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.

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