The Hungarian village of Asotthalom has only two Muslim residents, but that hasn't stopped its mayor from declaring war on Muslim immigration.
The mayor, Laszlo Toroczkai, recently banned hijabs and other head coverings worn by Muslim women, as well as mosques and the call to prayer. “A politician who does not see what is going on in Europe is either blind or is a liar. The uncontrolled mass immigration will irreversibly change Europe,” Toroczkai explained in an email.
Although parliament will debate the ban later this month, and an official complaint against it is being processed by the court system, the slow response has raised concerns. Is Toroczkai one man run amok, or do his views represent the wider population in Hungary?
“What worries me is the widespread lack of condemnation by Hungarian decision-makers,” said Todor Gardos, a researcher with the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. He called the local decree “clearly unconstitutional.”
A prolonged court battle would send dangerous signals, human rights advocates say. “Such laws legitimize xenophobia and homophobia. They entrench a hostile attitude which then paves the way for more anti-immigration laws. It's quite a vicious cycle,” Gardos said. Responding to questions by The Washington Post, Toroczkai vowed he would effectively reinstate his ban should it be struck down by the country's higher courts.
Although there has been a spike in xenophobia in Hungary since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, hostility toward asylum seekers has been on a steady rise for years. In the past decade, the number of Hungarians opposed to accepting any asylum seekers has more than doubled, rising to 53 percent last year.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has depicted himself as one of the only European leaders willing to defend the continent's Christians. In Sept. 2015, he said that Muslims were threatening Europe's Christian identity, framing the issue as a clash between different civilizations.
Such rhetoric has turned Hungary into what critics describe as a hostile environment for Muslim migrants. Human rights organizations allege that Hungary has abused anti-terrorism laws to sentence individuals accused of rioting in refugee camps. The country currently also plans to propose an European Union law that would allow authorities to detain all asylum seekers while they are waiting for their applications to be processed.
Such a proposal has virtually no chance of becoming law because it would likely violate basic human rights. But human rights organizations fear Orban's real intention may be to fuel hostility at home. Toroczkai has been criticized for using similar rhetoric and pursuing the same goals as Orban. He even recorded a melodramatic anti-immigration video during the height of the refugee crisis in 2015.
“Hungary is a bad choice … Assothalom is the worst,” said Toroczkai said in his video, in which he threatened to jail any refugees found guilty of illegal trespassing.
Toroczkai is known as a former leading figure of the far-right 64 Counties Youth Movement. More recently, he has had ties to the far-right Jobbik party, which secured more than 20 percent of the vote in the 2014 elections and pushed Orban's party to adopt more radical policy stances. “The mayor of Asotthalom is a member of the far-right party, but his policy stances are not that much more right-wing than those of the government,” Gardos said.
Along with the anti-Muslim order, Asotthalom also enacted a ban on public displays of affection by gay people. “There is a Muslim conquest going on in Europe [with] hundreds of mosques … being built all over,” he explained. “There is also a less spectacular conquest going on, and that is the almost violent spreading of extreme liberalism, which attacks the concepts of nation and family.”
Toroczkai says he has no regrets about his draconian new policies: “The only thing I feel sorry about is the fact that so far no other towns followed our example.”