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Hungary’s Muslims fear referendum will fuel Islamophobia

Vote on migration will boost anti-Muslim feeing as government links migrants and terrorism.
On October 1, 2016, the billboard poster in Budapest opposing the referendum on prime minister Viktor Orban's policy on migrants reads in Hungarian:  "Let's send a message to Budapest, so they also understand! A stupid answer to a stupid question! Cast an invalid vote!"  Vadim Ghirda / AP
On October 1, 2016, the billboard poster in Budapest opposing the referendum on prime minister Viktor Orban's policy on migrants reads in Hungarian: "Let's send a message to Budapest, so they also understand! A stupid answer to a stupid question! Cast an invalid vote!" Vadim Ghirda / AP

BUDAPEST // Muslims in Hungary say they are wary of the government’s anti-migrant referendum this weekend, which polls suggest has boosted xenophobic feelings.

The government contends there is a direct link between migrants and terrorism and is seeking a popular mandate in Sunday’s vote for its opposition to accepting any mandatory European Union quotas for resettling asylum seekers.

“I’m starting to feel that my own homeland is repudiating me,” says Timea Nagy, a Hungarian Muslim.

Prime minister Viktor Orban has said Hungarians have “no problems” with the local Muslim community, but he believes any EU quotas to relocate asylum seekers, including many Muslims, would destroy Hungary’s Christian identity and culture.

Mr Orban hopes a rejection of EU quotas in the Hungarian referendum will encourage others to follow suit and force Brussels to reconsider the scheme.

A poll taken in August by the Publicus Institute for the Vasarnapi Hirek newspaper found 35 per cent of the 1,000 people questioned said it was obligatory to help refugees — considerably lower than the 64 per cent who said so a year ago.

Some 5,600 Muslims live in Hungary, according to the 2011 census, the latest available.

On Friday, about 30 people took part in a “Muslims living among us” walking tour in a Budapest neighbourhood, an effort to counter prejudice.

“In the past year, especially since the migrant crisis is causing tension in Hungarian society, this is one of our most popular walks,” said tour guide Anna Lenard. “We present Hungarian Muslim communities and try to show their human face because people living here get a lot of false information from the media.”

The tour in the city’s so-called “New Buda” neighbourhood stretching to the River Danube includes stops in several shops and mosques, as well as presentations and chats by community leaders.

“We could say that this (referendum) campaign is against the migrants but in reality it is covertly against Islam, that’s how people mostly understood it,” said Tayseer Saleh, imam of the Darusallam Mosque. “We do not support the migrants coming to Europe. We support putting an end to the problems there and I guarantee that 90 per cent of the people will return to their homeland.”

Government billboards and media ads have drawn a direct link between migration and terrorism, warning Hungarians that millions more migrants may soon be heading to Europe and asserting that harassment of women in Europe has increased greatly since the migrant crisis.

Speaking last September at a meeting of Hungarian diplomats, the prime minister called the Muslims in Hungary a “valuable asset” and said he wanted to avoid causing “awkward situations, even at the verbal level” for them.

“We are truly glad that there are kebab shops on our avenues. We like buying lamb from Syrian butchers at Easter,” said Mr Orban. “We are going to honour this Muslim community in Hungary, but we don’t want their proportion to grow suddenly.”

But local Muslims said “awkward” was far from the right word for the problems the referendum could pose. “I consider myself a good Hungarian and I want to be one, too,” said Timea Nagy. “But if people are surrounded by this kind of propaganda and they are so impressionable, it often makes you wonder.”

* Associated Press

Updated: October 1, 2016 04:00 AM

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