Austria’s mosque move


AUSTRIA’S far-right government claims its decision to close down seven mosques and potentially expel up to 60 imams was due to national security concerns, however, it’s difficult to believe that the measure is not related to the wider political currents running through the country.

Austrian authorities are insisting the latest move is designed to combat political Islam, not Islam in general. Can that be believed? Was this a necessary stance against radical religious extremism or was it an example of Islamophobia which is characteristic of the current Austrian political climate? The latter seems the more appropriate. Austria is currently controlled by a coalition of the center-right Austrian People’s Party and the far-right Nationalist Freedom Party. In campaigning for last year's election, both coalition parties called for tougher immigration controls, quick deportations of asylum-seekers whose requests are denied and a crackdown on radical Islam.

Radical Islam has no place in any society but in Austria the line between extremism and moderation is becoming blurry, thanks be to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his conservatives who won the election last year by taking a hard line on immigration. Kurz’s election campaign drew heavily on anxiety about immigration and the integration of Muslims. The coalition government gained support as refugees and migrants poured into Europe in recent years. The government has since promised to restrict immigration into the country, as evidenced by the ominous statement by Kurz’s Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache: “This is just the beginning.”

It was Kurz and the Freedom Party who coined the term “parallel societies”, to describe what they see as a threat posed by some Muslims to mainstream culture. And it was Kurz, who, as integration minister, called for an “Islam of European character” which in essence placed limits on Islamic expression within Austria.

The announcement on the mosques, which was made by Kurz, is rooted in a 2015 law that requires Muslim organizations to express a “positive fundamental view towards (the) state and society” of Austria. Fair enough. A good Muslim, indeed a good person, would definitely respect the laws and the society he or she lives in. But an Islam of European character? Since when does Islam have a nationality or a passport? That does not square in Austria in which freedom of religion is largely enshrined in its constitution.

The move in Austria raises wider questions about the relationship of minority religions, such as Islam, with politics and national identity across Western Europe. In Europe, where does religious freedom end and national security — or is it national identity — begin?

Attitudes toward Islam have become conflated with populist and nationalist concerns about preserving European identity. You see it in Austria’s recently announced plans to ban girls in elementary schools and kindergartens from wearing head scarves, adding to existing restrictions on veils. Austria took in more than one percent of its population in asylum seekers during Europe’s migration crisis. Considering that approximately 600,000 Muslims live in Austria, which has a population of 8.8 million, that percentage was, for some, apparently too much.

The Austrian government does not appear to have produced clear justification for the closures. They, thus, can only be construed as ideologically charged, in violation of universal legal principles, social integration policies, minority rights and the ethics of coexistence.

It is difficult to ascertain precisely where in Austria do national security concerns end and political concerns begin. While in some cases, the government’s decision to close these mosques may indeed have been motivated by legitimate national security concerns, Austria’s move risks making an entire minority population feel stigmatized and unwelcome, even in their chosen homeland, and will further increase tension between Muslim and non-Muslim populations.

Given that Kurz and Strache alike ran on explicitly anti-immigration platforms, the mosque move can only be seen as a reflection of the Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave hitting Austria.