The ‘National Map of Islam’ and Austria’s Islamophobia
The government of Austria continues to receive criticism for its National Map of Islam website which highlights the locations 620 mosques and Muslim associations across the country and their possible links abroad.
This initiative is the latest instance of right-wing state policies that have problematised Austrian Muslim communities as the alien ‘Other’ and national security threat.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has increased to such an extent in wider public discourse that Muslims are perceived as unwilling or unable to integrate themselves well into the Austrian culture.
Austria has a history of monitoring the activities of its minorities and the current plight of Muslims in the country is the culmination of the rightward shift in county’s politics over the last 15 years
This continues a trend that can be seen over the last five years and has been documented in various studies and polls such as a Chatham House survey which indicated that 65 percent of Austrians supported the statement: "All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped." Shifting public opinion and the election of populist parties have enabled the implementation of surveillance programmes and raids in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism.
Context to the current crisis
Austria has a history of monitoring the activities of its minorities and the current plight of Muslims in the country is the culmination of the rightward shift in its politics over the last 15 years.
The increasing popularity of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) has styled itself on an anti-immigration platform that claims to defend Austrian identity and culture from outsiders and openly demonises Muslims and their faith.
The Islamophobic rhetoric of the FPÖ relies on three key themes – security, identity, cultural compatibility – a strategy which has been cop-opted by larger parties such as the ÖVP and SPÖ, and positions itself to appease voters concerned about multiculturalism, Islam and immigration.
This sentiment has been bolstered by the influx of nearly 100,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in 2015 and was met with strong public disapproval, reminding those unhappy with arrival of outsiders of the large number of refugees that came from the former Yugoslavia in 1994.
In terms of policy, two legal turning points was reached in the ‘Islam Act’ of 2015, in which Muslims were viewed as an internal threat, and in effect treated differently from legally recognised churches and other religious minorities – which has paved the way to the current large scale surveillance of Islamic religious institutions.
The extent to which public opinion has become turned against Muslims is illustrated in a recent survey which showed that 35 percent of the public has negative views about Muslims, while 40 percent support the idea that Muslims should not have the same equal rights as Austrians and partly explains the ease in which Muslim civil society has been securitised with little social resistance.
The immediate precursory to the current crisis is the political climate that emerged after a terrorist attack in which a former Islamic State group sympathiser killed four people in Vienna on November 3, 2020.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz responded by announcing a series of measures which included the closing of mosques, and targeting “political Islam.” This was followed by “Operation Luxor” – a massive set of police raids across the country that targeted the alleged networks of the Muslim Brotherhood and included institutions, businesses, homes as well as the arrests of dozens of people.
This included the prominent scholar Farid Hafez, known internationally for his work on challenging Islamophobia. No one was charged with any criminal acts and the government was accused carrying out politically motivated raids that left 62 children psychologically traumatised.
Mapping mainstream Muslims
The surveilling of Austrian Muslims took on a pseudo-academic turn through the creation of ‘The Islam Map’ which is a product of a government-supported project – the Political Islam Documentation Centre, in co-operation with the University of Vienna.
The Centre appears to hold ideological positions of its own and resembles Cold War-era institutions warning of the ‘Red Scare’, now fighting the ‘Green Peril’ with Islamists hiding under every bed. It is guided by two controversial scholars – the first, Lorenzo Vidino is the Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and is author of a report on the Muslim Brotherhood in Austria, which accused nearly every Muslim organisation in Austria of having links to the Brotherhood.
The other, Mouhanad Khorchide, a professor of Islamic theology at the Westphalian Wilhelm University of Münster, has claimed: “ Islam has turned into an anti-Western identity” and proponents of political Islam engage in taqiyya – dissimulation in the face of persecution to mask their “inwardly” values.
The Integration Minister Susanne Raab suggests that the Political Islam Documentation Centre was created to be “part of the national strategy of extremism prevention and deradicalisation,” and to “fight political ideologies, not a religion" and "does not intend to place Muslims under general suspicion.”
However, the organisations highlighted on the map include mosques, cultural centres, youth organisations and sports clubs. The Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGOE) has stated the database stigmatises Austrian Muslims as a "potential danger to society and the democratic legal order in the country," and the Muslim Youth Austria (MJO) has filed a lawsuit.
Within days of the ‘Islam map’ going online, a wave of anti-Muslim hate crimes occurred and one building was vandalised with the words: ‘The Führer is back,’ and also “Beware! Political Islam nearby" signs were erected next to several mosques. This led the Council of Europe, an international human rights organisation, to call the database "hostile to Muslims and potentially counterproductive," and it has been also been criticised by the Conference of European Rabbis, and the Austrian Bishops’ Conference.
This adverse reaction even led the Rector of the University of Vienna to request that the logo of the university be removed from the map website.
Natural growth, immigration and declining birth rates among ageing non-Muslim population form the central plank in the rhetoric of anti-Muslim political parties which warn of the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ and creation of ‘Europistan'
Many surveys indicate that around 88 percent of Austrian Muslims feel closely connected with Austria and more than 62 percent of Muslims have routine leisure time with people of other faiths.
Despite this, Austrian Muslims are experiencing the harmful repercussions of the 'Islam Map' across Austria and the government sanctioned discrimination is being exploited by far-right extremists thugs on the street.
According to Farid Hafez, “the issue with the map has been the tip of the iceberg, but the general stigmatisation has been ongoing for years. Institutions such as the Documentation Centre for Political Islam are an institutionalisation of Islamophobia”… this “course of institutionalising Islamophobia is a centre-project, not a far-right project" and… “These Islam-policies are threatening democracy and the rule of law… and will create the ground for major conflicts.”
The implicit policy objective of the Documentation Centre for Political Islam appears to follow a divide-and-rule politics of an increasing number of EU states who seek to marginalise visible Islamic organisations and substitute their voices with state-backed, self-proclaimed “liberal Muslim” alternatives.
The direction taken by the current government of Austria actions point to a broader existential fear among many European policymakers of the growing European Muslim demographic. Natural growth, immigration and declining birth rates among ageing non-Muslim population form the central plank in the rhetoric of anti-Muslim political parties which warn of the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ and creation of ‘Europistan'.
They are increasingly capitulating to draconian policies to appease those who fear being displaced by outsiders. This trend is evident in the language of leaders such as the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban who views refugees as “Muslim invaders” or the increasingly rhetoric of Emanuel Macron and his war against Political Islam. What is happening in Austrian case illustrates the consequences of what happens when these populist political parties achieve power.
Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.
Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid