Austrian elections pave way for populist government, making Muslims apprehensive

The elections to the National Council, the lower house of the Austrian Parliament on October 15, have marked a firm shift to the right in Austrian politics, particularly on matters of immigration, integration, and Islam.

Sebastian Kurz headed for an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition

After an electoral campaign dominated by at times vicious diatribes against Muslims and foreigners, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) with 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz at the helm managed to secure 31.5 per cent of the popular vote, making it the largest group in parliament.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ), who had previously led a ‘grand coalition’ with the ÖVP as junior partner, took second place, with 26.9 per cent. They are followed closely by the third-largest political force, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which gained 26 per cent of the ballots cast. Liberals and an offshoot of the Green Party obtained 5.3 and 4.4 per cent of the vote, respectively.

With no party gaining an absolute majority, the most likely option for putting together a government appears a right-wing coalition between ÖVP and FPÖ. This would bring the Austrian populists into the government afte all, less then a year after they narrowly failed to clinch the country’s Presidency.

A campaign focused on immigration, integration, Islam

An ÖVP-FPÖ government is all the more likely since the obvious alternative – another grand coalition between Conservatives and Social Democrats – is despised by the electorate and viewed with weariness by party bosses. Against this backdrop of dissatisfaction with the status quo, the youthful Sebastian Kurz has not only stylised himself as a figure of radical political renewal since taking control of his ÖVP party; he has also steered a course of rapprochement with the FPÖ.

Throughout the electoral campaign, Kurz presented himself as the guarantor of a restrictive immigration policy – he claimed that it had been his initiative that had secured the closure of the refugee route across the Western Balkans in 2015.

Kurz also pushed the topic of “Islam” into the limelight of the campaign. Among other things, he called for a hijab ban in schools (while demanding that the Christian cross continue to be displayed prominently in every classroom).(( http://www.fr.de/politik/wahlkampf-in-oesterreich-sebastian-kurz-entdeckt-das-thema-islam-a-1337052 ))

Study on ‘extremist’ Islamic nursery schools falsified

Similarly, the ÖVP politician insisted on the need to close nursery schools run by Islamic organisations, claiming that they were hotbeds of Salafist radicalism.(( https://kurier.at/politik/inland/sebastian-kurz-im-kurier-gespraech-islamische-kindergaerten-abschaffen/271.008.503 )) Confessional educational institutions are widespread in Austria, with the Catholic Church running the vast majority of them.

Kurz justified his stance by pointing to a study on Islamic kindergartens that he had commissioned while serving as Austria’s foreign minister. Subsequently it emerged, however, that the Foreign Ministry had tampered with the study’s results in order to make them more amenable to Kurz’s ‘hard-line’ position.

Where the study’s author had observed that Muslim parents who sent their kids to nursery schools run by Islamic associations were looking for an education based on values of “self-reliance, respect, and love”, a foreign Ministry employee replaced this with the assertion that Muslim parents were seeking to “protect their children from the moral influence of majority society”.

In another passage, the study originally asserted that parents were interested in “respect, serenity, the child’s individuality, hygiene, the child’s happiness, punctuality, love, warmth and caring, self-reliance, as well as transparency of rules”. The Foreign Ministry altered this to claim that “parents place particular emphasis on the imparting of Islamic values”.(( https://cms.falter.at/falter/2017/07/04/frisiersalon-kurz/ ))

Difficult times ahead for Austrian Muslims

Against this backdrop, many Austrian Muslims unsurprisingly see an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz as a threat. Austrian blogger and activist Dudu Küçükgöl observed that “when it comes to efforts at integration, Austria will be thrown back by 20 years.” She expects a rise in racism and anti-immigrantism, particularly directed against the country’s Muslim population.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

Austria’s recently passed “Islam Act” might turn out to be particularly important in this respect. Enacted two years ago at the instigation of Kurz, Muslim activists have criticised the law for eroding Muslims’ civil rights.

Notably, the legal text provides far-reaching possibilities to dissolve Muslim associations should they fail to display a “positive basic disposition” towards the Austrian state – whatever this requirement might mean in practice.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/17/rechtsruck-unter-dem-deckmantel-der-integration/ ))

Discriminatory agenda

Consequently, many Muslims fear that the future government will use these extremely flexible legal provisions to their detriment. Murat Başer, chairman of the Islamic religious community in the city of Linz, observed:

“A possible FPÖ+ÖVP coalition could mean a broadening of the burqa ban into a general headscarf ban. It could also lead to a more robust and unchecked application of the Islam Act, which would see mosques and Islamic institutions being put under permanent surveillance.”(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

Should Kurz decide to go down this route, he will have the enthusiastic support of the FPÖ: the populists’ campaign called for “redistribution from foreigners to Austrians”, and their electoral placards promised that “we give back to YOU what THEY take from you.” Importantly, ‘they’ not only usurp economic opportunities but also rob Austrians of their cultural identity: “Islamisation must be stopped”, another FPÖ poster read.(( http://diepresse.com/home/innenpolitik/nationalratswahl/5282218/FPOe-plakatiert-Kurz-Kern-und-Gusenbauer ))

International significance of the vote

Political developments in Austria resonate beyond the country’s borders in particular ways. The FPÖ, one of Europe’s most long-standing and most successful far-right parties has been a pioneer of the present-day populist movement. It thus serves as a model for many other comparable parties across the continent.

