Three days ago Viktor Orbán delivered another speech, this time to Arab bankers who gathered in Budapest for their yearly general meeting. The prime minister, who has been spreading fear of alien cultures from faraway places, spoke to these men as someone who is a great admirer of Islamic culture and the Arab way of life. He indicated in several ways that Christian culture as it exists in the West is inferior to the teachings of the Koran.
About a year ago one could read in the Hungarian media that “if Arabs receive permission to conduct banking activities in Hungary, businessmen suffering from a lack of capital could receive an infusion of money without paying interest.” Sharia law forbids the charging of interest on loans. The way banks owned by Muslims get around this religious rule is by directly investing in the businesses themselves. If the businesses are successful, they receive a share of the profit. I assume Viktor Orbán’s servile performance at this meeting had something to do with his desire to convince Arab bankers to conduct business in Hungary Sharia style. To this end, he exaggerated Hungary’s economic performance and the country’s openness and hospitality toward foreigners, and he praised Islam and Arabic culture to the skies. The combination bordered on the ludicrous and the embarrassing.
Orbán made several recommendations to the bankers about promising investments waiting for them in Hungary. First, he claimed that tourism has been growing by 8% to 10% a year, which is a gross exaggeration. I checked some of the figures. As far as the number of tourists is concerned, there was only one very successful year, 2014, when it grew by 14%. Otherwise, growth in the number of tourists has fluctuated in the past five years between 2% and 5%. He also suggested investing in real estate and called attention to the number of hotels in Budapest owned by Arab businessmen. He especially praised Adnan Kassar, a Lebanese businessman and politician, who has been a great friend of Hungary. Kassar was a frequent visitor to Hungary, especially during the first Orbán government (1998-2002).
In addition to real estate development, he talked about “our healthcare, which is highly developed,” a view few Hungarians share. He called attention to Hungary’s energy business, specifically investment in MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company. Finally, he reminded the bankers that Arab investment in the Hungarian food industry has yielded excellent results in the past.
Orbán emphasized the benefits of Hungary’s having its own currency, adding that “those European countries that are not part of the eurozone are more successful than those that belong to it.” He assured them that Hungary has no intention of joining the eurozone anytime soon: “You can count on that.”
What else can Hungary offer the Arab investors/bankers? “Hungary is an open and friendly country in which friendly people live…. Hungarians look upon foreign investors as people who bring jobs to Hungary, and therefore they are our friends… Hungary is a safe country … in [Budapest] there are no ghettos, outlying areas where people can’t set foot safely. There is order and calm everywhere in Budapest.”
Over and above that, Hungarians know what “the culture of respect” is. In other parts of Europe this culture of respect is rapidly disappearing: “They respect God less and less, they don’t respect nations, and especially families.” Moreover, westerners “find all this natural, and they even found a positive word for all this. They call it progression. West of us everybody is progressive, but we don’t share this belief.” In Hungary the “culture of respect” is still thriving, and they can rest assured that “those who arrive here from the Islamic world will be welcome and respected. Hungarians think highly of the Islamic civilization … and welcome people of Islam as representatives of a high civilization.”
At this point Orbán got a bit confused. Here is the passage verbatim. “It was the head of the Catholic church, the pope, who either in 2008 or 2009, right after the financial crisis, surprised us with the following sentence. I quote him. This is what the pope of the Christians said: ‘One ought to read the Koran. If our bankers had known the rules of Sharia, we wouldn’t be where we are.'” Well, quite a quote, that’s for sure.
First of all, here is this very Christian leader of a very Christian country who talks about the pope as the pope of the Christians. This is especially funny since allegedly he is a good Calvinist (Hungarian Reformed Church) who should know that the pope is not his pope. So much for his religious education and knowledge. Second, I assume that the pope Orbán was allegedly quoting was Pope Benedict XVI, who I doubt said anything of the sort. Let’s see what Benedict thought of the sharia laws. In 2010 he called together a special assembly of bishops to focus on the Middle East.
Often times, relations between Christians and Muslims are difficult, principally because Muslims [make] no distinction between religion and politics…. In some countries, the State is Islamic and sharia is applied in not only private life but also society, even for non-Muslims, with the consequent deprivation of human rights. Islamic States generally do not recognize religious freedom and freedom of conscience….
Political Islam includes different religious groups who wish to impose an Islamic way of life in Arab, Turkish, or Iranian society and on all those who live there, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Judging from the reactions of leading advocates, the document that included the above criticism was received with dismay in the Islamic world. Earlier, Benedict got into even greater trouble with his “Regensburg Lecture,” in which he quoted from a late fourteenth-century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and “a Certain Persian.” The controversial passage was: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Later Benedict explained that he didn’t share Manuel II’s views, but in the lecture he called attention to contradictory passages from the Koran, one being that “There is no compulsion in religion” and the other that it is acceptable to “spread the faith through violence.” Clearly, Benedict wasn’t taken either by the Koran or by sharia law.
Finally, Orbán reassured the Arab bankers that he will never try to preach to them about the benefits and superiority of democracy. Just because Hungarians, despite all their problems with democracy, manage to live with it doesn’t mean that they in any way want to influence the political systems of other countries. “So I can assure you that in Hungary nobody will lecture anyone on the benefits of democracy or human rights, simply because it would be disrespectful toward those who respect us with their presence.”
Reading some of the nonsense Orbán managed to put together only a few days after he was preaching against foreign cultures and multiculturalism, one can appreciate an “anti-poster” the local MSZP put up in Szombathely, close to the Austrian border. It reads: “When you come to Hungary, could you bring along a sane prime minister?”