Hungarian Islamophobia and the anti-migrant referendum: A review of an essay by Zoltan Pall and Omar Sayfo

This week, the Bratislava-based Visegrad Revue published an essay entitled “Why an anti-Islam campaign has taken root in Hungary, a country with few Muslims,” co-authored by Zoltan Pall, a research fellow in the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, and Omar Sayfo, contributor to the pro-Orbán Demokrata weekly magazine, who defended his PhD at the University of Utrecht. Mr. Sayfo’s dissertation is entitled Arab Animated Cartoons- Mediating and Negotiating Notions of Identities. We have also covered some of Mr. Sayfo’s writings in the Hungarian Free Press.

The insightful piece in the Visegrad Revue tracks the transformation of political discourse on the Hungarian right from one that was not initially Islamophobic and, if anything, was inclined to supporting closer ties with the Muslim world and often spoke charitably of Muslim countries and cultures. The authors identify party politics and a desire to redefine the Hungarian national identity as the primary reasons behind the Hungarian right’s sharp turn towards Islamophobia.

“In recent years, Hungary’s formerly Muslim-friendly public discourse has become increasingly fearful of Islam. According to a recent Pew Research Centre survey, 72% of Hungarians, the highest proportion of any European country, see Islam in a negative light,” write the authors of the piece and they also quote László Kövér, the Fidesz Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, who asked rhetorically: “Shall we be slaves or free men, Muslims or Christians?”

The authors observe that Hungary’s Muslim community is all but negligible. Only 5,000 people in Hungary identify as Muslim, according to census data from 2011. Budapest has a single mosque and no minaret has been erected in the Hungarian capital over the last five hundred years. Despite the legacy of the Ottoman occupation of Hungary from 1541 to 1699–a distant legacy, but one which still plays an important role in the Hungarian national psyche–the idea of there being a Christian vs. Muslim conflict does not have deep roots in Hungarian discourse. As Mr. Pall and Mr. Sayfo note, the occupying Ottoman Turks were seen as foreigners, much like the Catholic Austrians were foreigners too. The threat they posed was less of a religious nature and much more political, in that it held back the country’s independent development. The authors add that 19th and 20th century Hungarian scholars of Islam–such as Ignác Goldziher or Armin Vámbéry–played a role in helping Hungarians gain an appreciation for aspects of Islamic culture and history, and their work also impacted policy.

“The Hungarian scholars of the Islamic world lacked the elitism of their Western European counterparts, who often looked at Muslims from the viewpoint of the colonizer, and often provided valuable background information to the British or French governments to aid them in their further occupation of the Middle East. In contrast, Hungarian scholars contributed to the establishment of diplomatic and trade relations with the Muslim world,” write Mr. Pall and Mr. Sayfo.

The statue and tomb of  Ottoman poet Gül Baba in Budapest. The tomb was constructed between 1543 and 1548.

The statue and tomb of Ottoman poet Gül Baba in Budapest. The tomb was constructed between 1543 and 1548.

In more recent years, some Hungarian academics have done exactly the opposite–they have helped to infuse a new generation of Hungarian students and burgeoning intellectuals with Islamophobia. The authors point to two key sources of this Islamophobia, namely: Pázmány Péter Catholic University and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). The KDNP was once an independent centre-right political party with close ties to the Roman Catholic Church (its roots are in the Democratic People’s Party — DNP, which operated from 1945 to 1949). Today, the party is little more than a wing of Fidesz, beholden to its larger political partner.

The authors observe that the head of the Arab faculty at Pázmány Péter Catholic Univerasity is Miklós Maroth, an advisor to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Mr. Sayfo and Mr. Pall note the following about Mr. Maroth:

“[He is] an academic well known for his Christian-Conservative views and text-immanent approaches, which claim that all Muslims disregard the European legal system, following only Sharia law instead. He has suggested that European countries should not only bar Muslim migrants from entering Europe, but has even argued that European Muslims should be stripped of their citizenship, and that Muslim refugees and migrants ‘should be wrapped in pork skin’ if they do not accept European norms.”

The authors add that there are some exceptions to Islamophobia, in both the Roman Catholic and in the academic world. For instance, they point to Jesuit priest Péter Mustó or Franciscan monk, Csaba Böjte. Br. Csaba Böjte is, indeed, known for his social justice work, especially in regards to orphans. That having been said, he supports Prime Minister Orbán’s anti-migrant referendum and plans to vote “no.” One Catholic, however, that I would add to the list of those who are willing to engage in thoughtful reflection and self-criticism on the subject of refugees and diversity is József Urbán, who has referred to Mr. Orbán’s anti-migrant campaigns as being poisonous. 

