Traditionally, Hungary’s extreme right was not openly Islamophobic. In fact, the Hungarian right-wing in general tended to differ markedly from conservative politicians in North America and much of western Europe in its support for Palestinian nationhood and its criticism of Israel. At the time of the war with Hezbollah back in 2006, I wrote a response to a piece published in Magyar Nemzet, which resulted in a brief public exchange with a prominent Hungarian publicist. I had long suspected that the Hungarian right’s attitudes towards Islam, Israel and Palestinians specifically, was more a result of inherent, knee-jerk antisemitism, rather than genuine concern for Palestinian human rights.
But times are certainly changing and the Hungarian right’s fascination with, and relative respect for, Islam is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of the Charlie Hebdo killings in France earlier this year and maybe even more so due to the large waves of Muslim refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan, and arriving in Hungary by the hundreds each day. Less than two years ago, in 2013, Jobbik leader Gábor Vona referred to Islam as “the last hope for humankind, in the darkness of liberalism and globalization.” He added: “A single culture tries to preserve its heritage, and this is the Islamic world.” For many years, the Hungarian right saw in Islam the antithesis of everything and everyone they hated: Jews, liberals, atheists, urbanites, Americans and westerners, in general.
Hungary’s tiny Muslim community (population: 5,579–at least according to the 2011 census) was not perceived as posing any kind of threat to Hungarian national culture. In fact, with the dearth of mosques in Hungary, Islam was little more than a piece of distant history, with the occasional Ottoman era minaret, or the Gül Baba mausoleum in the Buda hills, serving as a totally innocuous reminder of the past.
The current refugee crisis and terrorism in western Europe has changed the discourse on the Hungarian right (and not only in Jobbik, but also in Fidesz) on the subject of Islam. Suddenly, a trope has developed, where thanks to the “mistakes” of liberal western European politicians, much of the EU west of Austria is “overrun” by Muslims, national cultures face destruction and demographic doom hangs over “Christian” Europe. The other end of this dichotomy is eastern Europe, where Muslim immigration has barely made a dent and where politicians like Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have the “good judgement” to fight multiculturalism, to close off the borders and to save the region from creeping Islam and cultural diversity.
This is a major change in perceptions and narratives on the Hungarian right, and Hungarian imam Ahmed Miklós Kovács has picked up on it as well. Mr. Kovács is a leader within Budapest’s Muslim community and he published a piece on his Facebook profile a few days ago, in which he commented on this dramatic shift:
“We have arrived at a turning point. A few years ago, we Muslims had no problems with the so-called radical right in Hungary, otherwise known as the national side, or the far right, and with its organizations, such as the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement (HVIM), the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP), Jobbik, the Hungarian Guard, etc. We thought that they were not against us, that they will leave Muslims alone. What’s more, we thought that many of them even sympathized with us. Some of them even converted to Islam and some in our own circles supported them in elections. In 2010, many of us voted for Jobbik and at the time Gábor Vona referred to Islam as the last bastion of humanity and civilization. But today, all of this has changed drastically. We have now become their main enemy. We have now replaced the Jews and the Gypsies, as prime targets of their hate.”
Mr. Kovács suggested that Hungarian Muslims feel abandoned, as the same civil rights groups that stand up for Roma rights or speak out against antisemitism, don’t seem interested in protesting Islamophobia. He then proceeded to declare than supporting Jobbik, the Hungarian Guard, HVIM or any other far right movement in Hungary is considered a “haram,” or a deeply sinful, forbidden act for all Muslims. One reader who responded to Mr. Kovács under the name Nour El Huda Boudjaoui, seemed exasperated that Jobbik, which only two years ago had been “a great Arabist” in its outlook, has changed so much.
There is somewhat of a lesson to be learned in all of this. Just because a virulently racist group doesn’t attack one specific demographic (due to political considerations), does not mean that this demographic should believe that they are somehow forever immune to the hate and prejudice espoused by these extremists. Nor does it mean that just because one’s own group is not being attacked, one should not show solidarity with those who are targets, from different cultural, religious or ethnic groups.