A couple of days ago The Budapest Beacon published an incredible story about a woman in her sixties who accused NGOs who are defending the rights of refugees of “subversive activities.” She charged that they have compelled interpreters to lie on behalf of the asylum-seekers. As a result, several interpreters have been dismissed. The story took a really bizarre turn when a few days ago we learned that it was the accuser herself who had falsified a Syrian refugee’s plea, from innocent to guilty.
This is not the first time that Magda Nasrin Katona has run into trouble with the law. In 2012 she received an eight-month suspended sentence for perjury. She attacked a woman walking her dog with a cane, after which she accused the victim of attacking her. Two years earlier, when she represented her foundation as an observer of the November 2010 presidential election in Afghanistan, she got into quite a bit of trouble. She was caught on camera demanding money in return for votes. A journalist from The Washington Post ran the story, including the video, which naturally got to Hungary in no time.
I decided to look into Magda Nasrin Katona’s career in Hungary. My aim was to learn how questionable characters like Katona manage to make careers for themselves in Hungary.
First of all, I would like to emphasize that it wasn’t only the Orbán government and Fidesz that considered Katona an asset. Over the years she managed to get grants here and there from the foreign ministry and to pass herself off to serious scholars as someone whose experience made her a true expert. The truth is that most of the Hungarians Katona came into contact with were too provincial to realize that she was for all intents and purposes a fraud. And those who did discover that Katona was not what she claimed to be remained quiet instead of unmasking her. I’m afraid it sounds like a typical Hungarian story to me.
We don’t know much about her life and activities before the early 1990s. I assume that she has a degree in Arabic studies, most likely from ELTE. She signed one of her articles Dr. Magda Nasrin Katona, but since later she had problems writing a real Ph.D. dissertation, her doctorate was the kind that is called the “kisdoktori” in Hungary, a title that no longer exists. We know that she was married to Mohammad Yar, most likely an Afghan. Given her age (she was born in 1953), they might have met in Hungary, where Yar might have been a student. People who know her told inquiring reporters that she had lived for many years in Afghanistan and that she actually owns property there. According to at least one source, the marriage ended some time ago and Yar moved to the United States.
Katona’s published works that are available online appeared in three or four publications. One was a quarterly published by the Pro Minoritate Foundation, which was close to Fidesz. The periodical is still in existence, although the foundation doesn’t seem to be active anymore. From the table of contents it seems to be a publication that may receive subsidies from Fidesz. Another periodical that carried several of her articles was Hadtudomány (Military Science), which is the publication of the Magyar Hadtudományi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Military Science).
By 2002 some people started noticing that Katona’s knowledge of Afghanistan left something to be desired. In Külügyi Szemle, the publication of the Külügyi Intézet under the aegis of the foreign ministry, a fairly lengthy article tore her article on Afghanistan apart.
In 2003 she became a frequent contributor to Magyar Nemzet, which was then a publication that toed the Fidesz line, but at the same time she also kept in touch with the socialist-liberal governments. Her foundation, which may not actually have existed, received small grants from the foreign ministry in three consecutive years between 2004 and 2006, during the tenure of Ferenc Somogyi and Kinga Göncz.
What was the opinion of her expertise at the time? In 2010, after The Washington Post scandal broke, Index asked around to ascertain what “national security experts” thought of Magda Nasrin Katona. Somewhat surprisingly, university professors, authors of books, and experts on national security praised her to the sky. Péter Tálasi, whom I consider one of the smarter people in the field, thought that “Magda Katona is the best informed analyst of the domestic affairs of Afghanistan. Few people know the country as well as she does. Her knowledge of the language plays an important role here.” Ferenc Gazdag, a historian and national security expert, also spoke highly of her. “She has a wide knowledge of the country,” he said. Peter Wagner, a member of the Magyar Külügyi Intézet in whose publication her article was panned, made it clear that she doesn’t work for the ministry but still she is a real expert on Afghanistan. But Index talked to some other people, who didn’t want to disclose their names, who told the paper that Katona’s Ph.D. dissertation had been rejected several times because “very serious mistakes, contradictory statements, and unverifiable sources” were found throughout. Moreover, a good portion of the dissertation was merely a Hungarian translation of English-language sources. Soon after Index dropped the word about the alleged plagiarism, she gave up the idea of obtaining a Ph.D.
All through these years Katona worked for the Bevándorlási Hivatal (Immigration Office) as a translator and interpreter. Ferenc Kőszeg, founder of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, wrote an article in Népszabadság in which he complained that “in the Nyírbátor refugee camp where the Afghan communist national security officers and the mujahedeen fighters were placed together, Magda Nasrin Katona showed partiality toward the former and did a lot to see that these Afghan supporters of Soviet aggression—political officers, party secretaries, government officials—would receive asylum in Hungary.”
Of course, people like Katona can be found everywhere, but it would help if more businesses and institutions required confidential recommendations when hiring. In my experience, recommendations for Hungarians go straight to the applicant instead of to the person who is supposed to decide on the applicant’s fate. Then there is the very bad habit of not releasing information that would raise doubts about the person’s abilities. Why were professors quiet when it was discovered that Katona’s Ph.D. dissertation was largely plagiarized? One could ask dozens of questions, but the final result is that there are just too many cases in which totally unqualified people parade as experts to the detriment of scholarship.