On Islamophobia and on its beneficial effects

2016. március 21. 14:19

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 Mandiner.hu has been translated into English for Hungarian Free Press by Christopher Adam. The article 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.

2016. március 21. 14:19
Sayfo Omar

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.

(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.
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