Omar Sayfo: On Islamophobia and on its beneficial effects

Omar Adam Sayfo is a PhD candidate at the University of Utrecht, and foreign affairs columnist at Hungary’s pro-Orbán Demokrata weekly. His most recent piece, published on the Mandiner website and translated into English below for HFP’s readers, offers a glimpse into the thinking of supporters of Hungary’s Orbán government, when it comes to issues of racism, Islamophobia, liberalism and the West. Mr. Sayfo argues that on the right, many Hungarians believe that Hungary is no longer merely observing the European political discourse from the sidelines, but is now at the very centre of it, with the Orbán government saying what “the few people in the West awakening from the liberal dream rarely dare to utter.” I offer my own comments on some aspects of Mr. Sayfo’s article, directly below his piece. (C. A.)

Omar Adam Sayfo

Omar Adam Sayfo

Within just a couple of years, Islamophobia grew out of essentially nothing in Hungary. Yet there is no credible risk of a terrorist attack and the shuttering of the borders keeps those arriving from the south out of the country. And those already in the West would be insane to come here.

It is important to note: the Hungarian national soul is not racist, antisemitic, nor is it Islamophobic. I am convinced that those who claim the opposite are driven by malice, resentment or, in the best case scenario, by hypersensitivity. Perhaps they just misunderstand the national soul. It is, however, a fact that Hungarian culture–explored from a sociological vantage point–is averse to uncertainty. This means that it sees the unknown and the unpredictable as stressful and as a threat. But this, in contrast to real racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia, is easily resolvable.

As soon as the Hungarian is convinced of the foreigner’s harmlessness and of his/her good intentions, the Hungarian welcomes the foreigner with an open heart. This is in contrast to the so-called liberal and welcoming peoples of the West who, on the surface, appear to accept the other, but then effectively divide them based on caste. Only the most determined foreigners can break out of this.

Within a couple of years, Islamophobia grew out of nothing in Hungary. This can, in part, be explained by the exploits of the Islamic State or the migrant crisis, which serves as a shock to society. Yet Islamophobia has little societal relevancy in Hungary. Hungary’s Muslim minority comprises merely 0.1% of the population. Those Muslims who practice their faith make up just 0.03%. As such, we are speaking of an essentially invisible community. There is no terror risk, the closure of borders keeps out all those arriving from the south and those already in the West would be crazy to come here.

There exists, of course, a theoretical possibility that diaspora populations may develop in Hungary. But for this to transpire, one would need a long and unlikely series of chance happenings. Therefore, Islamophobia in Hungary is nothing more than a political product imported from the West. But let’s not forget that the best products only land in the hands of buyers, if it is somehow relevant to the broader community.

The growing Islamophobia in the West can be understood as a natural societal reflex–it is an answer to a whole slew of social, economic, security-related and identity-based problems. But there is something else that forms part of the whole story: the cultural conflict between the majority society and the immigrants has already happened in the seventies and eighties.

The difference, however, was that the in the case of the wayward immigrants, who defined themselves primarily along national lines, the discrimination against them was also based on nationality and ethnicity. The pejorative German term “Kanacke,” which included Muslims and all non-white immigrants, was also applied to African Christians, Greeks and those from the Balkans.

But the memory of the Second World War and the ruling liberal discourse turned the open discussion of problems into a taboo. People took a deep breath and the tension inside kept growing.

This situation continued until recently, when a section of the immigrants began defining themselves along religious lines. This made it easier to solve the problems using politically correct means. Since the secular West began to see religion as merely an ideology, which one can freely choose, criticism became much more acceptable. According to the new PC interpretation, the problem isn’t with Muslims, but rather with Islam.

In the contemporary world, social tensions that have been artificially silenced for decades are now bubbling up to the surface and are packaged in an anti-Islam discourse. The “Islamisation” of the immigration problem, however, leads to the misunderstanding of the diagnosis. Although the terror risk can be seen, almost in full, as being on account of the Muslims, the poor state of public safety in many western European suburbs, where fifty percent of the population is comprised of immigrants who are Christian, or of a different religion, is just as much the responsibility of these demographics, whose sociological and cultural parameters line up almost exactly with those of their Muslim neighbours. It’s certainly true that many of these minorities are now very pleased with the current religious thematization of public discourse, as this way they are able to climb the social ladder.

