“Shall we be slaves or free men, Muslims or Christians?” László Kövér, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament asked the youth section of the Hungarian Christian Democratic Party, a coalition partner of the ruling central-right FIDESZ, at a summer camp on July 8, 2016. 1 Kövér’s statement signifies a discursive change in Hungary’s leading political center-right, at least at the domestic level.
Out of the 10 million people that reside in Hungary, only 5,000 are Muslim – that is one per every 2,000 inhabitants. 2 Unlike in France, Great Britain or Belgium there are no sizeable immigrant groups. Budapest, a city of more than two million, has only one mosque and merely a handful of prayer rooms. 3 The last minaret was built almost 500 years ago by the occupying Ottoman Turks. 4
Yet, 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. 5
What could be responsible for this drastic shift in Hungarians’ perception? The answer is party politics, and the country’s troubled journey searching for its own identity.
Former friend of the Muslim world
Hungary had frequent encounters with the Muslim world, historically, and many were not peaceful. Traces of Hungary’s Ottoman occupation (1541-1699) are still present in the country’s consciousness. Even 400 years later, Hungarian children can recite nursery rhymes about the ladybug tortured by the Turks, or the stork wounded by a Turkish kid and healed by a Hungarian one. 6
In the contemporary Hungarian collective memory, the Ottoman era however, is not remembered as a Christian-Muslim conflict, but rather a foreign occupation, in which religion played a secondary role at best. 7 The Ottomans were not qualitatively regarded any different than the Catholic Austrians, who conquered Hungary when the Turks left, or the Soviets, who controlled the country until 1989.
The Ottoman Empire did not force its Hungarian provinces to convert; Istanbul was more interested in collecting taxes from the Christian population. 8 Likewise, the Hungarian population perceived the occupier more in political terms. The 17th century Hungarian-Croatian poet and military strategist, Miklós Zrínyi, for example, saw the Ottomans as an obstacle to emergence of independent Hungarian polity, rather than a lethal threat to Catholicism. 9
After the Ottoman era, those scholars that acted as the gatekeepers of Islamic knowledge, often projected the religion in positive light. The founders of the Middle Eastern and Islamic studies programs at Hungarian universities in the 19th and 20th centuries, Armin Vámbéry and Ignác Goldziher viewed Islam through an empathetic lens. Another famous Hungarian orientalist, Gyula Germanus converted to Islam and adopted the name Abd al-Karim. 10
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.
Later, in the second half of the 20th century, during the four decades of Communist rule, Hungary built strong political and economic relations with several Middle Eastern countries. 11 This was in accordance with the policies of the larger Soviet block. Thousands of Muslim students from secular Arab republics, such as Algeria, Syria and Iraq, pursued their graduate studies at the engineering or medical faculties at the universities in Budapest, Debrecen or Pécs. Many of these students married Hungarians and permanently settled in the country.
The fall of Communism in 1989 brought radical changes to Hungary in many respects. Budapest loosened its ties to Asia and Africa and turned to the West. The country became a NATO member in 1999 and entered the EU in 2004, all the while closing half of its embassies outside of Europe for financial reasons.
The transition to a market economy pushed vast segments of Hungarian society into economic deprivation. Turbulent economic times led to the emergence of popular sentiments not only against different ethnicities like the Romas, Romanians, Slovaks, the Jews, but also against the Hungarians of Transylvania, the latter blamed for taking jobs away from Hungarian citizens. 12
In 1993, writer and politician, István Csurka, seceded from Hungary’s ruling center-right political block, and established the Hungarian Life and Justice Party (MIÉP), a far-right party attracting many of those, who found themselves on the losing end of the regime change. Conspiracy theories disseminated by the MIÉP found resonance in Hungary, especially among those who had belonged to the educated middle class before ’89, but whose living standards had significantly shrunk after the collapse of communism. 13
Among Csurka’s favorite conspiracy theories was the one about the so-called “shady Jewish business elite,” who supposedly invested vast amounts of money to purchase real estate in Hungary. 14 Csurka based his theory on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and described the Hungarians as the “Palestinians of Europe,” involved in a life-or-death struggle with the “Israelis,” who had set out to colonize their country. 15
This conspiracy theory defined the discourse of the Hungarian far-right for a long time, but since being openly anti-Semitic and directly attacking Jews along racial and religious lines had become taboo in Hungary in the ‘90s, the far-right coded their anti-Semitic messages as criticism of Israel. Armed Islamist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah were regarded as freedom fighters against Israeli colonialism, enjoying popularity in radical-right circles. It was a time, when the Palestinian kufiyyah, combined with bomber jackets and heavy boots, became popular fashion items for far-right activists.
