and we will be forced to acknowledge a collective guilt and admit that the majority are capable of democratically deciding to limit our freedoms, even if they perceive a common, self-preservating victory in the short term.

Maybe we should examine the sources of this current fear-driven mood. Where did it originate? Is it gleaned from personal experience, or the self-declared Islamic State’s dreadful PR campaign, which, with both the commercial and public mainstream media’s help, infiltrates our homes with brutal violence and the worst religious fanatism on a daily basis? Or is it the confusion, created by our incomprehensible, ever-changing world, which causes people to immediately call for 19th century arms – nationalism, xenophobia, closedness and autarchy – when it comes knocking on our doors? Is it that we feel our own identity is shaky and therefore insecure and endangered when confronted with images of determined religious fanaticism? Or have our manipulators run out of the “scarecrows,” – the Roma, gays or other minorities – they desperately need to divert our attention away from other pressing social or political issues? Is it based on the worries of those working, who fear that the refugees will “eat our bread,” and leave Czechs falling into poverty?

Ban Facebook!

Let us put aside situational factors, such as the summer’s extremely and unusually hot weather conditions, which might have taken a toll on human emotions and rationality, like they did in Spike Lee´s film Do the Right Thing (USA, 1989), 17 where the cohabitation of several ethnic communities in Brooklyn turns murderous and worsens racial stereotypes. However in the CR while the temperatures have moderated again, the hysteria still rages on. Maybe Lee´s film is not the best example – Orson Welles´ The War of the Worlds (USA, 1938), a famous radio adaptation of the eponymous H. G. Wells’ novel, and the subsequent hysteria it caused would better exemplify the Czech situation.

People make police reports about every person they consider to be a refugee, as if we were living in a state of war. 18 An example of “people´s vigilance,” as terrifying as it is ridiculous, occurred when a student reported a man with brown skin, wearing a black suit and white cap and carrying a weapon on his back – someone they perceived was an armed refugee. The police investigation concluded that the alleged refugee was actually a chimney sweep, endangering Czechs with his chimney brush.

The absurdity of the situation triggered a wave of jokes and the establishment of a Facebook page imitating Konvička´s “We do not want Islam in the Czech Republic” movement, but with a new slogan: “We do not want chimney sweeps in the Czech Republic.” Yes, we all had a good laugh. But aren´t these text-book examples of how everyday fascism is brought to life? The prospect of people´s vigilantism transforming into a public lynching may not be far off if the hysteria is not stopped. But how? 19

In an ideal world, we should sit, talk, argue, listen and discuss. Unfortunately, two antagonistic camps, voiced by two petitions, exist in oppositional spaces, barely listening to each other’s views and only cementing their already firm standpoints. Social media is dominated by “xenophobes” and “fascists” voicing their opinions in direct and short bursts, while the “optimists” and “national traitors” produce sophisticated and complex articles, rationally trying to advert Czech’s fear of refugees. It is easy to establish an online petition and attract thousand of supporters, but Facebook and other social media platforms are the source of some of the worst stupidities, hoaxes and slanders proliferated on the web. This was proven by a statement, first made as joke, that the Ministry of Education had succumbed to Islamization and was forced to introduce Arabic numbers. The replies? That Arabs should learn “our European numbers.” 20

Let me share the personal experience of my relatives who remain “stuck” in a pre-digital era. The Internet and social media are not their key sources of information, thus their informational framework is shaped by “old” TV and print media. I would dare suggest that being off the social media grid, with its fresh news, personal accounts, hoaxes and vulgar insults could be a reason that they perceive the situation with less hysteria.

The Sophie´s choice

Konvička was one of the first who capitalized on the political potential of the unease felt by Czech citizens, scarred by violent events in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, by aligning it with a traditional closedness and distaste of accepting others, and transformed it into the simple intolerance of Islam and refugees expressed today. He began what we might call a “cultural war” and test the limits of free speech. The fact that he has not yet been convicted for his openly racist remarks, whose English translations are being circulated around Europe, 21prove that authorities and politicians are afraid of him, and do not dare to go against him and the anti-refugee public majority. With allegedly almost a quarter million Czechs behind him on this one issue (although they might not identify with his other opinions), Konvička secured a safe haven against possible persecution and made another step towards the mainstream.