It remains a fact that if Muslims would–out of an act of magic–vanish from Europe, the suburbs would not become anymore livable for the indigenous population. Moreover, it is also a fact that anti-Islam sentiments have a beneficial effect. Similarly to the days of the Moorish conquest, today too the opposition to the Muslim minorities can effectively build unity among factious Europeans.

But why is all of this relevant from a Hungarian perspective? Perhaps it is relevant because much like in the West, in Hungary the unspoken societal tensions have been bubbling below the surface for the past several decades.

It is noteworthy that the language of the anti-Islam discourse in Hungary is built, in large part, on the tropes normally applied to Gypsies (ie: that they are not European, they are criminals, it is impossible to integrate them, etc.), as well as those applied to the Jewry (ie: they perceive themselves as being superior, they are part of a conspiracy, etc.). Yet it is again important to note: this situation is not usually a result of racism or antisemitism, but can be traced back to cultural, social and economic factors, or those related to intellectual history.

Nevertheless, uttering an anti-Gypsy or an anti-Jewish opinion is taboo, or at minimum it carries risks. In contrast, in light of the dearth of Muslims in Hungary, the Muslim straw man can be attacked, both in a seemingly intellectual way, as well as in a style more becoming of a tavern. Since the vast majority of the population sees Islam and Muslims through a skewed lens, “Islam” has become synonymous with a cancer in Europe. As a result, anti-Islam and indeed anti-Muslim viewpoints are no longer subject to condemnation–sometimes they are all but duties.

This no-stakes situation has had a “liberating” effect on politics. Those politicians who are prone to this can express strongly-worded views on the situation in the West, as well as on migrants and on the Islamic world. And if it is necessary, they can launch an assault on the migrants. As an aside, one may note that Nicolas Sarkozy bravely, and in a socially legitimate way, took action against the east-European Gypsy camps in France. It would have been worth his while to also do some sweeping in the suburbs inhabited by immigrants.* Perhaps it is not simply a matter of coincidence that governments generally tend to only provide definite opinions on the minorities of other countries, while being endlessly cautious about questions impacting their own minorities, and often speaking only in coded form.

But there is another possible interpretation of the situation as well, namely: the no-stakes anti-Islam discourse allows for Hungarians–but firstly the right-wing–to redefine their European and Christian self-image. The romantic image of the knights defending the last bastion comes back to life. Today, these knights are no longer just battling the Turks, but are waging a two front war against the barbarians invading from the East, as well battling a self-destructive West, which is spinning its wheels in the throes of liberalism.

Without any societal stakes, one can freely entertain the thought of a European-Muslim war, which will probably never materialize on Hungarian soil. What’s more: now Paris has its watchful eyes on Budapest. Hungary, breaking with a century-long tradition, is no longer a peripheral client of western ideals, but is itself the centre, where the official politics represent that which in the West only the few now awakening from the liberal dream dare to speak. And if in the long run, after so many centuries, the nation’s healthy self-image is restored, the burning down of the straw men would already have been worth it.

Omar Adam Sayfo
(Translated from the Hungarian by Christopher Adam)

*The author noted that by “sweeping,” he refers to the removal of the various social problems in these suburbs.



Contemporary Islamophobia is, indeed, a new phenomenon in Hungary. Just a few years ago, nationalist Hungarians could often be seen marching in the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh, including on anniversaries such as June 4th, which marks the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, when Hungary lost most of its land and population to the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I had long suspected that the use of the keffiyeh in Hungary was not a symbol of authentic solidarity on the Hungarian right with Palestinians in the occupied territories and elsewhere, but was rather a coded form of antisemitism for Hungarian nationalists. In the Manichean allegory to which they subscribed, Hungarians were being oppressed by Jews and by “Freemasonry,” just like the Palestinians, and were therefore fighting the same “darkness.”

The remarkably sudden and essentially wholesale adoption of Islamophobia in Hungary by many of these same nationalists is perhaps the most compelling evidence of a deep-rooted racism and xenophobia in Hungarian society. Islamophobia, which indeed was not obviously present in Hungary even four or five years ago, found such fertile soil in a society so averse to ethnic, cultural and religious difference, that it could grow deep roots in no time.

