Prague Letter: Czechs diverge as anti-Islam bloc taps fear of refugees
Attack on centre that helps refugees reflects vitriol in nation’s debate on refugee crisis
An anti-refugee rally in Prague: to cheers from the crowd, Czech president Milos Zeman denounced members of Prague’s liberal elite “who assume the right to tell us what values we should be upholding”. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA
From the schedule pinned up in the Klinika community centre in Prague, there is little clue as to why a suspected neo-Nazi mob hurled bricks through its windows and threw burning flares inside, narrowly failing to set the building ablaze.
The timetable lists free classes in the French, Chinese and Roma languages, lessons in photography and meditation, and invites visitors to a film showing and a discussion.
None of this is likely to have found favour with far-right extremists, but another aspect of Klinika’s work seems to have inspired the gang’s attack.
“We’re not a refugee centre, but we were one of the first places in Prague to collect things for refugees, and we’ve given them a lot of material help,” says Tadeas Polak, a member of the volunteer-run Klinika community.
“We sent 150 carloads of clothes and other things to Hungary, Croatia, Serbia – wherever we could help. We don’t have many refugees in the Czech Republic, so Klinika acts as a lightning rod for the anger in Czech society towards them.”
The February 6th attack was denounced by politicians from several parties, including the Czech human rights minister, Jiri Dienstbier.
“This is something that simply crosses the line,” he said. “The hatred that is spreading through Czech society must be stopped.”
Poisoned debateVaclav Havel
The Havel-led Velvet Revolution of 1989 that ended communism in Czechoslovakia is celebrated every November 17th, but last year’s events were tainted by divisions over the refugee crisis that cut deep through Czech society.
The current Czech president, Milos Zeman, addressed a rally that day against refugees, during which he shared the stage with Martin Konvicka, leader of a growing movement called the Bloc Against Islam.
To cheers from the crowd, Zeman denounced members of Prague’s liberal elite “who assume the right to tell us what values we should be upholding”.
“They assume that citizens are like plasticine, play-dough that can be shaped in a way that is convenient for the manipulator. But . . . we think independently and we reject the media manipulation in connection with the refugee crisis.”
Having previously warned that Muslims will impose brutal sharia law wherever they settle, Zeman defended every Czech’s right “to express his or her free opinion . . . without being silenced or labelled or abused as alleged extremists, xenophobes, Islamophobes, racists or fascists.”
The bloc is not accused of involvement in the Klinika attack, but at their rally across town its supporters made clear their fear that the Czech Republic and Europe face an existential threat from refugees and Islam.
“I would say we are a mass movement, made up mostly of middle-class people, over 30 years of age, including many who do manual work and do not have a university education,” says Petr Hampl, vice-chairman of the bloc.
“In some ways we resemble the Tea Party in America . . . Our people do not feel represented by mainstream parties, and they feel endangered by Islam.”
Recognising many Czechs’ disillusionment with major politicians, the bloc has formed an alliance with the nationalist Dawn party, which has eight seats in the Czech parliament, to campaign jointly in regional elections this autumn.
“If we don’t want the Czech Republic to be ‘Islamicised’, it’s not just about closing mosques,” Hampl says.
“It’s about a proud people, their self respect, their reliance on traditional European values. It’s about schools, helping Czech families and housing. It’s about social benefits. We have to cover everything – it’s not just about being against some strange religion.”
“I think Czech people are scared, they are looking for an identity, and nationalism gives them a sense of belonging,” says Polak, sitting on a flare-singed couch next to Klinika’s boarded-up windows.
“But with this attack, I hope the rhetorical violence reached its peak. Lots of people have said ‘enough’ – if the neo-Nazis wanted to hurt us, I think the opposite has happened.”