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CZECH REPUBLIC: Read the Papers And Fear the Muslims

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, May 22 2008 (IPS) - One result of the Czech media and politicians’ frequent warnings of the dangers of Islamic terrorism has been a growing Islamophobia.

Attitudes towards Muslims are said to have worsened following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, and the media has since played with Czechs’ fears of terrorism by supporting pro-U.S. foreign policy goals.

Recent U.S. plans to protect the West from alleged Middle Eastern missile threats by extending its missile defence system to the Czech Republic and Poland have been accompanied by media reports on imminent dangers of Islamic terrorism.

A recent poll shows that 80 percent of Czechs would not want to live next to an Arab, and that they associate them with terrorism. Two-thirds of Czechs fear terrorism, and a similar number fear Islam.

A study by the Czech interior ministry last year showed that most Czechs automatically connect symbols of Islam with terrorism.

Back in 1998 local people in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, had reacted with fear and hostility to the building of the first mosque in the Czech Republic. And still today, three-quarters of Czechs would like to forbid the building of mosques on Czech soil.

Stereotypes also abound among school students. A poll published by the non-governmental organisation ‘People in Need’ shows that most of their information comes from the media.

The Czech Republic has a Muslim community of 20,000 in a population of 10 million. They come mostly from Arab North African and Middle Eastern countries, with some also from Turkey, the Balkans and Central Asia.

Vladimir Sanka, head of the Islamic Centre in Prague, says that as in other European countries, some sectors of society see Islam as a danger to European civilisation.

“Media generalise and give simplistic, sensationalist news without explaining what is at the root of conflicts, so when the media describes Muslims as people who don’t respect human life, it is in a way understandable that people become afraid of ‘Muslim extremists’ or ‘Islamic terrorism’,” Sanka told IPS.

Sanka says the media have periodically given undue attention to false alarms that cast a shadow on the Muslim community but are more likely connected to right-wing extremists.

“Last year someone sent a written bomb threat to a school, and it was spoken about in the media as an issue of Muslims attacking Christian schools. Two years ago there was an alleged threat to a Jewish synagogue. In neither case was anybody (Muslim) found responsible.”

Sanka says discrimination persists in public space. “In general we have our freedom and rights, but less than Christians and Jews: unlike them, we cannot establish religious schools, our religious marriages are not recognised, we get no state donations, and nothing is taught about our religion in schools.”

Czech politicians say the risk of terrorist attacks is constantly growing, and the government approved a plan last February to fight terrorism. Czech police say terrorists use the country as an entry point to Europe, but that the local Muslim community is not infiltrated by extremists.

But Czech officials have played a role in presenting negative depictions of Muslims.

“As I watch the persistent and successful struggle of the Israelis to maintain a civilisation in the onrush of barbarianism, it awakens optimism in me,” Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said in an address celebrating Israel’s Independence Day in Jerusalem last year.

Since the election of the neo-liberal Civic Democrats (ODS) in 2006, Czech foreign policy has neglected Arab countries.

“This substantial orientation is not part of a policy prepared by experts, but it is part of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim course of the people around Mirek Topolanek,” Lukas Lhotan wrote in Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes last year.

On another visit to Jerusalem in March this year, Topolanek backed Israel’s fight against terrorism and said “I naturally agree with Israel’s role as a defender.” He failed to visit Palestinian areas as is the custom with European officials.

Citing lack of time, Topolanek instead invited a young Palestinian student based in Prague to join him on the government airplane, but the plan fell through because the student got stuck in the Gaza strip due to an Israeli military blockade.

Topolanek described a visit to Syria by leader of the opposition Social-Democratic Party Jiri Paroubek in February as “regrettable” after the group accused Paroubek of establishing contact with a “brutal dictatorial party openly sponsoring terrorism.”

Visits to Syria by government officials both before and after Paroubek’s trip went largely unnoticed in the predominantly right-wing media.

While Czechs maintain pragmatic economic relations with Iran and Syria, opinion makers often pressure governments to isolate what they consider dictatorial regimes.

“The media is pro-U.S. and pro-Israel to the extent that it represents an extreme in Europe,” Sanka told IPS.

But while in the past the Czech government has reinforced stereotypes of Muslims, Sanka also notes positive examples, as with the swift removal and straight condemnation by authorities of anti-Muslim posters.

In March posters mocking the Prophet Muhammad and signed ‘Friends of Freedom of Speech’ appeared on the streets of Brno, possibly in connection with a Czech decision not to broadcast a film on Islam by Dutch deputy Geert Wilders. But even in this case, some of the media’s condemnation was half-hearted.

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