While Hamas and Hezbollah served as far away projection spaces, the local Hungarian Muslim population did not serve as ideal targets to far-right groups: they numbered less than 10,000 in the ‘90s, and the majority were university educated and had successfully integrated into the middle class.
The identity crisis that followed Hungary’s transition from communism to democracy provided space for pseudo-scientific movements that challenged the academic community’s views on Hungarians’ origins. Most historians and linguists had always supported the theory that Hungarians belonged to the Finno-Ugrian language-family, tying Hungarian roots to the Finnish or the Estonians. Pseudo-scientists often accused the “liberal Jews” for creating the Finno-Ugric theory in order to prevent Hungarians from knowing their true “noble history”.
Some of these new theories identified the Huns of Attila, and others the Scythians, as the real Hungarian ancestors, many suggesting Hungarians were of Turkic origins. These pseudo-scientific movements – almost without exception – integrated into the far-right’s identity, thereby strengthening their sympathy for the Muslim world.
By the mid-2000s, the Jobbik party, which had emerged as the dominant far-right political force with the decline of Csurka’s MIÉP, had forged strong international ties with Muslim countries. For example, the president of the party, Gábor Vona, invited Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to send observers, who were to ensure voting fairness in the 2009 European parliamentary elections. 16 In his 2011 book, where he describes his ideological stance, Vona wrote that if Islam were to decline, “a light would go out almost entirely [in the world], and there would be no one who could face the darkness of Globalism.” 17 Due to the party’s sympathy with Islam, Jobbik was rather isolated from the mainstream European far-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. 18
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, a Faith Church (with about 60,000 members) that saw the manifestation of the Antichrist in Islam. 19
In sum, even though there had been contact with Muslims throughout Hungarian history, religion had never been a main point of contention. Right-wing forces even showed sympathy towards Islam and Muslims, and used it to re-frame their old anti-Semitic stereotypes. So what then caused the political Right’s change of heart?
Islamophobia and the Hungarian Right’s search for identity
Hungary’s current wave of Islamophobia can be explained by the sociopolitical developments that have occurred over the last three years and the Hungarian Right’s discursive shifts.
Since 2013, more than half a million Hungarians have migrated to Western Europe, mostly to Great Britain and Germany to escape unemployment and economic deprivation. 20 However, Western European countries didn’t exactly receive them with open arms, as they, too, were battling unemployment. 21 In order to legitimize their presence in these Western EU countries, the Hungarian migrants adopted an even more anti-Islamic stance than locals, arguing that they were Europeans, whereas Muslim immigrants were outsiders; this rationale and rhetoric has made them one of the most important channels of anti-Islamic sentiment in Hungary.
Hungarian expats often compare Western-European Muslims to the Roma in their native country. To illustrate: István, who works in an Italian restaurant in London, compared the Roma in his hometown, Miskolc (a city in northern Hungary with high poverty rate and ethnic tensions) to the Muslims of South Asian origin in the UK. He thinks that both are “brown masses of outsiders, who don’t accept European society’s rules, who do not work but rather exploit the social welfare system, sexually harass women and commit more crimes than the majority population.” 22
At the same time the winds have changed in Hungarian politics as well. The dominant Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz Party), and its partner, the Christian Democrats (KDNP), managed to win two back-to-back elections in 2010 and then in 2014. The socialists and liberals of the Left paved the way for this with rampant corruption and economic mismanagement that exacerbated the collapse of the economy during the 2008 financial crisis. The Hungarian nationalism propagated by the center-Right, founded on Christian identity, played little-to-no role in the landslide electoral victories of the Right. Hungary remains one of the least religious European countries, with less than 10% of the population regularly attending church services. 23
Nevertheless, Fidesz continued to strengthen its Christian-nationalist profile, in order to repel the criticism of its opponents (both Jobbik and the Left), who accused the party of being opportunistic and faceless. In order to effectively create a Christian-nationalist image, it provided its otherwise minor coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Party (KDNP) with a wider platform by financing the activities of its youth organization. The KDNP then managed to attract a new demographic: university students and young professionals who, unlike the majority of Hungarians, regarded Christianity as core to their identity. These young educated people became the vanguard of Hungarian Islamophobic discourse; identifying Islam as both Christianity’s direct opponent and the European nation states’ biggest threat. As such the seeds for Islamophobia were planted.
