As European leaders grapple with the unprecedented influx of asylum seekers, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has repeatedly expressed his belief that the mostly Middle Eastern and predominantly Muslim refugees represent a grave threat to Europe. Orbán has argued that the ‘migrants’ (he refuses to acknowledge that most of them may be genuine refugees) represent a culture and a set of values that are irreconcilable with the core principles of European civilisation: a Christian heritage, belief in the rule of law, fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and gender equality.
Orbán has repeatedly portrayed Muslims in crude, monolithic terms, making little or no allowance for the enormous variations in Muslim and Middle Eastern identities or the possibility that the overwhelming majority of Muslim refugees will gradually integrate, to varying degrees, within their host communities. Instead, Hungary’s Prime Minister has worked tirelessly to create a terrifying ‘bogey man’ out of the hapless asylum seekers.
It would be easy to expose the muddled thinking, historical ignorance and theological illiteracy that lie behind Orbán’s fear-mongering rhetoric. His conception of Christianity – which he has expounded in recent speeches – is little more than a prescription for mean-spiritedness and narrow-minded nationalism, leaving little, if any, scope for genuine compassion or charity towards members of other faiths or to those who fall outside the strictly-defined boundaries of the ’nation’. In the Gospel, according to Orbán, the Good Samaritan expends his wealth and moral concern almost exclusively on his family, his local community and his nation or ethnic group.
Orbán’s thesis that multiculturalism is doomed to failure and that different cultural or religious communities cannot co-exist is based on little more than ignorance and prejudice. It ignores a wealth of scholarship and empirical evidence and flies in the face of Europe’s – and especially Hungary’s – own history.
Until World War One, Hungary was a richly multicultural society with large and often dynamic minorities, some of whom played a crucial role, in the latter half of the 19th century, in transforming Hungary from a semi-feudal, backward and mostly agrarian society into a modern polity with an expanding manufacturing base, a vibrant intellectual and cultural life, an often exemplary educational system and a politically literate middle class.
The real threat to Europe lies not so much in the influx of unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers – although the practical difficulties of coping with this phenomenon should not be underestimated – as in the potential impact of ’Orbánism’ and of similarly poisonous ideologies. Hungary’s Prime Minister, with his populist, chauvinistic and deeply reactionary political agenda – so reminiscent of the febrile politics of inter-war Central and Eastern Europe – represents a significant and growing danger to the European project and to the liberal, cosmopolitan values that underpin it.
It is not always understood, particularly by observers outside Hungary, that Viktor Orbán’s opposition to the influx of asylum seekers is part of a wider and much more ambitious political agenda. In a series of speeches that he has given in Hungary and abroad, Orbán has heaped scorn on liberal democracy as well as on a range of targets including liberalism, socialism, cosmopolitanism, secularism, political correctness and what Hungary’s Prime Minister terms ‘human rights fundamentalism’.
For Orbán, the refugee crisis is simply the latest and most visible symptom of what he sees as the failure of Europe’s liberal politics and the weakness or naivety of some of the continent’s most prominent politicians, including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Beginning with a speech in July 2014, Orbán has extolled the virtues of ‘illiberal democracy’, singling out Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey as allegedly successful states that have avoided the ‘pitfalls’ of liberalism.
During a visit to Madrid in October 2015, to attend the Congress of European Peoples’ Parties, Orbán gave an interview on Spanish television in which he contended that further large-scale immigration by non-European elements would mean that ‘all the pillars of the European way of life – freedom of speech and religion, equality before the law and gender equality – may be called into question’. However, before we rush to acclaim Orbán as a doughty champion of European values, an armour-clad knight riding out to slay a monstrous and formidable dragon, we should pause to reflect on his actual record in office.
According to a host of eminent and well-informed critics, including the Princeton-based scholar, Professor Kim Lane Scheppele, and the veteran Hungarian economist, János Kornai, an Emeritus Professor at Harvard University’s Department of Economics, Orbán and Hungary’s Fidesz government have presided over a series of highly regressive constitutional ’reforms’ since their re-election in 2010. In the opinion of Scheppele, Kornai and many other distinguished critics, these ’reforms’ have resulted in the significant weakening of democratic norms and institutions within Hungary and the dismantling of many important checks and balances.
At the same time, repeated concerns have been expressed at Hungary’s ill-judged and wholy unnecessary curbs on freedom of religion (see e.g. the Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in April 2014 in Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary) and at state-orchestrated policies apparently aimed at undermining the viability or impact of parts of the print and electronic media that are seen as unfriendly or even antagonistic towards the Orbán administration..
Since 2010, Orbán and his associates have worked hard within Hungary to subvert precisely those European values that, disingenuously, he now seeks to defend in the face of an ‘onslaught’ by Muslim asylum seekers. Despite his frantic efforts to portray himself as a latter-day Saint George, a valorous and virtuous knight intent on preserving Europe and its Christian heritage, Orbán has much more affinity with the dangerous, fire-breathing dragon that Saint George – to everyone’s relief – finally manages to slay.