When it entered the Austrian government for the first time – as a junior partner to the ÖVP – in 2000, the EU and its (at the time) fourteen other Member States reacted with a downgrading of bilateral relations with Austria. Seventeen years later, no such moves will be forthcoming.

German perspectives on the election

German observers tend to pay especially close attention to events in the Alpine Republic across their southern border. Against the backdrop of the strong showing of Germany’s own right-wing populist fringe in last month’s federal elections, commentators are debating the insights and lessons to be drawn from the Austrian case.

Many – including many German Muslims – see Austria as a harbinger of potential things to come: the inexorable growth of a xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic party on the right fringe; a party whose ability to attract ever-growing numbers of voters ultimately paves the way to its inclusion in government.

Austria as a warning…

In this view, events in Austria ought to be a cautionary tale to policy-makers and activists in Germany. Academic Werner Ötsch, whose research focuses on populist movements, asserted that “the Austrian development should really be a warning for Germany. Here [in Austria], no means against the right-wing populists has been found; and the participation in government such as it occurred in 2000 has not debunked the FPÖ but only made the situation worse.”(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/interview-populismusforscher-oesterreich-sollte-eine-warnung-fuer-deutschland-sein-1.3711357 ))

German Muslim voices have often struck a similar note, with for instance the Secretary General of the Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG), Bekir Altaş, echoing the notion that the Austrian election results constitute “a stark warning”.(( http://www.islamiq.de/2017/10/16/oesterreich-erlebt-einen-starken-rechtsruck/ ))

… or as a role model

Others, however, interpret the electoral outcome in the opposite light: Edmund Stoiber, former leader of the CSU, Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s CDU, asserted that Sebastian Kurz’s campaign had delineated the path to be taken by centre-right parties in order to win elections against far-right populist opponents.(( http://www.focus.de/kultur/kino_tv/focus-fernsehclub/tv-kolumne-hart-aber-fair-bayerns-ex-ministerpraesident-edmund-stoiber-macht-seinem-unmut-in-der-sendung-luft_id_7721375.html ))

Thus, for Stoiber, Austrian developments do not offer a cautionary tale but should instead be emulated. (Stoiber had already supported the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition of the early 2000s. At the time, this sparked enormous anger among his German colleagues from the CDU.((http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/empoerung-in-der-cdu-ueber-edmund-stoibers-koalitionsempfehlung-zu-gunsten-der-fpoe/96400.html )) )

In some sense, Kurz’s victory might seem pyrrhic: it was, after all, the FPÖ that set the agenda for the electoral campaign and will most likely define the topics and the tone of Kurz’s policy initiatives in government. Stoiber’s statements nevertheless highlight the ways in which the Austrian election results will further intensify the factional dispute within the German CDU/CSU  over whether to respond to the rise of right-wing populists by emulating them.

Beaucaire mayor accuses Morocco of terrorism, calls for banning Arabic in schools

Julien Sanchez, who serves as the mayor of the city of Beaucaire in South France, recently released a video in which he expressed his opposition to teaching Arabic in schools.

Sanchez accused Morocco of “becoming in recent months a country of origin for terrorist organizations, which exposes French schools to danger” because many of the Arabic teachers are originally from Morocco.

“We are asked to secure our schools, but we don’t know exactly who penetrates them”, he said.

The FN mayor said he will not allocate money for such a project and will instead give a symbolic Euro.

‘Halal days’ for French Muslims

The fourth annual “halal days” were held May 18-21 and took place in schools, associations, and other Muslim organizations. The event aimed to “raise awareness about the importance of eating halal and eating well.”

Participating organizations agreed to open their doors to the public to better understand “the foundations of halal food, its culture, and its characteristics, as well as the processes used by all to guarantee that products are halal compliant.” Last year, 1,250 people signed up for the events.

“It was mostly attacks by the National Front on the halal market in 2014 that made us think of this event, to create a zone conducive to debate,” explained Lynda Ayadi, the director of the marketing company Heaven Strategy which organizes the “halal days.”

“We felt a strong demand from the Muslim community to provide perspective and information on the halal market,” she added. “More recently, this feeling was reinforced following the polemic sparked by the animal protection association L214’s video of French slaughterhouses, which they blamed for animal suffering.”