In 2014 and 2015, the videos showing the brutality of the Islamic State, the Paris attacks and the refugee crisis, radicalized public opinion, and the Hungarian majority began to view Muslims in an increasingly negative light. The current anti-Islamic discourse in Hungary was directly triggered by the chaotic situation created by more than 500,000 mostly Muslim migrants crossing the Serbian-Hungarian borders in 2015 on their way to Western Europe. The dramatic images of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis trying to reach Austria were broadcast around the world. Refugees had to sleep in train stations and on the streets, as cities were not equipped to provide shelter.
The fear-mongering public discourse combined with the visible presence of migrants in the very heart of Budapest shocked Hungarians, who instead of seeing people fleeing war-torn countries, saw a threat to their very way of life. 24 As a result, seven out of 10 Hungarians were in favor of the fence that was erected on the Serbian-Hungarian border, and then later on the Croatian-Hungarian border in the summer of 2015. 25 Even stronger than the steel border fences, however, was the growing popularity of ideological Islamophobic discourse. The negative public sentiments towards the migrants and Islam provided the center-Right with a window of opportunity to strengthen their Christian discourse.
The mainstream conservative media presented a populist reinterpretation of Hungary’s medieval history, and compared today’s refugee crisis to the Ottoman era, when Hungary was a “bastion,” defending Christianity from the “Muslim hordes”. On TV, self-appointed “security policy analysts” presented the migrants as potential terrorists infiltrating the country.
One prominent example is Lászlo Földi, former director of the Hungarian civilian intelligence services (Information Office), who on several occasions stated that there was nothing like “peaceful” and “violent” Islam – only “Islam”. In a live interview on state television, Földi went so far as to say he hoped that a refugee camp on Hungary’s southern borders would be turned into a POW camp. 26 Some of Hungary’s Catholic clergy, blatantly disregarded the instructions of Pope Francis, and also launched a hate campaign against the Muslim refugees. Gyula Márfi, the Archbishop of Veszprem, one of the highest-ranking clerics of the country, called the majority of the migrants “invaders” and “Islamists,” as did many of his colleagues. 27
Some of the government-associated Hungarian “experts” on Islam and the Middle East also failed to give a balanced picture of the sociopolitical causes of the refugee-crisis. Most of them supported the above-mentioned security policy analysts’ opinions, quoting from Islam’s foundational texts, which they say calls on Muslims to use violence to conquer the land of unbelievers. How contemporary Muslims actually interpret these texts, was never discussed, and no attempt was made to provide a deeper sociological analysis of the migrants’ realities.
This might be because most of these Middle East experts were educated at Pázmány Peter Catholic University’s Arabic faculty, headed by an advisor to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Miklós Maróth, 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. 28 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. 29
In the wake of 2015’s refugee crisis, organizations close to the Fidesz government established the Migration Research Institute, which has since published reports on the security risks posed by Muslims in Europe, providing an “academic” justification for the government’s anti-migrant policies. 30
Despite increasingly hostile popular sentiments, the vast majority of Hungary’s Islamic and Middle East studies community managed to provide better, sociologically-founded analyses on the issues related to Islam, radicalism and migration. One example is a professor of Islamic history at ELTE University, Zoltán Szombathy, who highlights the sociological reasons migrants in Europe have a difficult time integrating into the broader culture, distinguishing between religious and cultural elements of the problem. 31
Zsolt Rostoványi, the Rector of Corvinus University and a specialist in Islamist movements, along with Erzsébet N. Rózsa, a senior researcher at the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs follow a similar approach, highlighting that the vast majority of Muslims’ denounce radicalism. 32 Also, some representatives of the Catholic Church – like Péter Mustó, a Jesuit priest, or Csaba Böjte, a Franciscan monk – share Pope Francis’ peaceful approach, which highlights a humanitarian responsibility towards refugees, and advises against linking violence to any religion. 33
However, all balanced opinions, were either ignored by popular media, or sidelined by nationalist clamor. Social media exploded with xenophobia and click-bait websites that published fake news on Muslim refugees mushroomed. 34 Many of these ill-informed stories found their way into the mainstream news outlets’ programming, including government TV channels.