One area that Mr. Pall and Mr. Sayfo could have explored in their discussion of why and how the Hungarian right came to embrace Islamophobia, even when this was not previously characteristic of most Hungarian right-wing politicians, is the ingrained racism of what is often referred to as “Christian Conservatism” in Hungary. The term itself has roots in the antisemitic and irredentist politics of Interwar Hungary. In 1989/90, the Hungarian right–at first parties like the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Independent Smallholders’ Party or the Christian Democratic People’s Party–searched for a political heritage and some modicum of political continuity after having been relegated to the wilderness for four decades. That political continuity was often established through links to historic interwar Hungary. The Horthy era was still in living memory for an older generation of Hungarians, including many leading politicians. Parts of this past could be rehabilitated and its anti-communism, anti-liberalism, patriotic rhetoric, infused with references to Christianity, could be embraced.

In this political and rhetorical continuum, the “other”–against which Hungarian conservative nationalists could define themselves–were the Jews, the liberals and the urbanites. The Roma were always a target of racist rhetoric, but the ideological abstraction and Manichean allegory of the Jewish liberal city-dweller conspiring against patriotic conservative Christian Hungarians from rural Hungary required a far more complex rhetorical framework.

Muslims and Arabs were part of this rhetorical framework.  But they were often allies and not enemies of Christian conservative Hungary. In fact, some prominent Hungarian Muslims, like Miklós Ahmed Kovács, gravitated to Jobbik and other far-right movements, particularly because they perceived these as being friendly to Islam. “Years ago, we Muslims had no problem with the so-called radical right, the national right, or the far-right, nor with the affiliated parties or organisations, such as the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, Jobbik or the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement. We thought that they are not against us, that they will leave the Muslims alone. In fact, many of them even sympathised with us. Several in these circles became Muslims and received the support of Muslims. In 2010, many of us Muslims voted for Jobbik,” wrote Miklós Ahmed Kovács despondently, after it dawned on him that supporting Jobbik because they were not Islamophobic was a poor decision. Martin Niemöller, the late Protestant pastor from Germany who spoke up against the Nazis and survived concentration camps, may be useful recommended reading for disappointed Muslims who previously supported Jobbik or the Hungarian far-right. (“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist…)

Miklós Ahmed Kovács failed to understand that the originally pro-Muslim perspective of the Hungarian right changed so fundamentally and seamlessly as a direct result of the ingrained racism of the Hungarian right, which has an insatiable appetite for rallying its own troops by raising its rhetoric and threat perception to a fever-pitch against “the other.” Previously, the external threat against the nation was the anti-Semitic caricature and trope of the treacherous liberal Jew. Meanwhile the local threat against hard-working honest Hungarians, on a personal level, was the alleged petty thievery of the Roma–another important trope.

Today, the Machiavellianism of the Hungarian right–but first and foremost, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz–has turned this narrative on its head. Today, Mr. Orbán is here to protect the Jews from the physical threat posed by Islamic  terrorists and the liberal European elites who want to carelessly allow entire legions of said terrorists into Europe. Mr. Orbán is also here to protect the Roma from the masses of downtrodden foreigners who are coming to take away the welfare cheques of the Hungarian Roma. A handful of Fidesz politicians, including Justice Minister László Trócsányi and Speaker of the House László Kövér, have attempted to mobilise the Roma to vote with the government in the anti-migrant referendum, by making them fearful of migrants who will take part of the welfare “pie,” leaving less for Hungary’s Roma. What is so cruel and politically ingenious, is that Fidesz is embracing and using the Roma, whilst also reinforcing to the broader Hungarian public that, in contrast to hard-working people, the Roma are welfare recipients.

Muslims are just the next in a long historic line-up of  malicious and nefarious foreigners that the Hungarian right has always needed to define its own identity against or, when in power, to deflect attention from domestic social and socio-economic woes. This is perhaps another area where I feel that Mr. Sayfo and Mr. Pall might have nuanced their argument, which presented the new-found Islamophobia as part of a nation-building exercise on the Hungarian right. One can argue that the anti-Muslim hysteria and the referendum–introduced early this year, when growing dissatisfaction with the crumbling public education system and health care appeared in mass demonstrations–was simply a tool to deflect attention from domestic problems.

