Christian Democrats in Defense of Religious Freedom
It is as if one would fly back in time. In 1995, there was a rare incident in the Austrian Muslim community that attracted unfamiliar public attention. The then-president of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, Ahmed Abdelrahimsai, called for a mandatory wearing of the Hijab for female Muslim pupils during religious classes. It was then an MP from the social democrats that called this mandatory an oppression of women, while the then-minister of education, the known liberal chairman of the Christian Conservative’s People’s Party (ÖVP), Erhard Busek, defended the Muslims with strong words that feel so strange in the ears of people living in Austria today: the social democrats would not be warranted to talk about feminism and multiculturalism on one side, while not accepting the religious beliefs of Muslims on the other side.
Post-9/11: An Era of Inclusion of Muslims
This discourse of the ruling elite to include Muslims into the collective Austrian identity by emphasizing that Islam has been a legally recognized religion since 1912 even survived the 9/11. After the conservative People’s Party formed a coalition government with the right-wing populist Freedom Party for the first time in 2000, in 2003, the right-wing MP Helene Partik-Pablé called for a discussion to ban the headscarf, following policies that banned the headscarf in France and neighboring Germany. The answer by then-chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel was telling: “We don’t have to import every discussion from Germany”. With this answer, the strong leader of the coalition government clearly set the rules of the game for the government and again declared that Austria had its own way in dealing with its Muslim population: treating them as equal citizens based on the principles of freedom of religion and the legal recognition of Islam as a religion, thus including Islam as one of many religions in Austria.
Breaking with the Tradition of Inclusion
These days are clearly gone. When the original FPÖ, after it split off from the still governing party of Jörg Haider (which then was the BZÖ), was again in opposition, it started mobilizing around anti-Muslim issues. The ban of the headscarf was as much part of the campaign as the ban for mosques and minarets. And indeed, in 2009, there were two out of nine counties, where the construction of mosques and minarets was banned via amendments of regional laws dealing with construction regulations and protection of townscape. It was not only right-wing ruling parties that implemented these restrictions. The first county to implement such a regulation was under the leadership of the Christian-conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). While the Green Party was amongst the most anti-racist parties in these days, the historically important Social Democratic Party was not able to find a common strategy towards these issues and thus on one side support Islamophobic discourses, while on the other side it opposed them.
It did not take long that the right-wing Freedom Party’s discourse on Islam and Muslims became mainstream. Muslim women wearing the Hijab are the first and foremost victims of anti-Muslim hate crime. Because of their visibility, they are targeted most on the streets via physical attacks or verbal abuses. While Muslim men are much more difficult to recognize, this is not the case for Muslim women. Hence, the Islamophobic discourse could easily target these visible signs of Islam and Muslims in everyday life. Next to mosques and minarets, this is obviously the Hijab. This is best illustrated in the famous poster launched by the Swiss right-wing populist party SVP, which campaigned against minarets in 2009 that showed not only minarets but also a full-face veiled Muslim woman in black. For right-wing radical discourses, the Hijab is a symbol of what is often referred to as ‘Islamization’. This terminology does not refer to a tendency of increasing religiosity, but rather names the conspiracy of a plan by Muslims, Jews, Freemasons, the European Union and Marxists to change the population of Europe and culturally as well as politically diminish the influence of white, Christian people.
Coopting right-wing Islamophobic Populism
Following the historically unique Islam Act of 1912, the government under the leadership of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party implemented a new Islam Act in 2015, which was widely criticized for unequal treatment of Muslims in contrast to other legally recognized churches and denominations.
While it was the People’s Party that pushed for this law, it was the social democratic minister, in whose competence this issue was. The same government in early 2017 implemented a ban of the full-face veil, symbolically targeting first and foremost Muslim women. Alongside this implementation there was a debate on the ban of the Hijab for attorneys, court lawyers, and police women. The proclaimed reason of the government, why this ban of the Hijab for these three professions was not included was that the dress code for these professions would not allow for a headscarf. Hence, there would not be any possibility to allow Muslim women with a Hijab to work in these professions.
Targeting Muslim Women
When the People’s Party formed a coalition government in December 2017, a new regulation was announced. The government argued that it would ban the Hijab for Muslim pupils from kindergarten to elementary school (until the age of 10). Such an initiative is everything but astonishing, since it derives from a right-wing government whose chancellor was arguing that Muslim kindergartens should be closed, while kindergartens of other religious groups are co-financed by the state. Everything but promising was the reaction of the opposition. Again, the Social Democrats were split. Some spoke out against this ban, while others argued that the ban should include even mature pupils until the age of 14. And the vice-chancellor and chairman of the right-wing FPÖ even proclaimed that a ban should one day even include all pupils and students.
So where is Austria heading towards? It seems that the once most progressive country in terms of accommodation of religion in Western Europe has turned into the most awkward country. It seems the new political climate does not only target Muslim in terms of restricting their religious practice, but really adopts authoritarian practices to reeducate Muslim people from an early age on, starting from kindergarten to high school.
What is needed therefore is a clear stance of the opposition as well as civil society and fellow churches and religious communities, to take a side with Muslims. Politicians should reconsider if they want to be henchmen of illiberal democracy by targeting, scapegoating and excluding Muslim women, the most vulnerable amongst the Muslim minority or if they want to oppose this tendency and rather be champions of religious freedom and human rights.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Farid Hafez, born 23 December 1981 in Ried im Innkreis (Austria), is a political scientist and Senior Research Scholar at The Bridge Initiative, Georgetown University and Senior Scientist at the Department of Political Science at Salzburg University. He has published more than 80 academic titles and is the founding editor of the Islamophobia Studies Yearbook. In 2009, he won the Bruno-Kreisky-Award for the political book of the year.