Anti-Muslim populism in Hungary: From the margins to the mainstream

2019-07-31

Political Capital contributed to the Brookings Institution's research project, called ‘The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists’, with a research paper on Hungary. The goal of the project was to more systematically understand the evolution of right-wing populism through its relationship to Islam and Muslims, using this as a window to better understand conceptions of national identity, nationhood, citizenship, and the relationships between majority and minority populations in democracies.

The project was based on the phenomenon that the debate over Islam and Muslims, which can be considered as the main driving force behind cultural cleavages and identity politics, has become one of the defining issues of the populist era and the main topic of right-wing populist and far-right forces. The project will cover ten countries: Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United States. The research is based on desktop research and interviews with supporters, members, activists or officials of national populist and far-right parties and movements.

The Hungarian paper examines the following issues:

  • Political and historical context
  • The rise of the far-right
  • Political implications of the migration crisis: Rearrangement of the right
  • Ideology of the far-right and populist right
  • Framing of Islam
  • Visions of identity and belonging
  • Views on the future of Europe

The main findings of our paper are as follows:

  • Fidesz has created a political system, which is completely tailored to its political interests and ensures the party’s control over politics and public discourse. Political competition and pluralism have been hollowed out by rules benefitting the governing party and putting opposition parties at a disadvantage. Political competition and pluralism have been hollowed out by rules benefitting the governing party, putting opposition parties at a disadvantage and silencing independent social actors.
  • Fidesz has been able to dominate the conversation surrounding migration in Hungary since 2015. The reason for it is twofold. First, the already existing fears over migration in the Hungarian society (fitting into Central Eastern European patterns). Second, Fidesz’s control over the public discourse, based on its media dominance and massive propaganda campaigns based on hate-inciting rhetoric, conspiracy theories and disinformation. 
  • In terms of ideology and political narratives, there are significant overlaps between the populist right and the far-right in Hungary. The current dominant narrative of both of them is based on the triangle of nationalism, the securitization of migration, related to the vision of a war between civilizations and religions, and anti-liberalism and anti-establishment sentiments. Both use conspiracy theories to explain political developments and create enemy pictures and fuel fears to polarize society.
  • While Islam was not present in the public discourse before 2015, the current discourse around it is mainly framed in the context of a cultural war between the Christian West and the Muslim world. Both people around Fidesz and far-right organisations claim that the relation between the West and Islam/the Muslim world is contradictory or even problematic and differences regarding fundamental, core values are serious or even incompatible. Therefore, most of our interviewees claimed that Muslim communities cannot integrate into Western societies – but at the same time, they ignore the existing successful patterns of integration.
  • However, many representatives of the populist right and far-right are not hostile to Islam itself as long as it remains outside of European border. Some far-right representatives respect Islam as a religion within its own community and traditional location. Fidesz uses doublespeak regarding Islam and Muslims. While in its mainstream communications, the party explicitly or implicitly applies harsh negative rhetoric concerning Islam and Muslims, government representatives including the PM praise them at official diplomatic events.
  • Due to the continuous anti-immigration campaigns of the Hungarian government, anti-immigration, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments, which hardly existed in Hungary before 2015, have eclipsed anti-Gypsyism and anti-Semitism, the traditionally main forms of xenophobia in Hungary.
  • The Hungarian far-right and populist right considers Hungary an ethnically homogenous, dominantly Christian country based on a common language, culture and values.

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