Ronald Zak/AP

Hungary awaits Muslim tourists while promoting anti-refugee rhetoric

Suleiman the Magnificent's tomb, if verified, will draw investment from Muslim world while Muslim nationals vilified

BUDAPEST, Hungary — The recent discovery of what researchers believe is the tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest ruler of the Ottoman Empire, could have Muslim tourists flocking to Hungary — just as its government is accused of fueling Islamophobia with its virulent reaction to Europe’s refugee crisis.

The 450-year-old tomb is thought to lie beneath a hilltop vineyard near the sleepy town of Szigetvar, 20 miles from Hungary’s border with Croatia, which the government sealed with razor wire two months ago after doing the same on the frontier with Serbia.

The fences keep most refugees out of Hungary; inside the country, Muslims complain of rising abuse and suspicion, which community leaders blame on the firebrand rhetoric of a leader who has become a scourge of Europe’s liberals.

Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has claimed for months that Europe is being overrun by refugees who threaten to overwhelm its economy and security and alter its very culture and identity.

“Those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians but Muslims,” he said in September, when Hungary built the fence on the border with Serbia.

As well as erecting hundreds of miles of steel fencing, the government has paid for billboards, newspaper ads and radio messages that link the mostly Muslim refugees to a variety of threats, including terrorism.

This month the United Nations refugee agency and major rights groups jointly urged Hungary to stop “portraying those fleeing war and conflict as criminals, invaders and terrorists based on their religious beliefs and places of origin.”

The government insists it is willing to protect genuine refugees and opposes only uncontrolled economic migration, but Hungary’s small Muslim community says it is already suffering from rising intolerance fueled by Orban’s fiery rhetoric.   

“In Hungary our situation was quite good in the past. We lived in peace, with no major problems,” said Zoltan Sulok, the president of the Organization of Muslims in Hungary. “But with the way key speakers of the government have communicated, the general situation has deteriorated, and now there are lots of verbal insults and even attacks against Muslims.”

“Now women are insulted and sometimes spat on, or their headscarves are dragged down. This never happened before,” he added.

At a mosque in Budapest, the leaders of the Hungarian Islamic Community agreed that Hungary’s Muslims have never felt so threatened.

“Society here is now very anti-immigrant and anti-refugee, and with that has come a very strong anti-Muslim feeling too,” said Ahmed Miklos Kovacs, the imam of the mosque and the vice president of the organization.

“We feel it everywhere — on television, social media and on the street. Our women who wear headscarves have the most problems … It’s dangerous, of course, and we are scared for our community,” he said.

‘There’s always been a severe problem here with racism against Roma people – which people didn’t feel a need to conceal … Now that’s the case with refugees.’

Marta Pardavi

co-chair, Hungarian Helsinki Committee

Surveys show that support for Orban and antipathy toward refugees grew in Hungary this year, even as the EU sharply criticized the Budapest government.

“The government’s campaign was mostly to gain support with Hungarian voters … to make sure other uncomfortable issues wouldn’t be at the forefront of public discourse, above all, corruption,” said Marta Pardavi, a co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. “There’s always been a severe problem here with racism against Roma people — which people didn’t feel a need to conceal … Now that’s the case with refugees.”

Members of Hungary’s Muslim community — at most, 40,000 people, just 0.4 percent of the population — are joining forces to make their voices heard.

“We want to tell people the truth and reality of our communities, that 99-percent-plus want to integrate,” said Abdul-Fattah Munif, a founder of Hungary’s Islamic League for the Defense of Human Rights. “We’ll also monitor hate speech, aggressive behavior and rights violations in the country.”

The newly formed Muslim Youth Association is also trying to raise the community’s profile in Hungary.

Muad Aldubai-Mohamed, a Muslim Yemeni-Hungarian student, voted for Orban’s party in the 2014 parliamentary elections but is deeply disappointed by his rhetoric linking Islam and terrorism.

One of its leading members is Muad Aldubai-Mohamed, a Yemeni-Hungarian who studies bioengineering in Budapest and speaks Hungarian, Arabic, English and German.

Shortly after the Paris attacks he applied for a part-time hospitality job at a major local arts venue. His language skills and personable manner made him a strong candidate, but he said his chances were spoiled by something else: his beard.

“Two days after I applied, the agency asked for a photograph,” he recalled, between sips of tea in a Budapest cafe. “I sent one, and they immediately asked if I was willing to get rid of my beard, because I couldn’t work with them like that … My blond Hungarian friend has a beard and works there with no problem. So I told them, ‘No, thank you.’”

Aldubai-Mohamed voted for Orban’s party in the 2014 parliamentary elections and shares some of its concerns over the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis, but he is deeply disappointed with the government’s anti-Muslim turn.

“It’s all right to have a policy that rejects migrants who come here just looking for work. But the government makes no distinction between economic migrants and refugees or Muslims who live here. They have squashed everything together — Arabs, Muslims and refugees — and basically linked Islam with terrorism,” he said.

Hungary’s Muslims are mostly Arabs who attended college there during the communist era, their children from marriages to local partners, and a current generation of students from the Arab world.

Orban recently assured Muslim students that they are still welcome in Hungary, and he wants to boost trade with and investment from the Islamic world, even as he calls for the defense of “Christian Europe” against an “invasion” of mostly Muslim refugees.

“You can’t just say, ‘Give us your money and go away,’” Sulok said of Hungary’s growing reputation for intolerance. He also takes issue with Orban’s claim that “Islam was never part of Europe. It’s the rulebook of another world.”

Many historians believe there were Muslim groups among the original Hungarian, or Magyar, tribes that reached the territory of modern-day Hungary in the late ninth century.

They and later Muslim arrivals were forced out or assimilated over the centuries by Christian kings who ruled Hungary until 1541, when Suleiman annexed Hungarian lands that the Ottomans would hold until 1699.

Despite granting considerable religious and political freedom to their subjects, the Ottomans are popularly remembered in Hungary as cruel and oppressive masters — a reputation Orban invoked as the refugee crisis escalated.

“I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience, because we had the possibility to go through that experience for 150 years,” he said. “I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country … That is a historical experience for us.”

Orban’s opinion of Ottoman rule could hardly be more different from that of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought to reconnect his country to its imperial past and even advocates teaching Ottoman-era Turkish in schools.

And yet, if the discovery of Suleiman’s tomb is confirmed by excavations in the spring, the two leaders could meet there in September on the 450th anniversary of Suleiman’s death, and Szigetvar could become an important site for the Islamic world and a powerful reminder of Hungary’s long connection with it.

Norbert Pap, a historian from Hungary’s Pecs University who leads research at Szigetvar, says Turkish officials have already told him of Erdogan's intention to visit the site next fall. 

The academic is well aware of the potential significance of his team’s find, as the refugee crisis again reshapes Europe’s relationship with the Muslim world. “I think this place could be a symbol of the peaceful co-existence of Islam and Western civilization,” he said.

Hungary’s Muslims — after a year of growing unease and isolation in their country — can only hope for the same.

“We are really proud of Suleiman and that a part of him was left here,” said Kovacs. “He is very important for Turks and Muslims, so many people will visit his tomb, and many more Muslim tourists will come to Hungary. It could be a boost for the whole country.”

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