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ELECTION

Muslims worried as Austria’s party leaders put spotlight on Islam

As Austrians grow more openly hostile towards Muslims, major political parties are deliberately brandishing Islamophobia in the Catholic majority country ahead of next month's parliamentary election.

Muslims worried as Austria's party leaders put spotlight on Islam
Muslim women with children walk towards a mosque at the Islam Centre of Vienna on April 14th 2017 in Vienna. Photo: AFP

A torch-lit procession of ultra-nationalists gathered recently on the outskirts of Vienna to listen to fiery speeches on the anniversary of a 17th-century victory over Muslim Ottomans.

“Today we have to defend our homeland again,” thundered the leader of the Identitaren movement.

While the small extremist group is on the fringes of politics, nearly a third of Austrians told a recent survey they would not like to live next to Muslims — a higher figure than in Germany, France, Switzerland and Britain.

National newspapers warn of “spiralling refugee costs”, Muslim “rapists” and impending Islamist assaults, in response to a record influx of migrants and jihadist attacks across Europe.

Despite a largely successful integration model, traditionally centrist parties are tapping into these fears to win votes in the country of 8.75 million people.

Encroaching on far-right territory, the popular new leader of the conservative People's Party (ÖVP), Sebastian Kurz, wants to slash migrant benefits and shut all Islamic kindergartens, which he says create “parallel societies”.

His party was instrumental in prohibiting foreign funding of mosques and pushing through a ban on the Muslim full face veil, due to enter into force in October.

That paid off with the ÖVP stealing top spot in opinion polls for the October 15th election. The far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) is now battling for second place with the Social Democrats (SPÖ).

Not to be outshone, SPÖ Chancellor Christian Kern kickstarted his campaign with a video of him chatting to disgruntled voters in a pub.

“I'm not a racist but… it's unacceptable that people wear burqas and I am afraid in my own country,” an agitated woman says.

Kern nods his head, replying: “Everyone has to respect our rules.”

The FPÖ meanwhile claims that “Islam has no place in Austria” and has vowed to replace the integration ministry with a department for the “protection of the homeland and dominant culture”.

'Insidious' political Islam

“When parties address the issue of Islam, it's always in a negative context,” said Vienna City councillor Omar al-Rawi who previously worked as integration representative for Austria's Islamic Community, a key Muslim group.

“The populist undertone is always present. It's a shame because Austria used to be a success model for how to deal with Muslims,” the 56-year-old from Baghdad told AFP.

Austria was the first European country to recognise Islam as an official religion in 1912 following its annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Today Islam is the fastest-growing religion, with around 700,000 Muslims in the country — twice as many as in 2001.

Turks make up almost half of them, followed by Bosnians, Chechens, Syrians and Afghans.

There are now more Muslim than Catholic children in Vienna's state primary schools.

In some classes, less than half speak German — an issue the ÖVP wants to rectify with mandatory language lessons for pre-schoolers.

Separately, radicalisation among young Muslims is also a concern, with some 300 Austrians having joined Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.

“Most Muslims here are good people but the danger of insidious political Islam is real,” said Austrian-Iraqi journalist Amer Albayati who heads the Liberal Muslims Initiative of Austria.

The terrorism expert in his mid-70s lives under police protection after receiving death threats from Islamists.

“The government is not acting on the problem,” he told AFP.

No 'one-size' solution

At Vienna's Brunnenmarkt, a huge multicultural market, the rhetoric cuts no ice.

“I understand that people are more afraid of Muslims now” because of the attacks in neighbouring Germany and elsewhere, said Julian Mihailov, a Bulgarian Turk who moved to Austria in 1959.

“But normal Islam has nothing to do with extremists,” the vegetable vendor, 47, told AFP.

Although the security concerns are real, analyst Peter Filzmaier warned against a “lumping-together” of Muslims in the election.

“There are extremely big differences depending on the country of origin,” he told AFP.

First-generation Turks are more isolated than their Austrian-born children, while Somalis tend to be more hardline than Bosnians or Iranians, Filzmaier said.

“There are no one-size-fits-all solutions,” he added.

For Rawi, Austria has never faced a more uncertain election.

“I think a majority of Muslims are worried about what direction the country is moving into,” he said.

“Many are in a socially vulnerable category… and they wonder if their children will still have the same opportunities.”

By AFP's Nina Lamparski

ISLAM

Austrian government comes under fire over ‘Islam map’

The Austrian government came under fire on Thursday for a new "Islam map" showing the location of mosques and associations around the country, with religious groups saying it would stigmatise Austria's Muslim population.

Austrian Integration Minister Susanne Raab unveiled the controversial website. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
Austrian Integration Minister Susanne Raab unveiled the controversial website. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Integration Minister Susanne Raab unveiled an internet website earlier called the “National Map of Islam” with the names and locations of more than 600 mosques, associations and officials and their possible links abroad.

However, the interactive map — compiled in collaboration with the University of Vienna and the Documentation Centre of Political Islam — alarmed many of Austria’s Muslims and the ruling centre-right ÖVP party’s coalition partner, the Greens, also distanced itself from it.

Map demonstrates ‘intent to stigmatise all Muslims’

The IGGÖ Muslim representative council said in a statement that it “demonstrates the government’s manifest intent to stigmatise all Muslims as a potential danger”.

The Green party’s spokeswoman for integration Faika El-Nagashi complained that “no Green minister or MP was involved or even told about it.

“The project mixes Muslims with Islamists and is the contrary to what integration policy should look like.”

Map not meant to ‘place Muslims in general under suspicion’

Raab insisted that the map was not meant to “place Muslims in general under suspicion”.

The aim was “to fight political ideologies, not religion,” she said. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has regularly criticised what he calls “political Islam”.

“Imagine if a similar map was drawn up for Judaism or Christianity,” said Tarafa Baghajati, the head of another Muslim organisation, complaining that it equated terrorism with religion.

He pointed out that around eight percent of Austria’s overall population of 8.9 million were practising Muslims and most of them had no links with such organisations. “It’s worrying and I’m disappointed with the government for adopting far-right ideas,” he said.

Rise reported in attacks against Muslims

Since a jihadist attack left four people dead in Vienna last November — the first to be carried out in Austria — a rise has been reported in the number of incidents in verbal and physical attacks against Muslims in the country. IGGÖ complained that “racism against Muslims is growing”.

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