Ayadi insisted that the event’s goal was not to “spread propaganda,” and invited those who oppose halal “to come and participate in the debates.”

‘Warn police with worries about a radicalized student’

According to political party VVD a teacher should immediately inform the police when a student expresses radical thoughts. Currently many teachers find it difficult to decide whether someone really has those thoughts or whether s/he is just expressing some ‘rebellious’ adolescent behavior. The police is in a better position to decide on this matter.

VVD finds the current way there is dealt with the problem of youth radicalizing too soft. Now schools are only required to warn the police when a student has real plans traveling to Syria.

VVD member Sjoerd Potters criticizes the way schools are dealing with the problem. According to them they avoid talking about the topic.

© ap
© ap

Schools monitoring pupils’ web use with ‘anti-radicalisation software’

Schools are being sold software to monitor pupils’ internet activity for extremism-related language such as “jihadi bride” and “YODO”, short for you only die once.

Schools are being sold software that can monitor pupils internet use Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
Schools are being sold software that can monitor pupils internet use Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

Several companies are producing “anti-radicalisation” software to monitor pupils’ internet activity ahead of the introduction of a legal requirement on schools to consider issues of terrorism and extremism among children.

Under the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015, which comes into force on 1 July, there is a requirement that schools “have due regard to the need to prevent pupils being drawn into terrorism”.

One company, Impero, has launched a pilot of its software in 16 locations in the UK as well as five in the US. Teachers can store screenshots of anything of concern that is flagged up by the software. Other companies offering anti-radicalisation software products to schools include Future Digital and Securus.

Impero has produced a glossary of trigger words such as “jihobbyist” (someone who sympathises with jihadi organisations but is not an active member) and “Message to America” (an Islamic State propaganda video series).

Schools involved with the Impero pilot already have contracts to buy or rent other software from the company, and are trialling the anti-radicalisation software at no extra charge. They are in areas including London, County Durham, Essex, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Yorkshire and Staffordshire.

Yahya Birt, a Muslim academic specialising in British Islam, tweeted about the four-year-olds potentially being monitored for radicalisation: “They’re pre-lingual, let alone pre-political. It’s bonkers.”

Headscarves not an issue for young people

From the perspective of the Young Islam Conference, the timing couldn’t be better. On the very day when 100 members of the organization met for their annual national congress in Berlin, Germany’s constitutional court struck down the existing absolute ban on head coverings in state schools as incompatible with religious freedom. Teachers at state schools are now allowed to wear headscarves during lessons, unless those schools can demonstrate that this poses a specific risk or danger to the harmonious environment.

For Esra Kücük, head of the Young Islam Conference, this is good news. She’s very pleased with the judges’ verdict. “We have a number of trainee teachers among us who wear headscarves and had been concerned about whether they’d even be allowed to work,” she says. These young women can now complete their training in the certainty that they won’t be prevented from working when they have finished. “What we’re seeing is a modern immigration country that is catching up and correcting past mistakes. It’s a retroactive integration process,” says Kücük.

The judges’ decision merely reproduces something no longer questioned in broader society, she explains: greater openness and tolerance towards the Muslim minority.

Young people in Germany are open to Muslims

Her assessment corresponds with a recent study carried out by the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM), which surveyed more than 8,000 people, including more than 1,100 youths and young adults. The study found that young people in Germany are much more open towards the Muslim minority than adults.

“Understanding normality as diverse”: head of the Young Islam Conference (JIK) Esra Kücük spoke out in favour of a more open and varied society in Germany

For instance, 71 per cent of 18-to-25-year-olds think Muslim teachers should be allowed to wear headscarves during lessons. (Among adults 55 per cent are in favour of banning headscarves.) This shows that in actual fact, in recent years the headscarf debate has been going on over the heads of those actually affected by it, says Kücük.

Most school pupils have no problem with their teacher being a religious Muslim, she adds; for them, a Muslim teacher with a headscarf is just as much part of Germany as a non-Muslim teacher with her head uncovered.

Integration in Germany is better than its reputation

This is no surprise, explains Naika Foroutan, a social scientist at Berlin’s Humboldt University and head of the BIM. Today’s 16-to-25-year-olds have grown up with the discourse about Muslims and Islam. They were children when the immigration commission under the former CDU politician Rita Süssmuth presented its study on migrants’ integration in 2001.

The subject has been on the public agenda ever since and much of what still seems unthinkable to adults has long become par for the course for teenagers and young adults, says Foroutan. “You could say that integration in Germany is better than its reputation,” she sums up.

The majority of Germans see Germany as a diverse and mixed immigration country, she explains; however, 30 per cent of the population still expressly reject this idea. In this case more should be done to educate and inform, says Foroutan. She considers this difficult, however, because those opposed to immigration, such as the followers of the xenophobic Pegida movement, distrust the media. The best way to reach them, she says, is to make greater use of other intermediaries, people often referred to as “pillars” of society such as teachers, police officers and those working in public administration.

