The “Islamic Onslaught” and the Central European Bulwark

15. 3. 2017

The migration crisis triggered a mass wave of irrational Islamophobia in the countries of the Visegrad Group. Unfortunately, it has shown that the countries of Central Europe uphold the principle of “not in my backyard,” and may have a great problem with globalizing their foreign policy.

The prospect of receiving several dozen thousands of mainly Muslim refugees (representing one tenth of a percent of the region’s population) has released the genie of xenophobia in the supposedly deeply Westernized Central Europe. In public opinion polls, the vast majority of inhabitants of the Visegrad Group countries were opposed to accepting the Muslim refugees, regarding them as potential terrorists and a deadly threat to their national and religious identity. Among the respondents willing to receive the refugees, only a small part was ready to accept a slightly larger group of Muslims. In no other part of Europe did we have such big demonstrations against migrants and such small marches in solidarity with them. The slogans voiced by the protesters were terrifying: “We will do to you what Hitler did to the Jews,” or “Hanging from the trees will be Islamists, not leaves.” On the Internet very many citizens of Central Europe non-anonymously expressed views which should be regarded as hate speech and illegal inciting to violence. (On the Polish Facebook a profile was created with a picture of the entrance gate to the Auschwitz camp and an inscription “refugees, you are welcome,” which quickly gained a strong support.) Many Central European politicians and journalists succumbed to this widespread hysteria or cynically used it to stir up violent emotions. A widely read right- wing Polish weekly presented the Polish prime minister as wearing a burqa and a shahid belt with explosives, while the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced urbi et orbi that his country was the bulwark of Christianity defending Europe against the Muslim onslaught. What happened to us? Why did a dozen thousand people trigger such fear? What will the consequences be?

I don’t know them, I don’t know anything about them, so I hate them.

The countries of Central Europe are very homogenous in terms of religion, or often in fact post-religion. Non-Christians are a tiny part of our region’s population. The example of Germany shows that a lack of regular day-to-day contact with Muslims has a significant impact on the attitude towards them. East Germans, where besides Berlin the Muslim community is very small, display a much more negative attitude to Muslims than Germans from the West, who have been living alongside immigrants from Turkey or the Balkans for several decades. This is why the reaction of Polish and Czech society, which significantly differ from each other culturally (Poland is much more conservative and has a much lower level of readership), was so similar. Public opinion polls and declarations of many politicians clearly show that inhabitants of the Visegrad Group have a very limited knowledge about Islam and negligible contacts with real Muslims. In a survey conducted in 2014 by the IPSOS research center in the EU countries on people’s ignorance of their own country and the world, the Poles and Hungarians “won” the silver and bronze medal respectively. Asked about the percentage of Muslims in their societies, they overestimated it more than hundred times, radically more than inhabitants of those EU countries where Muslims are more numerous. Poles and Hungarians with university and secondary education exhibited similar level of ignorance about Muslims. Therefore we should not be surprised by the aggressive anti-Muslim rhetoric of many politicians from the Visegrad Group. An encouraging exception from that was the Slovakian president and in the end also the Polish government, which after a long procrastination broke ranks with the Visegrad Group and supported the German proposal on the distribution of refugees between the member countries.

The Phantom of Islam and Inner Contradictions

The parochial nature of Central European political elites as well as of the media and education systems (a limited presence and knowledge of non-European themes) favors a distorted image of Islam as an allegedly uniform, powerful totalitarian civilization, seeking to conquer Europe by whichever means. As a result, our region has seen a renaissance of the outdated clash of civilizations theory. In fact, the civilization of Islam is such a diverse and fractious religious community that it is hard even to talk about one civilization. It is not the supposed unity of Islam, but its deep internal divisions which pose a challenge to the world. The best example of the rift within Islam is provided by the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where a large majority of refugees comes from. Although in the beginning of the last decade our countries played a crucial role in the invasion on Iraq and the operation in Afghanistan, Central European politicians unfortunately do not feel any responsibility for these conflicts. They raise the issue of the fate of Christians in Iraq, “forgetting” that before the invasion their situation was much better. The biggest hypocrites are those politicians from Central Europe who claim that Islam is a deadly enemy, and at the same time insist on the necessity of increasing development aid in the Middle East and in the refugee camps. We can imagine Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński visiting refugees in a camp and telling them about the clash of civilizations and the biological threat which they pose. A question immediately comes to mind: why should we help deadly enemies that transmit diseases?