Mr. Sayfo argues that “the Hungarian soul” is not racist or antisemitic and those who claims otherwise are either hypersensitive or are simply malicious…or perhaps they just misunderstand Hungary and the Hungarians. According to Mr. Sayfo, Hungarians are simply averse to difference, uncertainty and the other, but once they come to realize that the foreigner is “harmless,” the “other” is quickly welcomed by Hungarians with “an open heart.” Mr. Sayfo believes  that the same cannot be said for Western European societies.

The irrational fear of the other forms the heart of racism everywhere, Hungary included. Having an open heart for the docile and “harmless” stranger, and building an image of who does or does not qualify as the docile minority, has long been an important element of racism.

Even the most rabid racist had little reason to fear or to dislike the docile, harmless character of Mammy in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She represented the image of the African American that racists could tolerate and even like: lowly, kindly, humble, non-threatening, non-thinking–a servant. Uncle Tom, of course, is the other example that comes to mind. Here is yet another non-threatening, docile, subservient “foreigner,” which majority society had no reason to fear or loath.

In Canada, we have the nineteenth and early twentieth century trope of the docile, dead and dying noble savage–the non-threatening, “weird and waning” Native. Duncan Campbell Scott’s “The Onondaga Madonna” comes to mind:

She stands full-throated and with careless pose,
This woman of a weird and waning race,
The tragic savage lurking in her face,
Where all her pagan passion burns and glows;
Her blood is mingled with her ancient foes,
And thrills with war and wildness in her veins;
Her rebel lips are dabbled with the stains
Of feuds and forays and her father’s woes.

And closer in the shawl about her breast,
The latest promise of her nation’s doom,
Paler than she her baby clings and lies,
The primal warrior gleaming from his eyes;
He sulks, and burdened with his infant gloom,
He draws his heavy brows and will not rest.

If all it takes for Hungarians to embrace minorities and foreigners is to be told that they pose no threat and are “harmless,” then this begs the question: has Hungary’s “brave” and outspoken Orbán government helped, in words and in deeds, Hungarians to be more tolerant and accepting of “the other?” Has the Orbán government built upon the inherently “open hearts” of the Hungarian people when it comes to explaining that Muslims and migrants pose no threat or risk? The answer is pretty obvious to anyone who has followed Hungarian public discourse. Governments have a major role to play in shaping public opinion and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is well aware of this.

It’s a rather sad state of affairs, if the only way that Europeans or Hungarians, conservative Europeans and Christian Hungarians can define and imagine themselves is in contrast to imagined foreign enemies. It is sadder still, if the only way to unite Europeans is through Islamophobia. I don’t think that Islamophobia is ever beneficial to anyone. If a society has no symbols or ideals around which to rally and unify, other than visceral hatred of the imagined other, then that society is hopelessly dysfunctional. It is on the trajectory of disintegration, and no amount of Islamophobia will be of help.

Hungary, thanks to Mr. Orbán’s statements and activities on the topic of migration and refugees, has certainly garnered attention in Europe and beyond. This past week in Washington DC, I presented at a conference on the migration crisis and a young man, who turned out to be a Donald Trump supporter, came up to me (I had presented on the refugee crisis following the 1956 Hungarian revolution) and asked me about what I thought of Mr. Orbán. He was clearly enamoured. Never had I thought that a young man from rural Virginia, and with a limited formal education, would be intimately familiar with a Hungarian prime minister and his policies.

But making mostly negative headlines and being outlandish does not mean that you are shaping mainstream policy and decision-making, or western discourse. It is also easy to assume, from within the rhetorical whirlwind of the pro-Orbán camp, that people in the West are “waking” from a deceptive liberal slumber, that liberalism and the West is dying and decrepit, and that Mr. Orbán’s self-serving brand of anti-western illiberalism is the way of the future and a beacon for the world. It actually isn’t and Hungary, along with its dominant, government-initiated xenophobic discourse, continues to be a marginal and increasingly immature, non-serious player on the political and ideological peripheries of the West, which its current leaders so love to hate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *