A response to Jan Čulík

This is a guest post by Sarka

Jan Čulík, who has lectured in Czech Studies at Glasgow University since the 1980s, is unsurprisingly not very well known to the British public despite his sterling efforts to promote knowledge of Czech culture, history and movies. But he is quite well known in the Czech Republic, because since 1996 he has been putting out an Internet daily in Czech called Britske listy (British news/letters) presenting detailed commentary by a variety of authors as well as himself on Czech politics. Over the years I have read it quite often, because Blisty is quite a lot livelier than much domestic political commentary. Here is Čulík’s description – in English – of the character and achievements of the paper.

Unfortunately, though, while many of the points he makes about the relative insularity of Czech culture and politics are fair enough, Čulík’s efforts to broaden Czech horizons sometimes look all too much like rants at the reluctance of Czechs to embrace certain quite debatable Western left progressive approaches. Blisty has carried tough and insightful pieces on Czech racism (largely against Roma), and the far-right, and on police brutality and judicial partiality, and Czech shenanigans around media independence questions… but oh dear, Čulík has now appointed himself apostle of multiculturalism to the benighted Czechs, and has brought out a most peculiar piece entitled “Islam, Israel and the Czech Republic” in OpenDemocracy.

For two-thirds of the piece the reader wonders why Israel is in the title, because it seems just to be about the flurry of anti-Islam activism in the Czech Republic in recent months, much of it involving an organization called We Don’t Want Islam in the CR, led by a university biologist. The group has been agitating for some time, notably getting together a petition against the efforts of the small observant Muslim community to gain equal legal status with Christianity and Judaism in the CR, and it has become higher profile as a result of Czech reactions to recent events – ISIL, Charlie Hebdo, and now the issue of refugee quotas in the EU.  In May there was an incident in Olomouc when a group of “Arab students” at the university there (in fact they were British Muslim medical students) got into a purely verbal conflict with a very small number of anti-Islam activists soliciting petition signatures and displaying anti-Islam posters, and then one of the British Muslims tried to tear down a poster. Police intervened swiftly and no one was hurt. Čulík takes us through this and what he considers its inflated and xenophobic treatment in the media, the manipulation of the fear and ignorance of Czechs etc etc…so far, so acceptable, although it is hyperbolically put, but then he writes:

“The inactivity of Czech authorities with regard to Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism may be connected with the strong and uncritical support which Czech politicians tend to show to Israel. A group of international celebrities including Ken Loach, Roger Waters, Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker and Hedy Epstein have recently protested against “Jerusalem Days”, a Jewish Festival organised to be held in the West Bohemian city of Pilsen, which presents Jerusalem as an Israeli city. The Festival has gone ahead anyway and its organisers called the protesters “antisemites”. The anti-Islamic statements repeatedly made by the Czech President Miloš Zeman, who calls Islam “an ideology” and compares it to Nazism, have recently led to a reduction of trade links between Saudi Arabia and the Czech Republic.

The group “We do not want Islam in the Czech Republic” parasitically use the fear of the unknown within the Czech population, who have not had any experience with immigrants (almost no Muslims live in the Czech Republic) and are frightened by news reporting about the atrocities committed by the militants from Islamic State in the Middle East. The Czech Republic, like many other former communist countries, is a fairly closed community, whose citizens are mainly dependent on information circulated by local, Czech-language media. There is no public information campaign explaining to people that refugees and Muslims are also human beings, in fact Czech politicians tend to side with the anti-Islamists and anti-refugee activists in their public statements. The intolerance, due to fear and ignorance, is turning into a major destabilising factor in Central Europe.””

Criticism of bigotry among Czech anti-Islam activists is one thing, but this is something else…

Of course, the “Ïsrael” paragraph has unintentionally comic moments – the prim shock that the backward  burghers of Pilsen should not have heeded the protests of Ken, Roger, Noam, Alice etc.. and the bathetic warning that Zeman’s “Islamophobic” indiscretions have “reduced trade links with Saudi”(Oh No!) . On the other hand, it is seriously dismaying to see a Czech intellectual preaching that in order to become suitably advanced, progressive, western people, the Czechs need to get away from that primitive, backward, ignorant sympathy for Israel.

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