The birthplace of Adolf Hitler has a long history of racism, especially against Jews. But now it seems as if Austria has Muslims in its crosshairs.
A multiple gun attack in Vienna on November 2 killed four people and wounded 22. The gunman was shot dead by police and was identified as a 20-year-old “Islamist terrorist” who was released early from jail in December.
Since that tragic event 30 Austrian Muslim leaders have had their homes raided and have been questioned by police, two mosques have been closed down, and the Austrian government has announced a bill to ban “political Islam” which will be heard in Parliament next month.
The raids on Muslim activists and organisations occurred despite a lack of evidence connecting the activists to acts of terrorism. Most of them seemed to target Palestinians and Egyptians associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Targeting the large Turkish community would seem be more problematic for the Austrian authorities as there might be a backlash and they will have external political support from Turkish President Erdogan.
But unlike the situation in France, there seems to be very little awareness or information about what is happening in Austria, even within organised and active Muslim communities abroad.
There are around 700,000 Muslims in Austria out of a total population of nearly 8 million people. Around 50% of them are of Turkish origin and there is also a sizeable community from the ex-Yugoslavia.
But despite its size the Muslim community seems to be fairly weak in terms of political and media presence. Moreover, its leadership is still first generation and therefore more likely to have a compliant attitude towards the authorities. So, for example, there has been virtual silence from the Muslim community following the raids and mosque closures.
The Islam Act of 2015 effectively gave the state control of Islam in Austria. The Act gives the state the power to appoint a Muslim body that they uniquely deal with and in turn this Muslim body oversees the Muslim community at large.
So, for example, a Muslim NGO would have to register with the government’s Muslim interlocutor before setting up, and if it does not receive permission it cannot.
In recent years Austria has taken several anti-Muslim measures.
In 2015, when current Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was Austria’s Minister for Europe, he backed legislation that, among other things, banned the foreign funding of mosques and imams in Austria. The controversial law, which eventually passed through Parliament, was intended to develop an Islam of “European character,” according to Kurz. He also said the move was a crackdown on political Islam.
In 2017, the Austrian government issued a new law banning Muslim women from wearing full-face veils in public places. The “Burqa Ban” states that faces must be visible from hairline to chin in public places and also includes off-slope ski masks and surgical masks outside of hospitals. Muslim women wearing the niqab and burqa in public places can be fined 150 Euros on the spot.
And in 2019 the Austrian Parliament approved a law banning girls in primary schools from wearing the hijab. The law received support from the governing coalition of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz‘s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), whilst almost all of the opposition voted against it.
The right-wing Chancellor ultimately wants to extend this law to universities and public institutions, but some of his policies may be moderated by the Green Party which he is in coalition with.
Nevertheless, the situation for Austrian Muslims remains precarious – oppressed at home and with little support internationally.