Omar Adam Sayfo on Islam and religious persecution

Omar Adam Sayfo is the foreign affairs editor columnist* at Hungary’s pro-Fidesz regime Demokrata weekly news magazine. He is of part-Syrian origins and is a graduate student at Utrecht University, with his research focusing on socio-political developments in the Arab world. The Demokrata, where Mr. Sayfo works, is among the worst of the worst, when it comes to the Fidesz far-right. The magazine is steadfastly loyal to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government (even if editor-in-chief András Bencsik has been occasionally critical of blatant corruption and extravagant lifestyles among some within Fidesz), but it caters to a readership that hovers somewhere between Fidesz and Jobbik. The Demokrata resorts to very different polemics and rhetoric than more moderate right-wing publications like Heti Válasz or, indeed, the conservative Mandiner blog and news site.

This time, however, Omar Adam Sayfo published a nuanced, generally insightful, though still problematic essay on the Mandiner website, focusing on the topic of religious freedom and the way in which each religion’s followers often tend to claim a monopoly on suffering, when they feel that they are being persecuted, marginalized or are otherwise faced with prejudice.

“Jews, Christians and Muslims all have a tendency to believe that they are the most persecuted around the world. Yet in reality, no single denomination or religious groups has a monopoly over either the role of the aggressor or the victim. The specific instances of religious persecution are often not reflective of religious disagreements, but rather political interests or economic power relationships. (…) Muslims, Jews, Christians and Buddhists tend to appropriate the notion of suffering and victimhood. This strengthens someone who is religious in his/her faith and makes the individual a part of a large, global community. But this does not give anyone a monopoly over the roles of the oppressor nor the oppressed,” writes Mr. Sayfo.

Omar Adam Sayfo

Omar Adam Sayfo

This, I think, is an excellent observation, as is Mr. Sayfo’s argument that when countries like France or Denmark suddenly attempt to strengthen secularism through policy-making (banning religious symbols among civil servants or at the municipal level) or through procedures (making it next to impossible for Muslim clerics to obtain visas to Denmark), which seem primarily based on the fear of Muslim minorities, then much of this is an implicit admission of how these countries failed to integrate their Muslim or Arab minority populations over the past decades.

Where Mr. Sayo’s essay made me raise a proverbial eyebrow is during his discussion of how some European countries (the author singled out Italy) come up with all kinds of bureaucratic red tape to hinder local Muslim communities from building new mosques or opening prayer rooms.

“While no such ban exists at the state-level in most European countries, in several places municipal governments roll out bureaucratic obstacles before local Muslim communities, rendering it impossible to operate prayer rooms,” writes Mr. Sayo, and then brings up Italy as an example of this Islamophobia.

But why did Mr. Sayo go all the way to Italy? He is a prominent editor of a major national weekly magazine in Hungary–surely he realizes that since the transition to democracy in 1989/90, the Muslim community in Budapest has found it impossible to open a mosque in the Hungarian capital, despite repeated failed attempts, because district level administrations have come up with bureaucratic red tape, or have listened to the protests of local populations who fear anyone deemed to be “other.” Mr. Sayo speaks not a word about Hungary, as a place where prejudice and fear has hindered the Muslim community’s ability to move towards institutional completeness.  We’ve written before about this situation in HFP. “It is effectively impossible to build a mosque in Hungary,” noted János Káldos, a scholar and Muslim community leader in Hungary. Yet Mr. Sayo mentions nothing of this, but focuses exclusively on Islamophobia in Italy, France or Denmark. 

Knowing the state of the media in Hungary, it is very difficult not to assume that as the editor of a major pro-government publication, Mr. Sayo’s ability to write openly and freely about such issues is heavily curtailed. We wish him courage in the new year and, hopefully, a clear way out from the grasp of the extreme right.


*Nota bene: Omar Adam Safyo wrote to HFP, upon reading our article, to clarify that he is not the foreign affairs editor of the Demokrata, but simply writes for the paper as a columnist. We noted that the Demokrata’s  website listed Mr. Sayfo as the “külpolitikai szerkesztő” at the time of us publishing this piece, which translates to “foreign affairs editor” in English. Mr. Sayfo responded that he would ask the Demokrata to make the appropriate correction on their site, and asked us as well to modify our piece accordingly.

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