Second, you could ask the Visegrad Group politicians why for years they have not done anything to decidedly increase the development aid coming from their countries, which is at a pathetically low level. Inhabitants and politicians from Central Europe declare that they do not want to receive Muslims, because their integration in Western Europe has completely failed—again we see an unwarranted treating of Muslims as a uniform mass—and that they are a ticking terrorist bomb. We often hear that we, people from Central Europe, are not as naive as Western Europeans and we will not let in the Islamic Trojan horse. This is often said by journalists and politicians unable to name two most important Muslim religious festivals or define the difference between Sunnism and Shiism. It suddenly turns out that we, so sensitive and critical of Western Europe for its lack of knowledge about our region, are very knowledgeable about everything, including the situation of Muslims in Berlin or London.

We announced the failure of integration policy, although the situation differs very much between particular countries or even cities. Numerous politicians and journalists from our region call Merkel’s policy towards refugees suicidal. But truly suicidal would be a foreign policy dictated by the Central European followers of Huntington. For it would mean putting all Muslims into one bag with an inscription “Islamists.” In fact, we will never win the war with Islamist radicals without allies from the Islamic world, who are by no means weak and whom we must support. People in Prague or Budapest criticize the alleged “dictatorship” of political correctness towards Islam, which rules in Western Europe. But this claim sounds like a joke. In recent years, many books sharply critical of Islam (for example by Oriana Fallaci) have been published in the West and selling in hundreds of thousands of copies. The Central Europeans criticizing the Western political correctness towards Muslims should be asked for moral consistency. If the European Muslims are totally alien, unable to integrate, and very dangerous, then Central Europeans should say openly what should be done about such an eternal threat?

The most ridiculous are the Visegrad Group politicians who explain to the Germans that the fear of terrorism prevents them from taking a few thousand refugees, while there are around 5 million Muslims living in Germany. You could say sarcastically that the Visegrad Group should award to all Germans a collective prize for their heroic courage of living with such a mass of potential terrorists. At the same time, the inhabitants of Central Europe migrate in huge numbers to the very same Germany or to Great Britain, and assert that life in these countries is much better than in their homelands. They hate Muslims, but at the same time they enthusiastically watch Turkish TV series and devour kebabs.

If we want to understand the mess in the heads of Central Europeans, we must also pick on media. In Poland, an anti-Muslim sewage was flowing under articles published on the website of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza. The decision to ban comments was taken only when the defenders of white and Christian Europe took to the streets. Just a few months ago the same newspaper published interviews with a female artist who presented Muslims exclusively in critical terms and ridiculed the concept of Islamophobia as an attempt to impose censorship. Currently, the liberal intelligentsia is often unconvincing in the defense of its position on refugee crisis, because of lack of knowledge about Islam. The fact that the image of Muslims in the liberal media in the Central Europe was biased even before the refugee crisis is best illustrated by the marked difference between articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published in these media (rather pro-Israel) and the texts published in the Financial Times and the Economist (trying to keep the same distance from both sides). These two publications can hardly be accused of belonging to the mythical Euro-Arabia of uncritical supporters of Islam.

On the Margins of the World Game

The hysterical reactions of Central European societies and most of their political elites to the migration crisis have shown that the whole narrative about globalization of foreign policy of our countries cannot be treated completely seriously. The best illustration of that is the passive policy of Poland in the Middle East. Warsaw claims that it is one of the most important players in the EU, an emerging mid-sized power and a strategical ally of the US. Meanwhile in the Middle East, the key region on the global chessboard, Poland is only minimally involved in security issues. In September 2014, in reaction to the offensive of the Islamic state in Iraq, Poland as the only Western country closed its embassy in Baghdad “until further notice.” Polish military aid (equipment and training) for the forces fighting against the Islamic State is non existent. The Czech Republic and Hungary have been much more active, supporting the Iraqi Kurds. As a result, a few months ago the president of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani visited Prague and Budapest when returning from his meeting in Washington with the US president, but he passed Warsaw by. In his speech at the UN General Assembly, where the main issue was the policy of Russia in Syria, the Polish president was only able to speak up for the Christians and Yezidi persecuted by the Islamic State (of course without saying a word about Muslim victims of ISIS terror). Such an attitude shows that in Polish foreign policy there is a by far insufficient understanding that Eurasia is one—although profoundly diverse—geopolitical space, and the concept of the post-Soviet area is slowly coming out of use. Although Russia is simultaneously playing two pianos in Ukraine and Syria, it seems that Poland perceives only one instrument. We also seem not to understand that we are not going to be an important partner for the US, if we do not move beyond our own backyard.