Mr. Sayfo and Mr. Pall correctly point out that Islamophobia has not been confined just to the Hungarian right.

“Although Islamophobia was not dominant in the Hungary of the ‘90s and 2000s, it was nevertheless present in public discourse. Two rather marginal groups were its main proponents. The first were the Jewish liberal intellectuals, who could not dissociate their sympathy for Israel from their hostility towards Muslim countries. For them Palestinians were terrorists, and Islam was the faith of the “terrorists,” who were an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. The second group included American-style Born Again Christians, mainly members of the Hungarian branch of the Pentecostals,”
the authors write.

Indeed, American Islamphobia–that which we see in so many Fundamentalist Christian and Evangelical communities or in the Tea Party movement–is not new. Prime Minister Orbán and the Hungarian right did not invent this discourse. They are merely using it, and are doing so quite effectively. It also seems accurate to observe that many Hungarian Jews (whether they are liberals or conservatives makes little difference) were, until recently, largely unable to support Palestinian human rights or take a more nuanced view of Islam, for fear that doing so would weaken Israel or run counter to the interests of Israel. Part of the problem is that Hungarian Jews were constantly concerned about whether offering public critiques of Israel or supporting Palestinian human rights would simply serve as fodder to the Hungarian far-right anti-Semites, who marched dressed in Keffiyehs at nationalist rallies.

In conclusion, Mr. Sayfo and Mr. Pall suggest: “Given the absence of a notable Muslim population, verbal Muslim-bashing has proven to be a conduit through which Hungarian society’s frustrations can be channeled in politically and socially safe ways.”

I do not believe that it is ever possible to safely bash any identifiable demographic group, no matter how small their presence in Hungary. If it is safe to bash a population of 5,000 Muslims, is it then also safe to bash a population of 11,000 practising and self-identifying Jews? If it is seen as “socially and politically safe” to verbally attack small demographic groups, then we are approving of the Orbán government’s shadow-boxing against amorphous enemies. The average rural Hungarian probably never had any meaningful contact with a Hungarian Jew, just like he never had any meaningful contact with a Muslim. This probably makes her more susceptible to subscribe to the trope of the nefarious, liberal, anti-Hungarian Jew who conspires against the nation or to the trope of the Islamist migrant who is conspiring against Hungarian and European Christian culture. I fail to see how this type of bashing can be considered safe. It is unsafe and it is insidious. If that were not the case, then the authors of this essay would have no problem publishing their interesting and thoughtful work for a Hungarian audience, in papers like the pro-Fidesz Demokrata.

20 Comments

  1. Read Oriana Fallaci, it will broaden your perspective, dear.

  2. William Christie says:

    All countries except Islamic, seem to be able to accept other religious groups. Example; try to open a Catholic Church in Gaza.

  3. Another piece about Islamophobia in Hungary. As if there were nothing else to speak about. When this site was born I thought it was brought to life to create a strong opposition bullhorn and to make things better.

    All what happening here is nothing else than a powerful supporting and furtherance of the Islamic invasion of Europe and Hungary together with the now undeniable spread of terrorism and social instability, the imminent risk of social disturbances, and all together the downing of Europe and Hungary. Complete overflow.

  4. Dr. Habil Fodor András says:

    Dear Comment-Makers,

    Dearest Christopher: You are absolutely right!!!
    I will write an OPEN LETTER TO MY GOVERNMENT, DEMANDING TO FOLLOW ISRAEL’s IMMIGRATION POLICY.

    Please, let me know, If I wrote this letter, would you sign it and publish in your outstanding Media?

  5. Dr. Habil Fodor András says:

    ONE MORE COMMENT: Dear Christopher, Here is a little article from an American Newspaper, which SUPPORTS YOUR CONCEPT in relaton to the picha-undok-lator-ISLAMOPHOBIA! Look Dear Kristóf Barátom:

    Multiple Injuries in Stabbing Rampage at Minnesota Mall

    You see, Christopher, this joking Muslim made just little injuries, no reason to hate them!!!

    A man who stabbed nine people at a mall in central Minnesota before he was shot dead is a “soldier of the Islamic State,” the militant group’s news agency said on Sunday, as the FBI investigated the attack as a potential act of terrorism.

    The man, who was wearing a private security uniform, made references to Allah and asked at least one person if they were Muslim before he assaulted them at the Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud on Saturday, the city’s Police Chief William Blair Anderson told reporters.

