Where better to hold a one-day conference on ‘Islamic Radicalism and the West’ than in the Great Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences? Everything about this marvelous room, from its views of the elegant, 19th century bridges spanning the Danube to the neo-classical caryatids lining its walls, celebrates Enlightenment values. Hungary has been much in the news of late, having had the temerity to stand up to Mutti Merkel and defend its borders. Sovereignty means a lot to a country that suffered the ignominy of Soviet occupation from the end of the Second World War until the collapse of communism. ‘I was in Budapest in 1989 when the Communists gave up,’ says Daniel Johnson, then a journalist covering the fall of the Berlin wall, now the editor of Standpoint magazine. ‘The question today is ‘does Europe have a future?”’ As Johnson points out, the Islamisation of Europe is becoming a demographic reality. In 2011, 35 per cent of children in Birmingham were Muslim. Will they choose democracy over theocracy? The reformation of Islam has started, he says, but will only be possible if Europe believes in itself. ‘We are in a race against time. Will the Europeanisation of Islam occur before the Islamisation of Europe?’ he asks.
David Pryce-Jones, journalist, editor and author, reminds us that the Muslims have been here before. Hungary was conquered by the Ottomans in 1541 and under their rule until 1699. Buda Castle shimmers in the distance. It was sacked by Suleiman the Magnificent, so-called, who carried away its bronze statues and precious books. ‘If the Safayid Persians and the Ottomans, the major military powers of the day, had been able to unite, there would have been no age of Enlightenment in Europe,’ he reflects. ‘Today the battles between Shia and Sunni may again save the West by fighting each other to a standstill. Both want our heads off but they will not unite to achieve it.’
It was thanks to John O’Sullivan, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and the brilliant new editor of Quadrant that I am here with my husband Nick Cater, executive director of the Menzies Research Centre. O’Sullivan wears many hats, including that of president of the Danube Institute, a think tank for conservatives and classical liberals based in Budapest that co-organised the event. The conference speakers split broadly along national lines: Churchillian Anglophones versus Hungarian-language speakers, mostly, but not all, inclined to advocate what Duncan Lewis, head of ASIO recently called the use of ‘soothing language’. Others might call it appeasement.
Pryce-Jones praises Egypt’s leader, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who called for an Islamic reformation in January this year and urged the imams to fight extremism and bring about a ‘religious revolution’. One can only imagine that Lewis would disapprove since this is exactly what Tony Abbott said in a recent opinion article in the Australian that Lewis criticised. Lewis told Samantha Maiden, in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph, that he ‘didn’t buy the notion that the issue of Islamic extremism is in some way fostered or sponsored or supported by the Muslim religion.’ Indeed, he thought that idea ‘blasphemous’ no less. In the old days, spies used to pretend to be communists to infiltrate Marxist cells and discover what our enemies were up to. Lewis seems to want the whole country to pretend to be devout Muslims, so that his spooks can figure out what the head choppers, car rammers, knife stabbers, bomb-belt wearers and Kalashnikov carriers are plotting.
Csaba Mohi, a former Hungarian ambassador to Algeria, seemed more the sort Lewis might approve of. ‘Of course it was terrible what happened to the editors of Charlie Hebdo,’ Mohi said, ‘but they were provocative.’ Nick, who spoke later about Australia’s policy of turning back boats, asked, ‘Did I misunderstand you or were you suggesting the editors of Charlie Hebdo were responsible for what happened to them?’ Mohi replied that one couldn’t deny the impact of the editorial policy of Charlie Hebdo. The English speakers were not impressed. Kepecs Ferenc, an Hungarian journalist and contributor to Nepszava, a left liberal paper, saved the day asking, ‘Four people were also murdered in a kosher supermarket, how did they provoke the terrorists?’ It was Mohi’s turn to look uncomfortable claiming that was not what he had said. The Churchillian crew were unconvinced. Late in the day, a junior secretary from the Egyptian embassy delivered another spiel in defence of Muslims, saying of course it was awful what had happened to Charlie Hebdo but it was important to be respectful. Cater responded with considerable passion that respect was a two-way street – if Muslims wanted to be respected in the West they must also respect freedom of speech, especially for cartoonists.Distinguished academic Tamas Dezso was also moved in his talk. He showed photos from the archeological frontline of ancient treasures being blown up by Isis. But it was when he described paying a couple of hundred dollars to save the relative of a colleague who was being held in a slave market, that his voice broke.Award-winning journalist, author and regular Speccie contributor Douglas Murray pointed out that as neither an academic nor a politician he never had to be politically correct. He wasn’t. He took as his text a quote from the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass who said that she often believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Murray reeled off some of the impossible things that we, in the West, are expected to believe – that Islam is a religion of peace; that multiculturalism works; that numbers don’t matter when it comes to mass migration; and the identity of migrants doesn’t matter either. He also suggested what we should do – stop mass migration, protect ourselves from the civil war raging within Islam, absorb those who are already here, reconstruct, instead of deconstruct, our societies and last but not least, stop believing impossible things.
Rebecca Weisser is a freelance journalist and regular contributor