Inside the Muslim Community in Budapest
Two women in hijabs, two policemen, and Amir, a Pakistani muslim now in his third year living in Hungary. He is standing next to the armed officers on the tram in Budapest’s inner city. “Look there”, he overhears one of them telling the other in a low voice, glancing at the women. Checking a Twitter feed as usual on his way to work, it strikes him: Watching a feed on the latest terrorist attacks around the world as a bearded, apparently ‘foreign’ man, can be a dangerous activity – when a Hungarian policeman is looking over your shoulder. As unsuspiciously as possible, Amir lets his smartphone glide back into his pocket.
Amir is one of the very few Muslims living in Hungary. Due to the modest size of the community, the official census from 2011 did not even list Muslims when enumerating religions in Hungary. In the words of Tímea Szabó, a Hungarian humanitarian worker, journalist and a former member of the National Assembly “there is no muslim community in Hungary.”
According to figures from 2010 from the Organization of Muslims in Hungary the number revolves around 32,000. Although most migrants moved on to the West or North of Europe, numbers might have risen with their influx to the country in summer, however.
According to Sulok Zoltán Szabolcs, president of the Organisation of Muslims in Hungary, there is no problem from a legal point of view as islam has the status of a church in Hungary. “However, sometimes there are very anti-islamic sentiments.” Threats are common content of the mosque’s email inbox. However, a most glaring example of violence towards the community dates four years ago. During prayer in the evening, cars parked on the mosque’s property were set on fire. Even though the police came and arrested someone on the same night, the incident was not declared as a hate crime, because the building was not attacked. “This is a sign that your case is not taken seriously. Such incidents receive a lower priority than, for example, if they happened within the Jewish community. Then it would be a very big case.”
Sulok Zoltán Szabolcs, president of the Organisation of Muslims in Hungary explaining the situation of Muslims in Hungary reporter Jakub Hein
Language steering opinion
“In Hungarian media, the tone is getting worse. We decided not to complain or go to court against very anti-Islam articles, because normally no consequences are taken by the authorities and it is just wasted money.” Zoltán is leaning back in his chair in his office as he makes clear the importance of language in the public area. The imam does not even consider a decisive difference between right-wing and left-wing media in their depiction of his religion.
He is smirking ironically when he mentions that formerly the extremist right-wing party Jobbik was pro-Islam, “because they wanted to make friends with Iran”. He judges political sympathies to be too inconsistent, however: “You don’t have to take it seriously.”
The government’s action in May this year also mingled rhetorics into politics more than ever: Billboards funded by the ruling government appeared in public places all over the country – with anti-immigrant as well as anti-muslim slogans; all in Hungarian. They read slogans like “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!” Zoltán points out that this was something to tune the public opinion against refugees” before most of them even arrived in the country. They also sharpened the tone against minorities living in the country already.
As Prime Minister Orban’s government indicated, its billboards were part of a voter survey on immigration sent to all adult Hungarians. The UN human rights office powerfully contested questions such as “Do you agree with the Hungarian government that support should be focused more on Hungarian families and the children they can have, rather than on immigration?” after the survey had been conducted. It condemned them as highly suggestive. Thomas, a volunteer for Migszol. the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary, confirms this view: “Everyone is thrown together: immigrants, muslims, terrorists.”
Violence can escalate very easily
“Walking around with a scarf covering your head in the streets of Budapest is not going to get you a directly violent response, but will very likely suffer vulgarities,” Zoltán explains. He confirms that the violence has escalated in the aftermath of the refugee crisis and government’s attempts to curtail it. “I think, the government has the right to build a fence, but the rhetorics are another thing. They go against those who already live in the country. We feel that the violence can escalate very easily.”
For Amina, a Hungarian woman in her mid-forties, these incidents are also something that she got used to. She was pondering the religion for ten years and she knew about the possible negative sentiments she might receive from her friends once she started practicing it. “I lost two or three of my best friends after I converted. They just couldn’t understand what happened with me.”
Even though she is religious, she does not wear a scarf in the street. ”It’s safer that way”, she explains. There have been incidents of violence towards muslim women in the city. “My friends had their scarfs forcefully pulled down from their heads; they have been insulted, even spat at.”
It’s never about the beard
According to Amir, muslims face various cases of indirect discrimination. When he came to the country, he had to find a job after leaving the refugee camp. After a few months of searching, he realised he will probably not find one – even though he had a master’s degree in political science from a Pakistani university.
In his words, the reason was discrimination against muslims. “When they saw my name, they didn’t even invite me to the interview. And even if they did, they would later ask me to take down my beard.” For Amir, this was unacceptable due to his religious beliefs. “When I told them I will not shave the beard, they did not give me the job. Even though they always blamed it on something else, I knew it was because of the beard.”
Amir, a practising Pakistani Muslim, in the mobile phone shop he runs
Zoltán also confirms that many of his muslim friends from Arab countries face difficulties when finding jobs. “Try to find a job with a scarf. It is very difficult. Many companies have a dress code and you wouldn’t fit in. Men can’t find jobs because of their names or their origin.”
Louder than a train
Another case of indirect discrimination muslims in Hungary face is hidden behind various administrative and legal requirements forced upon them. If you’re applying for a building permit on behalf of a Muslim organization, it gets very difficult. “The are very strict regarding a fire safety. The standards we had to uphold were by far more demanding than those applied in the buildings of the government offices themselves. Building a new mosque would take ages in this regard. This is why we were forced to rather buy an existing building,” says Zoltán.
Also, the neighbours of the mosque try to make life a little bit harder for the muslim place of worship. “Sometimes they report something against the mosque or collect signatures, saying that the children are noisy, for instance. Even though there is a railway passing just behind their windows,” Zoltán adds.
We’ve been through this before
Although the incidents mentioned are worrying for the Muslim community in Budapest, there are also favourable factors in play when talking about the overall sentiment of the Hungarian population towards muslims. “Hungarians don’t get physical as long as you don’t,” Amir explains. In his words, street violence is very uncommon in Hungary. At least in Budapest.“
“Don’t forget that in Hungary’s capital, you still have quite multicultural society. If you look to the smaller cities, you’ll see people being much less tolerant. In some of these places, the nationalistic movement if very strong,” adds Mustafa, a non-practising muslim living in Budapest.
Two things seem to be the common denominators for every muslim in Hungary for a brighter future: safety and a lack of fear. Just so that Amir can watch whatever Twitter feed he wishes to on the tram.
Franziska Bauer, Mikael Rasch, Jakub Hein