Ásotthalom–the Hungarian town that banned Muslims and gays in public

Ásotthalom (population: 4,200) is a small town in southeastern Hungary, located a mere 3 km from the border with Serbia. Since 2013, the town has been led by Jobbik Mayor László Toroczkai, who is also the far-right party’s vice president. In 2015, the town made news for producing a bizarre, Hollywood-esque video awkwardly entitled “Message to Illegal Immigrants from Hungary” and subtitled with English text, aimed at deterring migrants from crossing the nearby border into Hungary and showcasing the tiny town’s security forces. Mr. Toroczkai played a starring role.

This month, Mayor Toroczkai announced that Ásotthalom has passed two decrees, both of which almost certainly contravene Hungary’s Fundamental Law (the constitution). First, the local decree prohibits Muslims from wearing any Islamic garb in public, including the burka, the “burkini,” the Niqab or the Chador. The decree also prohibits the opening of any mosque in the town, as well as a ban the on construction of any minarets. The second part of the decree targets the LGBT community and prohibits anyone from “promoting” same-sex marriage in public. Anyone “apprehended” promoting gay rights in public or wearing traditional Islamic garb would receive a 150,000 forint (C$686) fine.

Mayor László Toroczkai with his wife and children, at Ásotthalom town limits.

Mayor László Toroczkai with his wife and children, at Ásotthalom town limits.

Initially, the mayor’s initiative was largely dismissed as nonsense, perhaps even harmless nonsense, emanating from Jobbik’s most dullard fringe, especially as it was believed to impact almost nobody. There is no Muslim community in Ásotthalom and no need or desire for a mosque or Muslim prayer space. There are, however, gay residents in this small town, even if there is no LGBT community to speak, and for them, the mayor’s initiative is even more reason to hide and feel shame.

But a report by the liberal hvg.hu news site shows that the outrageous decree is impacting more people than initially thought. The news site, which sent a journalist to the village, discovered that at least two Muslims live in the settlement. One of them has been a resident for decades and is the Kuwaiti husband of a Hungarian Christian woman called Szilvia Rózsa. They have four children together.

“All night, I was unable to sleep, when I found out that they had passed such a decree…My husband has patiently waited for decades for me to convert to Islam and I have waited the same amount time for his conversion to Christianity. But we don’t kill each other over it. For the mayor, this is merely a decree and just politics. For us, this is our life,” said Ms. Rózsa. And then she added one of the problems that the decree poses. Her elderly mother-in-law wears a veil and “feels naked with out.” When she last visited Ásotthalom in the nineties, she had no problem wearing it in public. What would she do if she visited again in the near future? “We want her to visit and she will not remove her veil,” noted Ms. Rózsa.

“We lived for sixteen years in Kuwait. When I washed the windows in a t-shirt, I was criticized at first. But once they got to know me, nobody mocked me when they saw me in my jeans,” said Ms. Rózsa.

The town has at least one other Muslim–a young Hungarian woman who reportedly converted to Islam, after meeting a young Muslim man from Algeria online. It appears that the Algerian man may be settling in the town as well.

Mr. Toroczkai asserted that the new decree is not meant to limit locals in any way, but is a “preventative” measure in case Muslims begin moving in and settling in the area.

Town council itself was divided when it came to voting on the decree–out of six, two councilors abstained, one was absent from the vote and three supported the initiative. As well, the future of the decree is in question, with Csongrád county authorities investigating whether it is unconstitutional, as it curtails the right to religious freedom.

But the initiative is reportedly causing strife within Jobbik as well. The far-right party has been trying hard to moderate its image, yet now its vice president is reminding the world of what the party really represents at the local level.

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