Burkinis and Slippery Slope Narratives: Islamophobia in the Czech Republic, Dr Karel Čada and Ms Veronika Frantová
In July 2017, Czech social media was flooded with photographs of women who had worn the burkini at a water park near Prague. Aquapalace operator’s tolerance of the burkini sparked sharp complaints. “I will never set foot in there, it makes me sick! They should respect our culture and our customs!” an angry woman posted on the Aquapalace’s Facebook page. The conflict was not restricted to social media, but also resonated in mainstream political discourse. Why is the Czech Republic, with its tiny Muslim Minority so obsessed by two women’s swimsuits?
Senator, Jiří Čunek, (Christian Democratic Party) drew parallels between the burkini and gay marriage. He alluded that the burkini was the beginning, but Muslims would eventually want more – like homosexuals whose demands have been rising since the adoption of registered partnerships. His statement effectively illustrates common forms of Islamophobia in the Czech Republic – the so-called slippery-slope narrative.
The Czech Muslim population numbers with 22 000 and is incomparable with European states with a large Muslim minority (Germany, France, UK, Sweden or Denmark). There is no residential concentration of Muslims in Czech cities and Muslims do not suffer social exclusion. However, when Muslims came in higher numbers, proponents of anti-Islam movement believed that it would be too late to do anything. For these reasons, the movement demands stopping the migration to the Czech Republic now and proposes a zero tolerance to Muslims demands – including the burkini.
In 2014, the same logic was applied to the decision of Prague District VIII to prohibit a Muslim cemetery. “I might exaggerate it but it comes from my long-term experience. The first will be a cemetery, then a small sanctuary and it will not take a long time and Muslim community will be flourish within boundaries of our district. I don’t want to see Prague VIII to be the same as Marseille in France, where police are afraid of coming in several parts of the city. … It might one day be that there would be someone in your living room saying: you don’t live here anymore, go away,” vice-mayor Vladislava Ludkova wrote on her official web page.
The slippery-slope narrative is not novel in policy debates. The same arguments can be heard in discussions on euthanasia, IVF or same-sex marriages. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, opponents to the introduction of civil divorce described it as the first step on a slippery slope to polygamy (Jones 2011). This argument relies on unfair and inaccurate reports, insecurities about future and distrust to public institutions that they will be able to draw a line. Similar elements can be found in the Czech debate on Islam.
Czechs do not see Islam as a cultural threat (a total of 19% of Czechs feared that their culture is threatened by Islam and Muslim culture), but they consider Islam to be incompatible with Czech culture, this attitude is shared by 84% Czechs (GLOPOLIS 2017). These attitudes can be attributed to a lack of direct experience in integrating migrants into society, combined with a lack of information when alleged reports on this subject (especially in France) are very often the subject of misinformation.
In the beginning of this year, the interview with Swedish writer of the Czech origin Kateřina Janouchová raised a public controversy. Janouchová openly criticized the Swedish multicultural policy. She pointed out the increase of crime in some areas of Swedish cities, hopelessness of Swedish police and disappointment of Swedish citizens. She also advised the implementation of a strict migrant policy against newcomers from the Muslim countries. Janouchová’s description of Swedish situation was refuted by a Swedish journalist Jiří Pallas as inaccurate and biased. Ingmar Karlsson, former Swedish ambassador to Czechoslovakia, reacted to the interview on Facebook in a similar vein: “The purpose of this interview was to confirm a construction, which had been created by the Czech media for several years now, namely that Sweden is a country where jihadists roam freely. The purpose of this interview was to confirm that the current Czech immigration policy is correct.”
The narrative of failed multiculturalism resonates very well with growing Euroscepticism and anti-elitist discourse. Sociologists Ondrej Cisar and Daniel Prokop (2017) associate rising of populist discourse with increasing economic insecurities and social inequalities. “The issue of working poverty and cheap labour finds its way into the public discourse very slowly. Left-wing parties from which we would expect the solution were unable to deal with it. They are leaving room for right-wing radicals which might translate fears of dissatisfied parts of the population into the language of cultural threats,” they argue. Despite the growing anti-migrant discourse, public opinion polls indicate that majority of Czechs expressed neutral feelings towards migration or they do not consider this issue important for them. In contrast to Hungary or Poland, furthermore, nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric attracts less voters in the Czech Republic and Slovakia (Císař 2017).
Even though xenophobic parties probably will not score very high in upcoming election, Islamophobic rhetoric proliferates everyday life. Czech Muslims perceive their possible involvement in public life and politics or public declaration of their faith, as problematic (Linhartová and Janků 2016). Hate comments or gestures in public spaces represent one side of this coin which second side can be associated with more sophisticated forms of Islamophobia. These forms might be lived up by the slippery slope argumentation in which pseudo-empiric and pseudo-rational arguments covers its anti-Islam core. In contrast to traditional populism, this rhetoric is less emotional, more rational, more abstract and more tolerated by majority of Czechs.
Císař, O. 2017. Czech Republic: From Post-Communist Idealism to Economic Populism, Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
Císař, O., Prokop, D. 2016 Protipohyb [Counterparts], Revue Prostor – Anatomie nenávisti [Anatomy of Hate].
Glopolis 2017. Proč uprchlíci jitří naše emoce? Narativy související s migrací a uprchlictvím v české společnosti a nahlédnutí za ně [Why Do Refugees Stir Up Our Emotions? Migration Narratives in the Czech Society and a Glance Beyond Them], Praha: Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
Linhartová, L., Janků T. 2016. Muslimové o Češích: anketa mezi muslimy [Muslims about Czechs: Survey among Czech Muslims]. In: Topinka, D. ed. Muslimové v Česku. Etablování muslimů a Islámu na veřejnosti [Muslims in the Czech Republic: Establishing muslim and Islam in public space]. Brno: Barrister & Principal, pp.367-381.