Migration researcher Naika Foroutan criticised the fact that performance and qualifications are no guarantee of good career opportunities for migrants. Although every fifth person in Germany has a history of migration either themselves or in their family, she explained, this group makes up only 10 per cent of the public sector workforce

Despite these positive findings, knowledge of Muslims and Islam is still not widespread. Some 60 per cent of young people gauge their knowledge as low. Most of them draw what they do know from encounters with migrants. Schools and universities are also important providers of knowledge. Only 28 per cent of young people state that they learn about Muslims and Islam via television. Among adults, this figure is significantly higher, at 46 per cent.

“Whose is the West?”

The Young Islam Conference (JIK) was founded in 2010 by the Mercator Foundation and the Humboldt University. It views itself as a forum for dialogue and a network of young multipliers aged 17 to 25. Members from 13 of Germany’s 16 federal states meet up once a year for a national congress.

In 2013 the JIK called on the German parliament to set up a study commission on diversity and cultural participation. The aim would be to bring together experts to provide models for a diverse immigration society and concepts for equal opportunities in participation. The conference head Esra Kücük says they want to develop this suggestion further this year.

This year’s congress, held at the Foreign Office in Berlin, asks the question “Whose is the West?” – in response to the debate on the xenophobic movements demonstrating in numerous German cities in recent months, under the motto “against the Islamization of the West”. The participants spent three days exchanging ideas and opinions in workshops and panel discussions. The conference invitation outlined the focus of the event as “confronting the theses and positions of those who are trying to divide us.”

The Union of French Muslim Democrats Presents Eight Candidates

Established in November 2012, The Union of French Muslim Democrats (UDMF) claims more than 900 members and 8,000 supporters. Most are Muslims who do not identity with the current political parties and who are “fed up” with bipartisan politics. This year, the party will present eight candidates in departmental elections in Lyon, Nice, Pas-de-Calais, and others.

Directed by Najib Azergui, the party hopes to promote Islamic finance, an alternative form of traditional finance, as a method to avoid future economic crises. The party also hopes that certain “tragic chapters” in French history (Algeria, colonization, etc), which are “silently passed by” in certain schools, will be made part of their curricula. They also hope to provide Arabic classes, which are “unfairly banned” in secondary schools.

The party most notably defends the right for girls to wear headscarves in schools, as well as civic and philosophic education to teach students to “think and debate.”

Dutch Minister wants school to work on the prevention of radicalization

Jet Bussemaker, minister of Education, says that teachers should be more aware of their ‘social role’. School is the place where different groups from society get in contact with each other and if signs of radicalization are being seen, the school should take action. For example when a boy decides he doesn’t want to sit with girls anymore.

In the same sense the minister doesn’t agree with schools that have plans to replace the lowest levels of education (The Dutch schooling system knows roughly 3 levels of education) to a different location. Cause school is the place where different groups, low- and high educated people can meet each other. Teachers have an important task to bring these people together and to make sure appreciation for each other will occur.

British Muslim school children getting abuse following Paris Attacks

Muslim pupils across Britain are suffering a backlash of bullying and abuse following the Charlie Hebdo massacre amid a broad rise in Islamophobia in schools, which the Government is failing to tackle, campaigners have told The Independent. (Photo: Don McPhee/The Guardian)
Muslim pupils across Britain are suffering a backlash of bullying and abuse following the Charlie Hebdo massacre amid a broad rise in Islamophobia in schools, which the Government is failing to tackle, campaigners have told The Independent. (Photo: Don McPhee/The Guardian)

Muslim pupils across Britain are suffering a backlash of bullying and abuse following the Charlie Hebdo massacre amid a broad rise in Islamophobia in schools, which the Government is failing to tackle, campaigners have told The Independent.

The sole UK charity monitoring anti-Muslim hate crime said it had recorded a “significant” increase in incidents in schools in the wake of the killings in Paris with both parents and teachers reporting verbal and physical attacks against Muslim students.

Teachers unions and anti-racism groups told The Independent they have recorded an increase in Islamophobic incidents in schools with the 400,000 Muslim pupils in British schools increasingly likely to be taunted as “terrorists”, “paedophiles” or “immigrants”. The NASUWT, the teaching union, said the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment is causing “uncertainty and fear” in schools.

Tell MAMA, which monitors anti-Muslim hate crime in Britain, said it had logged 112 reports of physical and verbal violence in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, including nine incidents which related specifically to schools in locations from West Yorkshire to East Sussex.

The organisation, which was recommended by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles last week in a letter subsequently criticised by Muslim groups for appearing to ask Muslims to prove their British identity, said it had been repeatedly rebuffed by a “short-sighted” Department for Education (DfE) in efforts to seek its support in offering training for schools in how to deal with Islamophobia.