By Farid Hafez
- Dr. Farid Hafez is a political scientist and Senior Research Scholar at The Bridge Initiative, Georgetown University.
SALZBURG (AA) - Austria was known to its Muslim population for a very long time as one of the most open and progressively accommodating countries in terms of Muslim life and practice. With the Islam Act of 1912, which goes back to the Habsburg monarchy, it was one of the very few countries to legally recognize Islam as a religion.
In more recent times, however, Austria has become infamous for the anti-Muslim propaganda in its party politics, spearheaded by the right-wing extreme Freedom Party, which previously governed the country together with Sebastian Kurz’s new branded Conservatives (OVP). The OVP, led by Kurz, has of late been the main champion of anti-Muslim legislation. During their governance, this former acceptance of Islam was profoundly shaken, and Muslims began to be targeted by new laws and initiatives, such as the Hijab ban in kindergartens and primary schools, or the attempt to close mosques. But despite that, the Austrian security apparatus, especially the Interior Ministry’s security agency, had previously never subscribed to the patterns of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Rather, it used to see the Islamic Religious Community of Austria (IGGÖ) as a partner against extremism, and especially Jihadism.
However, this too seems to have profoundly changed with the new annual report of the security agency. Following the governance of a right-wing coalition by the Freedom Party and the Conservatives, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the official name of the security agency) closed the chapter of cooperation and adopted the right-wing agenda of criminalizing Muslim actors. The Islamic Religious Community has thus suddenly begun to be portrayed as an Islamist danger, and no longer a Muslim friend. And the services rendered by the Islamic Religious Community, supported by the state itself, such as religious education in public schools, have now been placed within the scope of Islamist activities that are deemed dangerous.
This new definition extends to the training of Muslim religious teachers for delivering what is called “Muslim pastoral care” to prisons and hospitals. All of these services have so far been implemented with the assistance of the state, and even partly through state funds. Defining these primary functions of the Islamic Religious Community as an “Islamist threat” turns a legally recognized religious institution from a partner into an enemy.
And the document does not leave it there. Throughout the Western world, corporations and states speak of diversity and inclusion as important values that have to be strengthened to foster and promote social cohesion. More progressive institutions even speak of empowerment and positive discrimination. This is, however, not the case with the Austrian security agency, which now seems to have adopted a whole new negative approach. According to the report, Islamists would use education, social welfare services and the organization of cultural life in order to create a “counter-society”. Their goal in so doing would allegedly be to prevent “assimilation”, which then becomes the very goal of the security agency itself. While many Austrian Muslims would argue that “integration” is often nothing but a euphemism for assimilation, never before has any state agency made this so explicit in an official document. Saying this, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution clearly goes beyond its own scope, discussing not only the security threats in the society, but also laying down a social agenda. While it alleges that Islamists have an agenda of creating an alternative society, it appears that this state agency itself is now pursuing an agenda of making Muslims invisible.
But where will this eventually lead to? Following the public presentation of this new publication, the OVP immediately announced a set of measures to forbid what they call “political Islam”. Practically, this means adopting a new act specifically for outlawing political Islam, creating a center for monitoring political Islam and extending the powers of the Ministry of Culture to “handling” the Islamic Religious Community. Part of this results from the new Islam Act, which had been accepted by the then Muslim leadership in 2015. It sadly lays bare the disastrous effects of a shortsighted decision and approval, because of which the status of the institution of the Islamic Religious Community itself is now being questioned.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.