Islamophobia in Austria

Written by: Dudu Kücükgöl

On the 10th of June we learned of the closure of 7 mosques in Austria and posted the news on our Twitter page. Dudu responded and shared with us the complexity of the issues in Austria. We asked to write about the events that led up to the announcement and her personal reaction to the events.

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Last week, on Thursday evening at 1800hrs chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP: Austrian People’s Party), vice chancellor Heinz Christian Strache (FPÖ: Austrian Freedom Party), minister for interior Herbert Kickl (FPÖ) and the minister for cultural affairs Gernot Blümel (ÖVP) invited media representatives to a press conference on the following Friday morning at 0800hrs.

The topic of the press conference: “Decisions in Fighting Political Islam”

What was happening? Why would four representatives of the government — among them the chancellor and vice chancellor — set a press conference in the evening with such short notice for 8 o’clock in the morning? These circumstances, or better this orchestration, created an atmosphere of anxiety: As if the land was under attack or great threat; as if there was an urgent reason for this announcement. The next day all media outlets and the whole country’s attention was at the Federal Chancellery.

Our chancellor, vice chancellor, the minister of the interior announced that the government wants to close 7 mosques and send 40 Turkish imams back to Turkey. Of these mosques one Turkish mosque will be closed because of remembrance activities of another mosque on the occasion of the Turkish War of Independence. Yes, you’ve read correctly: Nationalist activities in the rooms of another mosque were presented as reason to close another mosque. The other 6 mosques are under the roof of the Arab Religious Community and will be closed because — according to the minister — they do not have a “positive attitude towards the Austrian state”. Asked how they have come to this conclusion, the minister said: “There were media reports.”

Several times during the press conference members of the government thanked the Islamic Council of Austria for their good cooperation. They could not provide proper answers to the questions of the journalists such as the concrete reasons for the actions.

Some explanations came later during the day:

The real reason for the Turkish mosque was that it was not registered as a mosque under the Islamic Faith Council. According to the new Islam bill (passed 2015) this is illegal in Austria. Any mosque must be approved and recognized by the Islamic Faith Council.

The reason for repealing the legal personality of the Arab Religious Community with over 10 mosques in Austria was because — according to the minister — they do not have the minimum required 1.000 members (an internal regulation of the Islamic Faith Council). The government members could not provide answers what was meant by “not having a positive attitude towards the Austrian state”.

However the Arab Religious Community released a press statement rejecting the accusations. The Arab Religious Community stated that after they received an inquiry in February 2018 concerning their “positive attitude towards Austrian state” and answered to the questions, they did not get any answer back from the ministry. Especially the accusations had no justifications and they were not given concrete explanation how the ministry came to this conclusion. They said that they answered all questions and without getting any answer from the ministry, they were surprised to be told via press conference of their annulment. Annulling the legal personality of the community means — under the Islam bill 2015 — that they are not allowed to operate mosques. That means that they can have the rooms but they are not allowed to pray or give religious services in these rooms — forbidden without the approval of the Islamic Faith Council of Austria.

Meanwhile, written communication was made public that the president of the Islamic Faith Council as official representative of all Muslims in Austria was involved in the actions of the government. The Arab Religious Community wanted to litigate the election of the president 2 years ago. The vice president of the IFC told in a press statement that no other members of the board of the IFC were informed about his accusations and actions against the mosques and demanded his resignation. It seems like the president wanted to use the ministry to get rid of opponents in the IFC but when the government made his involvement public and thanked him for the good cooperation, the Muslim community turned against the IFC and the its president.

The inability of the official Muslim representatives, their problematic relationship with the government, the IFC’s support for the Islam law 2015 and their leaders’ autocratic understanding are also part of the problems we face in Austria today.

However, our far-right government was able to use the incompetence of the IFC’s president to its own political benefit.

Vice Chancellor Strache himself said, “This is only the beginning…” Most of the Muslims in Austria are now deeply concerned and afraid what this means and what will follow.

Austria made headlines worldwide in the beginning of 2018 when the first baby of the year in Austria and her family were racially abused because of her mother’s headscarf. The vitriolic racism that a newborn experienced, and the online hate speech that was reported just in regards to this event showed Austria in a new light that I had not seen before. More and more Muslim women are visually abused on the streets, discriminated against in the labour market, and are the targets of hate filled attacks and now the safe space for Muslims — our mosques — are being closed by the government.