    Authorities declined to identify the suspect, who was killed by an off-duty policeman, because the investigation is underway.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation considers the episode a “potential act of terrorism,” Richard Thornton, FBI special agent in charge of the agency’s Minneapolis division, said at a news conference on Sunday.

    He said the investigation is in its early stages and it was not known if the man had discussed his plan of attack with others.

    Authorities had said earlier there were eight stabbing victims. One injured person transported himself to a hospital and was not initially counted, St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said at the news conference.

    Three victims remained hospitalized as of Sunday but none had life-threatening injuries, Kleis said.

    Latest News Update

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    Kleis said Jason Falconer, the off-duty officer from the Avon Police Department, a jurisdiction outside of St. Cloud, “clearly prevented additional injuries and loss of life” by shooting the man.

    Amaq, the news agency affiliated with the Middle Eastern extremist group Islamic State, issued a statement on Sunday saying, “The executor of the stabbing attacks in Minnesota yesterday was a soldier of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in response to calls to target the citizens of countries belonging to the crusader coalition.”

    Reuters was not immediately able to verify the Amaq claim.

    The knife attack in St. Cloud, a community about 60 miles (100 km) northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul, came at a time of heightened concern in the United States about the threat of violence in public places.

    An explosion rocked New York City’s bustling Chelsea district on Saturday, injuring 29 people in what authorities described as a deliberate criminal act. But both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said there was no indication it was linked to international terrorism.

    In St. Cloud, the attacker entered the mall in the evening as it was busy with shoppers, Anderson said. He attacked his victims at several sites in the shopping center, which will remained closed on Sunday as police investigate, the police chief said.

    The victims were male and female, Kleis said, and ranged in age from mid-50s to a 15-year-old female.

    Police officials said they were still interviewing witnesses hours after the attack.

    What You Say, Dear Islamophil Christopher?

    Yours sincerely,

    András

  6. It’s actually quite brilliant on the part of Fidesz. While schools are falling apart, hospitals aren’t able to properly function, and his own party is blatantly taking tax money for personal purposes, all anyone is talking about is Muslims. How many Hungarians would be healthier, smarter, and have more opportunities if they held their government to account for not using tax money to look after their own citizens. Billions of forints for a government sponsored hate campaign to keep your attention away from a corrupt government that fails to provide its citizens even the most basic rights. Wake up Hungary, you’re letting your government have its way with you and you’re just lying back and taking it.

    • I agree 100% with what you are saying, they don’t seem to care because they are brainwashed to believe that it is just the liberal west trying to ruin their culture. That only Fidesz can save them from the evil west and muslim terror. People are religiously told not to listen to foreign media or foreigners in general. It is sickening because they are getting poorer and poorer.

  7. Not sure of that other stuff, but I think it is important to define Islamophobia.

    Islamophobia is Muslim men’s fear of losing control over their women.

  8. Paris already has a gift of enriching multiculturalism, they enjoy the difference. Tomorrow these guys (not a woman or child among them) will be at your doorstep unless you find some time to in your hypocrite life do something to stop the Islamization of North America.

  9. Richard can I ask what you think about the Fidesz government letting hospitals and schools fall apart while spending billions of forints on an illegal referendum that has zero effect on any decisions made by the EC?

    • You can but why, can’t you read, that’s exactly what I asked in my first comment.

      Here, in case you can’t:
      “Another piece about Islamophobia in Hungary. As if there were nothing else to speak about.”

      And then the caveman is scratching his head and is asking:
      Why are people commenting the migrant issue in a discussion board of a piece about Islamofobia instead of speaking about something else?

      My question; why don’t you write about the miserable state of the Hungarian health service and education instead of publishing at least five pieces about the same topic of how filthy Bayer Zsolt is and God knows how many pieces in the last year about how important it is to allow the hordes if Islam into Hungary? As if readers couldn’t understand from one piece and as if there were no other more important problems.

      • Christopher Adam says:

        Richard,

        The dismal state of health care, education and rampant, systemic corruption are all pressing problems. (Read Monday’s article here on HFP for more on the corruption issue.) But as you know, the referendum campaign and months of government rhetoric leading up to it has dominated discourse in Hungary. We report on that discourse and dominant topics in Hungary. We do not determine the direction of that discourse. When Hungary’s government drops this rhetorical weapon, we will be able to stop reporting about it too.

        By the way, in terms of this article, we are merely reviewing an essay by two Hungarian thinkers–one of whom probably has quite a different view on Hungarian politics than I or my colleagues at HFP may have. So we’re presenting a different angle, while offering some commentary.