But the problem is not Konvička personally who might succeed only in the case of serious political and economic crisis, but the reaction of mainstream parties. Those in the recent government coalition – the Social democrats, Christian democrats and Babiš´ ANO 2011 movement, are already pressured by their umbrella European parties, the Party of European Socialists (PES), the European People’s Party (PPE) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE), respectively, to tiptoe the EU-majority preference for refugee quotas, which directly contradicts what the Czech majority thinks.  22

Thus the mainstream politicians must be very cautious in managing the tug-of-war between what their umbrella European parties expect and what their voters want them to do. They should be able to push Konvička to the political periphery, while attracting those he managed to mobilize for their own parties at the same time. The danger is that in doing so, they might find it difficult to resist the temptation to adopt some of Konvička´s proto-fascist opinions and anti-democratic solutions. 23

Notes:

  1. Jan Adamec, “On whataboutism and Czech underperformance,V4Revue, February 24, 2015, accessed October 5, 2015.
  2. The petition was closed in July 2015 and its initiatiors claimed that they were able to collect 180,000 signatories, however, a month later they claimed that the final number was around 250,000 once they had added signatories which came after the conclusion of the petition. Petice proti povinným imigračním kvótám/The petition against compulsory immigration quotas, May 2015, accessed October 5, 2015.
  3. The petition was signed by 3,367 scientists and 8,622 other people until October 5, 2015. Vědci proti strachu a lhostejnosti/Scientists against fear and indifference, accessed October 5, 2015.
  4. Blok proti islámu/A bloc againt Islam, accessed October, 5, 2015.
  5. Blok proti islámu se dohodl s Úsvitem. Půjdou společně do voleb/The bloc against Islam made a pact with the Dawn. They will jointly run in the elections, 8.9. 2015, idnes.cz, accessed October, 5, 2015.
  6. Czech Anti-Refugee Party: The Czech Republic must secure its borders and leave NATO and the EU, September 15, 2015, accessed October 5, 2015. 
  7. Většina Čechů chce kvůli uprchlíkům obnovit kontroly v Schengenu/The majority of the Czechs want to re-establish border controls within Schengen due to refugees (A Stem/Mark poll (September 3-4, 2015; 808 respondents), September 5 2015, accessed October 5, 2015.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Problematika uprchlické krize optikou české populace. Závěrečná zpráva z reprezentativního průzkumu veřejného mínění agentury FOCUS/The refugee crisis as perceived by the Czech population. The final report of a representative public opinion poll made by FOCUS agency, Marketing & Social Research, August 2015, accessed October 5, 2015.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. V Praze se demonstrovalo proti uprchlíkům, kvótám i NATO/People demonstrated against refugees, quotas and NATO in Prague, accessed October 5, 2015.
  14. Proti imigraci/Against immigration, accessed October 5, 2015.
  15. The recent poll, made by TNS Aisa for Czech Television, indicated that Babiš´ 2011 ANO movement would win the elections with a 26% lead, followed by the Czech Social Democrats with 18%, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia with 10%, the right-wing Civic Democratic Party with 9.5% and TOP 09 with 8.5%. Právo, October 5, 2015, p. 2.
  16. Czech President Miloš Zeman congratulated the Slovak PM on his “bravery in refusing the quotas,” September 25, 2015, accessed October 5, 2015.
  17. Jednej správně/Do the Right Thing (USA, 1989), accessed October 5, 2015. See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muc7xqdHudI.
  18. Útok utečenců na Nové Strašecí se nekonalo/There were no refugees attacking Nové Strašecí, Septtember 11, 2015, accessed October 5, 2015.
  19. Viděla jsem uprchlíka ozbrojeného samopalem!” sdělovala policistům vyděšená studentka/”I saw a refugee armed with a machine-gun!,” a scared student reported to police (Miki, September 14, 2015, 13:25), accessed October 5, 2015.
  20. Czech Republic: Anti-refugee hysteria makes a young woman report a chimney sweep to the police, September 16, 2015, accessed October, 5, 2015.
  21. Human Rights Watch v Bruselu informuje o kriminálních výrocích Martina Konvičky na Facebooku/Human Rights Watch in Brussels inform about Martin Konvička´s criminal verdicts on Facebook, August 30, 2015, accessed October 5, 2015.
  22. Jan Keller, Zůstanou strany svéprávné?/Will the parties remain competent?, Právo, 10.10. 2015, p. 8.
  23. Václav Dolejší, Lucie Stuchlíková: Tvrdý postoj ministra vnitra Chovance vůči uprchlíkům dělí ČSSD. Premiér je však na jeho straně/Minister of Interior Chovanec´s hard stand on refugees divides social democrats. The Prime Minister supports him for now, September 29, 2015.
Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.