Depending on his intended audience, PM Viktor Orbán simultaneously presented variant and conflicting discourses on Islam and Muslims. In Hungary, Orbán identified the influx of Muslim refugees as a threat to Europe and European values, 35 yet at the international level, he claimed he was a proponent of strengthening relations with Muslim countries.
In accordance with the “Eastern Opening,” a foreign and economic policy announced in 2012, Hungarian diplomacy in general, and the PM in particular, has been making significant efforts to strengthen cultural and economic ties with the Middle East and Asia, including predominantly Muslim countries, like Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and more recently Iran. 36
In accordance with such policies, Orbán presents a balanced approach towards Islam at the international level, highlighting the importance of a dialogue between cultures. 37 At a June 2015 conference for Arab investors, Orbán praised Islam as a “great spiritual and intellectual construction, without which, peace, happiness or a balanced human life would not be possible.” He also said, that “people coming from the Muslim world did not represent a threat, and should be regarded as representatives of a high civilization.” 38
Other Hungarian leaders, however, are unequivocally hostile towards Islam, especially when targeting the domestic audience. As the Christian Democrat Deputy PM Zsolt Semjén stated, “not all Muslims are terrorists, but we haven’t seen a Buddhist terrorist yet.” 39 Many other conservative politicians expressed similar opinions. Lajos Kósa, Fidesz’ parliamentary leader, called the integration of Muslims into European societies “hopeless”. 40
Such overheated discourse should partly be understood and framed by the campaign that has preceded the October referendum, when Hungarians will vote on whether the country should accept a future EU quota system for resettling migrants. 41 By pushing a “no” vote forward, Fidesz politicians hope to gain the mandate needed to challenge Brussels’s intended quota introduction, projecting itself as Hungary’s defender, protecting the country from the influx of migrants, and thereby increasing its own popularity. Therefore, the outcome of the referendum has strategic significance for Fidesz, and could be regarded as a prelude to 2018 parliamentary election campaign.
Within the Jobbik party, a slow transformation is also taking place. The leaders of the party still maintain strong international ties with Muslim countries, like Turkey and Iran, so they refrain from making openly anti-Islamic statements. This is, however, not the case with its core constituency, the wider Hungarian far-right. The grassroots of the movement sometimes even call for the massacre of the refugees on both Facebook and Twitter. With this, Jobbik’s support base is moving closer to the discourse exemplified by the European far-Right. So a similar transformation in the party leadership’s discourse on Islam and Muslims seems inevitable.
Jobbik supporters utilize the same discursive elements against Muslims that they previously applied to the Roma and Jews. On far-Right blogs and Facebook posts, Muslim migrants appear as foreign elements and criminals and the far-right accuses Muslims, similarly as they did Jews before this, of conspiring against the West and pushing “Christian Europeans” out of their own homes. Some of these bloggers and posters accuse the “international Jewry” of sponsoring Europe’s “Muslim conquest”.
Hungary, new ideological center of Europe?
Arguably, the largest beneficiary of Hungary’s rising Islamophobia is the Fidesz party. In mid-2015, when Hungary first proposed radical measures to prevent asylum-seekers and other migrants from entering Europe, such as the fence at its southern borders, Western media heavily attacked the country, labeling it “Fascist,” accusing it of refusing to conform with EU values. Less than a year later, most Western European states, themselves intend to implement measures similar to what Hungarian PM Orbán has suggested.
This has led the Hungarian Right to claim that Hungary has moved from the passive recipient of Western European ideas and culture, to the pro-active center of Europe: while Western Europe is just now waking up from its “Liberal dream,” in which everyone should be accepted and tolerated regardless of cultural background, race and religion, Hungary is doing what needs to be done to save Europe.
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. Islamophobia in this small Central European country should be viewed through a domestic political lens and also in light of the ongoing experimentation of the right-wing to reconstruct Hungarian identity, styling Hungarians as the true defenders of Europe, in the face of both the “corrupt, liberal West,” and the “invading Eastern hordes”. Only time will tell us if this new Hungarian identity ascribed by the political Right, built on negative attitudes towards Muslims, can survive in the long-term.
Read the original text in Visegrad Revue.
This article has been automatically generated from the Visegrad Revue webzine, a project funded by the International Visegrad Fund. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily have to represent the official position of the donor, the Visegrad Group, or the publisher (Democracy in Central Europe).