The scale of the anti-Muslim hysteria in Poland is astonishing and paradoxically confirms the belonging of Polish society to Central Europe. For the Poles differ from Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians in their attitude towards Russia. In Poland, Russia is perceived as a serious security threat, while the remaining Visegrad Group societies are not afraid of Kremlin’s aggressive policy. Viktor Orbán and Miloš Zeman could even be called Moscow’s friends. According to the Polish political right, Orbán and Kaczynski are the successors of John III Sobieski at Vienna. The tender bear-hugs of Orbán with Putin have already been forgotten. In the Baltic republics the migration crisis initially triggered a similar fear as in Central Europe. But the political elite and the media quickly reassured the public. The Baltics decided that the indisputably vital challenge for them was the aggressive Russia and not the several hundred refugees. Self-preservation instinct took hold. It would seem that in Poland a similar mechanism, although on a smaller scale, should also have been in operation.

The refugee issue is used instrumentally by Russia also in Poland, supposedly resistant to Russian propaganda. Unfortunately, hardly anyone recognizes this fact. Pro-Russian trolls and politicians are in the vanguard of the anti- Muslim crusade. A Syrian Christian promoted by Polish media, singing the praises of Assad and calling all Muslims terrorists, became the candidate of the most pro-Russian party in Poland. Right-wing Polish politicians and journalists are suddenly accusing Germans of imposing multi- culti and of an attempted Islamization (!) of Poland. Moscow must be delighted when seeing the covers of Polish weeklies “showing” photomontages with refugees as the Taliban, like the Germans on September 1, 1939, tearing off an eagle from a state border barrier. With the anti-Islamic hysteria raging on, who in Poland remembers about the Ukraine any longer? We found a red herring. Putin, under the pretext of a war against the Islamic State fighting mostly against Syrian opposition, begins to earn points among a significant proportion of Central Europeans as the knight most effectively fighting Muslim radicals. It is no wonder. If all Muslims are being put in the same bag, it does not matter who is bombed by the Russians.

The anti-Islamic hysteria in Central Europe has been touted by Western media and consequently perceived in the world of Islam. It is not good news for our business community. The Visegrad Group countries have been striving at globalizing their economies for a number of years. One of the very important ports to which the ships of the Visegrad Group are to sail during their “journey around the world” is the world of Islam. On the list of seven most promising non-European markets adopted by Poland in 2012 there are as many as four Muslim countries. Key positions in Polish exports outside Europe are occupied by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Algeria. In recent years, Polish exports significantly grew especially to Arab countries. Opening of the LNG terminal in Świnoujście, which will receive contracted gas from Qatar, and the recently started deliveries of cheap oil from Saudi Arabia mean that participation of these countries in Polish imports will soon increase significantly. Today, a prominent place on the list of importers from outside Europe is already occupied by Kazakhstan. Poland also needs a large influx of portfolio investment, and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have more than 3.7 trillion USD on their bank accounts and sovereign wealth funds, seven times the volume of the entire Polish economy. To compete on the global arena, Central Europe also needs to internationalize its universities. Non-European students in Poland come mostly from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In the previous academic year more Turks studied in Poland than Germans, while Saudi students were more numerous than Chinese. There is a Turkish higher school in Poland, one of the best private universities. Poland has become the most popular country for Turkish students coming to Europe within the Erasmus Programme. Last year there were more than 3000 of them. It would be a pity to waste all these advantages under the slogan of defending Christian Europe from the phantom of Islamization.

Muslims are not exotic people living far away, but our European co-citizens. In Central Europe we are not aware of the impressive rise of Muslim presence in political, cultural, and economic elites of the EU states. Next year London, the largest EU city, will choose a new mayor who probably will be of Muslim origin. Central European Islamophobia does not fit to this new reality. Moreover, we cannot imagine that this emancipation of Muslims can sometimes be beneficial for our interests. For instance, if Cem Ozdemir, the co-leader of Greens born to Turkish parents who is highly critical towards Russia’s imperialism becomes someday the German minister of foreign affairs, it would facilitate greatly the cooperation between Poland and Germany in the post-Soviet space.

Positioning itself as the bulwark of Christianity, Poland also undermines its very serious historical assets in the post-Soviet area (Sarmatism, cooperation rather than war with the Turks and Tatars, a great contribution to the modernization of the Turkic peoples, support of their struggle for independence, a unique historical experience with the Tatar minority). It is losing its chance to play the role of the country which can strike at the Achilles’ heel of the Russian imperial historic narrative, that is the myth of Russia as a paradise where for centuries various nations and religions have lived in harmony, and the vision of Russians as bearers of civilization in the Eurasian Steppe and the Caucasus. In fact, Russia’s civilizing mission often involved terrible suffering including the genocide of some Muslims. Today Muslims constitute a very large and increasing part of the inhabitants of the post-Soviet area. Turkey, and to a smaller extent Iran, are becoming important players on this territory. Poland cannot afford not to have its own policy regarding the Muslim issue in Russia and its former colonies. Such a policy certainly cannot be promoted under the impact of anti-Islamic hysteria.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

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