  10. Christopher Adam on September 20, 2016 at 12:32 am

    That’s all correct and is that why this piece came with the headline Hungarian Islamophobia, a shrill insulting derogatory NWO slogan to give a bigger push to Islamization and silence and abash anybody who is against Islamizaton? We, and politicians and all might oppose Islamization in different ways and of course politicians will use it to cement themselves into their velvet chair but we cannot be lumped in one basket as Hungarian Islamophobia. That was very insulting for me, and you might not even have idea for how many other Hungarians, too. The whole piece is about Hungarian Islamophobia.

    Now let’s stop here for a moment. Who’s got phobia here? And with this question of mine I am not specifically addressing you rather commenting this piece. Who has Christophobia???? Islam? That honor kills their own daughter for wearing a cross. Who’s got phobia here?????? Now, let’s take one more step. That’s their life their culture their world order. And I lived in Muslim countries and I say whatever barbarian they are, they have more backbone than the Christians. You and others calling us Islamophobe and show no empathy for the victimized Christians and are supporting the Islam with overflowing humanitarian gestures. They are not like that. They only feel empathy for the Muslims, for their own kind, for their own belief. Christians might allow them building mosques in their Christian kingdom but they never let us do so in their own kingdom and they will even destroy our churches as soon as they outnumber the potential layer of our societies. If Christians had the same power, intrepidity and dauntlessness they wouldn’t even risk to rape our women, build their no-go zones and would stay at home.

    I know you are a manager and saved their lives. They will never forgive you this humiliation that they were forced to accept help from a faithless giaour who doesn’t worship and never bowed before Allah and even if they forgive you their family won’t. They are a big family they are not like the Christians and they only feel sympathy and help their own and will kill for Allah. Once Canada is Islamized you won’t have time to convert to Islam. They are not hypocrites, they go and kill for Allah, even their own children. Then what can you or we hope for?

    They say Islam will dominate the world and Islam is the only religion all the others are fake. Write a piece and say Catholic is your only religion defend it against Islam and they will knock on your door and you will not have time to apologize. But, we are not like them so is it O.K. to call us Islamophobe 14 times in a piece?

    Hungarian Islamophobia?????

  11. William,

    Thanks a lot, I really appreciate. I downloaded and started reading. It’s not only a problem of financial resources to send them home, let alone no country would accept them, but looking into the technical details, it would need to send at least 2000 home daily to finish off the task in a year or two. The first day the op starts they disband, scatter all over the country, slip out of any possible control and start the real war that no organized peaceful civilized country can win in a traditional way. A war that will over-exceed all known partisan and guerilla ops. Their children are taught to hate and love hatred as early as 8 years old, a stone set in their heart, and raised in a spirit to make them fanatic to the point they would kill even their own mother, cut of hands, stone to death, and behead.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6grMxkjqiY

    This is the most serious crisis the civilized world goes through for their survival in their history and no known or traditional defense is available. Unless they find a way it leads to genocide that is worst than a holocaust and it’s shocking to see how potential and capable people assist this program without noticing that they will never overcome. It’s the laughing third that will overcome, their bosses their financiers, they are brainwashed underlings and their usefulness will run it’s course at the first moment the goal is achieved and instead of the promised shelter their controllers will kill them off to erase the witnesses of their crime.

  12. You have to admire Uncle Vik, a strong-arm leader that is gaining many many admirers all over Europe. If Hungary doesn`t go with Vik in its forthcoming referendum you may as well kiss bye bye your recently gained freedoms and say hello goat brides and stonings. In today`s Express paper he is suggesting an island for these muslim illegals – great idea. Can i suggest that Great Britain still owns several isolated rocks in the South Atlantic – South Georgia would cure Europe of its mohamedan issues and put off many attempting the “dangerous” trips up the balkans or the med.

  13. @William, use google, you will be surprised how many catholic churches are in Gaza, you are so misinformed
    https://www.google.hu/search?q=Catholic+Church+in+Gaza

    • William Christie says:

      Palestine does have a 6% Christian population. However as it is not yet an independent country with it’s own currency etc. It is not classified as such.
      Until then the state is dependent upon the public opinion support of many Christian countries. When Palestine does achieve country status, hopefully the Christian population will be allowed to remain. Like the Palestinians, Jews in Arab countries were encouraged to leave when the state of Israel was proclaimed. They have no right of return. Here in Canada every one seems to be able to get along.

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