Turks feel the brunt of Islamophobia in Austria

[VIENNA] After the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, tens of thousands of Turks across Austria took to the streets in support of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, spurring concerns among Austrian leaders about the loyalty of their citizens.

The following year, officials in Austria and other western European states pointed to Turkey’s poor human rights record and refused to allow Turkish officials to campaign on their soil. Turkish leaders responded with verbal attacks. “Nazism is alive in the West,” Erdoğan said in April 2017. His EU minister, Ömer Çelik, accused Austria of “using the language of European racists”.

References to the Third Reich hit home in the Austrian capital these days, where the People’s Party of 31-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is in coalition with the right-wing populist Freedom Party, which was founded in 1956 by a former Nazi party member and SS officer.

In recent years, governments across the West have endeavoured to curb Muslim immigration and encourage Muslim integration, from U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban to prohibitions on mosque construction, the face veil, and the “burkini” in France, the Netherlands, Denmark and beyond. Nowhere have these efforts occurred more quickly than in Austria, the only western European country with a far-right presence in government.

In May 2017, the government banned the face veil in public places. Seven months later, the far-right coalition government took power. Within weeks, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, of the Freedom Party, said he wanted to “concentrate” asylum seekers, evoking images of Nazi camps.

Two months later, Turkish-origin Austrians started receiving letters in the mail, requiring them to visit a government office and prove they were not also Turkish citizens or face revocation of their Austrian citizenship. Around that time, the government proposed banning the headscarf in elementary schools and kindergartens.

Finally, in June, the government organised a press conference attended by Kurz and four ministers and announced the planned closure of seven mosques and the expulsion of dozens of imams who had received foreign funding -- illegal under the 2015 Law of Islam. Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the only neo-Nazi in a European government, called it “just the beginning”. The Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Yet in terms of bans and actual legislation, the government has achieved less than it seems, according to Farid Hafez, political science lecturer at the University of Salzburg and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative. For example, mosques were shuttered for about a week, and re-opened after some legal manoeuvring. And no imams were expelled from Austria, though several were refused visa extensions.

This does not mean the concerns of Muslims and rights activists are misplaced. Hafez expects many more anti-Muslim initiatives in the coming years, all targeting a vaguely defined “political Islam”. “When you speak of political Islam here in Austria it’s a very fuzzy term - everything from AKP to ISIS can be political Islam,” Hafez said during a recent interview. “The less undefined it is the more you can play with it.”

This concept of “political Islam” can apply to all Muslims, which would help the government lay out a narrative that Islam is an “unacceptable” religion and that Muslims are dangerous. This seems to be the concern of Turkey’s president. “These measures taken by the Austrian prime minister are, I fear, leading the world toward a war between the cross and the crescent,” Erdoğan said in Istanbul after the mosque closures.

Hafez sees echoes of 1930s anti-Semitism in the way Austria’s government deals with Muslims. In the early Nazi days there was talk of a “state within the state”, today Kurz worries about parallel societies. “The structure is very similar, the images, the arguments, the rhetoric,” said Hafez.

The government seems to think this dangerous parallel society is predominantly Turkish. The imams threatened with expulsion had reportedly received funding from Turkey, through the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Association (ATIB), which is overseen by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, the Diyanet. And at least one of the mosques shut down was thought to have ties to Turkey’s far-right nationalist group the Grey Wolves.

A mosque in the Islam Centre of Vienna AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR

Turks face daily harassment and discrimination. Job prospects are significantly reduced, no matter what one’s qualifications, said Elif Öztürk, a 28-year-old graduate student in anthropology. And many residential buildings are off limits, as landlords simply refuse to rent to Turks.

“Nowadays every Muslim, even if they don’t look Turkish at all, they get harassed and blamed as being Turkish, being Erdoğan supporters,” Öztürk said at a Vienna cafe.

Born in Germany to Turkish immigrants, Öztürk has lived in Austria for a decade. She wears a headscarf and has been verbally abused in public twice in the last two years. In 2014 she founded Dokustelle, an organisation that documents incidents of discrimination and abuse against Muslims in Austria. Such attacks increased 62 percent in 2016, and another 22 percent last year.

This year started with a very public incident of abuse. The first baby born in Vienna this year, Asel Tamga, sparked racist outrage after it was photographed in the arms of her headscarf wearing Turkish-origin mother. “Deport the scum immediately,” one user posted in response to the photo on Facebook. “I’m hoping for a crib death,” said another.

Austria is home to some 700,000 Muslims, with about 250,000 of Turkish heritage. Thousands of the latter group have recently received letters in the mail, including several of Öztürk’s friends. “If you don’t go prove you’re not a Turkish citizen, you’re automatically guilty, you’re not willing to cooperate,” she said, “and you lose your Austrian citizenship - even people who’ve been here 20 or 30 years.”

In June, Strache posted on his Facebook page: “I recommend all the Turks in Austria who voted for Erdoğan should return to Turkey!” Some 80 percent of Turkish-origin people in Germany and Austria tend to vote for Erdoğan and the AKP. Some are now indeed returning, thanks to the crackdown on double citizenship and because of the atmosphere of hate.

“Many people are leaving the country,” said Hafez who co-authors an annual report on Islamophobia in Europe for the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, SETA, an AKP government affiliated think tank. “Many people are fearing for their future: ‘Should I really stay and invest here, or go somewhere else?’”

Öztürk has spoken to several mothers who hope to leave, including one who was born in Austria, earned a PhD there and raised triplets on her own. “She said to me, ‘Elif, I deal with so much harassment I can’t even document it because it happens so often,” Öztürk said. “‘I don’t want to deal with it any more. I want to move on and forget that and find a way to migrate.’”

Back in 2010, Turkey’s Ambassador to Austria Kadri Ecved Tezcan probably went too far when he accused the country of treating Turks “like a virus.” Today his words have the ring of truth to them.