On November 3, 2006, Alexandr Vondra, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, addressed a conference in Prague on "Religion and Politics—Islam in Europe, Europe in Islam," organized by the Obcanský Institut (Civic Institute), the Czech Republic's leading conservative think-tank. At the conference, he identified radical Islam as a fundamental threat to European liberalism and democracy. His remarks, which are reproduced below, were remarkable for their bluntness. Rather than defend Islam as a religion of peace, Vondra observed that the outcome of the struggle between moderate and extreme interpretations is far from determined. He further suggested that the European tendency to accommodate or try to rationalize the complaints of Islamists has contributed to the latter's recent inroads in Europe. However, Vondra suggests, such challenges can be beneficial if they force Europeans to recognize the primacy of Western liberalism and defend it.
Vondra's moral clarity may be rooted in his dissident past. Unlike many officials in Western Europe, he does not take liberty for granted. Born in Prague in 1961, he became active in the democratic opposition to the communist regime in the mid-1980s, initially focusing his work on underground editing and publishing, as well as coordination among opposition groups in Central and Eastern Europe.
His life changed after he signed Charter-77, the long-circulating petition demanding basic civil and human rights. As punishment, the Czech regime denied Vondra employment in his academic field of the natural sciences, forcing him to work first as a boiler man and later as a computer programmer. Still, he continued to be active in opposition circles, rising to become spokesman of the Charter-77 movement. Following the January 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, the Czech government jailed him for two months. He was undeterred, and during the November 1989 Velvet Revolution, he became a cofounder of the Civic Forum movement.
After the collapse of the communist regime, Vondra served as foreign policy advisor to President Vaclav Havel and, from August 1992 until March 1997, was principle deputy foreign minister. He then served four years as ambassador to the United States, after which he held a number of diplomatic and academic posts. In September 2006, Czech president Vaclav Klaus appointed Vondra minister of foreign affairs and, since November 2006, he has simultaneously served as a senator.
—Roman Joch, executive director, Civic Institute
It is my great pleasure and honor to welcome you all here at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to this very important and more than timely conference. First of all, I would like to thank the Civic Institute and its members for organizing today's event and, of course, for allowing me an opportunity to offer a few opening remarks. I apologize in advance for speaking in rather general terms. A topic like this demands at least a few hours to tackle, and I have but a few minutes.
When I used the word important a moment ago, it was not meant to be the usual nicety that one says to please the participants and organizers but was rather a very simple and factual description of reality. The role of Islam in Europe is crucial for Europe's future security and prosperity. On one hand, there are millions of Muslims who have become an integral part of European societies and who contribute to the continent's social and cultural diversity, but, on the other hand, there is a growing sentiment in the Muslim world, including Muslim communities in Europe, that is generally hostile to Western interests and values. I think we all find it most disturbing that, in recent years, these radical trends seem to be gaining strength.
The activities of radical Islam's followers and sympathizers in Europe pose a major challenge to our continent today. The challenge is not only the obvious physical threat these fundamentalist groups represent but rather the fact that the radical currents within Islam question virtually every single tenet of European society today and Western society in general.
At this point, you probably expect a common political disclaimer that is almost obligatory whenever anybody says anything about Islam these days—perhaps a few words about a great and generally peaceful religion that has little to do with a small number of thugs and terrorists. Well, I will not avoid such words completely, but allow me to rephrase it a little bit: I still believe that the majority of Muslims prefer peaceful means to terrorism and coexistence to war. But, unfortunately, the facts supporting these views are increasingly hard to find, not only with every new attack against values and interests that are perceived to be Western, but also increasingly with every new anti-Western statement from major Muslim opinion leaders, both within and outside Europe, many of whom have so far been viewed as moderate.
Even a short browse on the Internet provides a long list of positive, friendly, and peaceful quotes straight from the Holy Qur'an. But, at the same time, such surfing will produce just as many citations that are, from our point of view, negative and threatening. All in all, we can conclude that Islam is—just like any other major religion—open to good and open to abuse. The key question should therefore be whether the Muslim radicals will eventually moderate? Or shall we alternately witness a broad shift towards radicalism even among today's so-called Muslim moderates? Although we all hope for the former, some might say that the recent "shifts in mood" in Islamic countries suggest the latter.
Well, let me be perfectly clear. If the militants in the end crush the moderate forces in the Muslim world, the West must be ready.
First of all, we should abandon the self-destructive debates about whether the West's policies in the Middle East are a legitimate raison d'être for radical Islam. Such debates are simply wrong. Radical Islamists challenge practically everything that our society claims to stand for, no matter what the Western policies were or are. These challenges include the concept of universal human rights and freedom of speech. That, however, does not discourage radical Muslims from using these basic principles against the West whenever they find it suitable.
The radicals, for instance, do not even theoretically admit that non-Muslims are entitled to the same rights as Muslims. Yet, simultaneously, they ferociously argue for human rights whenever the authorities might apply any pressure against them. In such a way, they corrupt the whole system and blur the difference between victim and perpetrator.
The same applies to freedom of speech: Everyone here remembers the upheaval surrounding the Danish cartoons. It seemed that virtually everybody in the Islamic universe who held any imaginable grudge against the West hopped on the bandwagon and joined often violent protests. Does it not surprise that the cartoons insulted those who have themselves depicted and drawn far worse attacks against our own values?
These days, the West does not seem quite ready to face the threat of radical Islam. The self-criticism and the tendency to blame ourselves for evil deeds of others are weakening us. The unity of the West we saw after the cowardly murder of some three thousand civilians on 9-11 has disintegrated.
The same could be said about our traditional system of values, our Western spirit, and our Western identity. Some have attempted to replace our original set of Judeo-Christian values with a fuzzy and amorphous moral mixture that would have all of humanity join in some kind of a brave new world as one global happy family. Theoretically, this could work nicely if everybody truly joined in, but, in practice, such a plan seems to be failing. Our partners in other parts of the world cherry-pick some of the benefits of the Western system while at the same time criticizing it for corruption and hypocrisy. As we became more open, other forces in the world began to identify themselves in opposition to us.
Radical Islam is not the only threat to the security and prosperity of Europe; it is, however, among the most serious. It is the force that openly claims a historical and theological entitlement to take over the corrupt and hedonistic West and unify it under a pure Islamic flag. We must defend ourselves against these forces. At the same time we have to protect the rights and lives of our law-abiding Muslim citizens in Europe.
From this point of view, the threat represented by radical Islam provides us with a useful mirror. It might, after all, help us grasp the seriousness of our situation and the challenges we face. And that is exactly what this conference is about. Thank you for your attention.