En route to a restrictive policy on Islam?

This week, Austria's new centre-right and right-wing coalition published its programme for government. This programme does not view Muslims through the lens of human rights and freedom of religion as people to be protected and people who are particularly affected by racism. Instead, they are very obviously cast in the role of a potential threat, writes Farid Hafez

By Farid Hafez

The word "Islam" appears a total of 21 times in the Austrian coalition's new programme for government, which is entitled "Zusammen. Für unser Österreich" (Together. For our Austria). By contrast, there is not one single mention of right-wing extremism or fascism in the coalition programme published by Sebastian Kurz's centre-right party and the right-wing FPÖ. Human rights are mentioned a mere five times. This does not bode well. What does this mean for the Islam policy of the Austrian government that was sworn in on 18 December. 

Neither the subject of protecting minorities nor that of increasing Islamophobia in Austria makes much of an appearance in this programme for government. The new federal government mentions the protection of religious minorities only in relation to combating the "persecution of religious minorities – especially Christian minorities" who are to be protected against "extremist religious ideologies (e.g. political Islam)" in particular. 

Political Islam is made a major focus area in the field of domestic security. Indeed a whole subsection of the 180-page long programme is devoted to it. It should be noted in this respect that the term "political Islam" is not generally used by Austrian authorities such as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism. In the past, it has usually been referred to as "Islamism". It remains to be seen whether this will change, especially as the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence, which operates two intelligence services, are now in the hands of FPÖ ministers.

What do they want to monitor? 

The individual measures addressed in this subsection pack the kind of punch you might expect from a government of this make-up and reveal whom the two winning parties mean when they use the term "political Islam": Muslims. This is not improved by the lip-service statement that a distinction is to be made "between political Islam, which seeks to infiltrate our society, and the religion of Islam". The reason being that the measures largely focus on the Muslim religious community recognised in Austria. The aim, states the programme, is to "ensure comprehensive monitoring of how religious doctrine is presented". 

This seems strange, especially because state authorities are not permitted to interfere in the affairs of recognised churches and religious communities. So what is it that they want to monitor? But perhaps Norbert Hofer, the former presidential candidate and current infrastructure minister, was right when he said that we will be astounded by all that is possible. 

People protesting against Austria's new coalition government in Vienna (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Resistance to the recently elected right-wing populist government: several thousand people took to the streets of Vienna this week to protest against Austria's lurch to the political right. Demonstrators held up placards (such as the one here that reads 'Nazis out of the parliament')

The coalition's programme for government also calls for authorised translations of essential religious texts like the Koran, something that was already set out in the discriminatory Section 6 of the 2015 Islam Law. This demand is rooted in the Vienna Integration Manifesto, which was published in 2011 by a group that included the Wiener Akademikerbund, which was later excluded from the Vienna branch of the ÖVP for calling for the abolition of the 1947 Prohibition Act (which among other things made holocaust denial illegal). 

This manifesto stated that an "official German-language version of the Koran and the Hadiths" was required in order to "ensure harmonisation of the doctrine with Austrian laws" – assuming that this was not completely guaranteed by the Koran – and that Muslims should distance themselves from certain parts of the Koran. 

Another measure is also based on the new Islam Law of 2015. In less diplomatic language than was used in the law itself and how it was announced, the programme now speaks openly of a "ban on overseas funding". The amendment of the Islam law is also proposed in order to "prevent foreign influence" and eliminate "constructs used to bypass" this law. In other words, the government is proposing changes to the Law on Clubs and Associations, which could potentially affect all citizens, in order to ostensibly justify compliance with a law that is already discriminatory. 

Organised Islam is evil 

The issue of Islam runs like a thread through many areas of the programme, which also sets out measures to prevent "foreign influence, particularly in the field of education". It is unclear how this is to be accomplished. Nevertheless, the message itself is very clear: organised Islam is evil, in particular when it maintains links to foreign countries – something that doesn't, however, apply to the Catholic Church, Mormon missionaries from Utah, or any of the numerous national Orthodox Churches, all of which are connected to other nation states. 

Sebastian Kurz's repeatedly aired desire to close Islamic kindergartens, which for him represent a parallel society running counter to the mainstream, is now couched in more diplomatic terms in the programme for government, which speaks of "closer monitoring and ultimately the closure of Islamic kindergartens and Islamic private schools in those cases where legal requirements are not met." It doesn't say that all kindergartens should be monitored; just the Islamic ones. All of this comes under the heading of "Combating political Islam."

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (left) and Heinz-Christian Strache (photo: Reuters)
Earlier this year, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, said that Austria should "quickly put an end to this policy of Islamisation [...] otherwise we Austrians, we Europeans will come to an abrupt end." When asked for clarification, an FPÖ spokesperson said that any law against extreme Islam would mirror those introduced after World War II, which banned Nazi symbols and political affiliation

There are only two measures that relate to the security policy agenda in a narrower sense. The police are to be given "powers to immediately close down places of worship, education or culture where terrorist propaganda is spread or generally formulated concepts and theories that seek to support terrorism are propagated." Much like the points outlined above, this indicates that the idea of what poses a threat to national security has been broadened in an ambiguous way, which will allow the state to legitimise far-reaching intervention in the field of security. 

Muslims as a potential threat 

The same trend can be seen in the development of "prevention and de-radicalisation measures", which have come in for international criticism because they focus solely on Muslims while downplaying the dangers posed by nationalist groups. The subsection on "Combating extremism and radicalisation that is hostile to the state, particularly in order to guard against terrorist activities" contains a comprehensive security package, which is justified among other things on the grounds that extremist places of worship, education or culture need to be closed down. 

It also calls for "criminal law provisions that target political Islam" to be written into the Criminal Code. This includes the introduction of a more serious sentences for violence motivated by religious fundamentalism. In penal law, security (and legal certainty) is to be improved by holding Islamists/jihadists who pose a threat to public safety in dedicated secure wings. 

The inclusion of a plan to introduce compulsory state "values and orientation courses for people entitled to political asylum and subsidiary groups entitled to protection" in the section on "political Islam" also shows that this government equates refugees with Muslims. This plan is to be enacted with a correspondingly heavy hand: those who do not fulfil this requirement will be threatened with benefit cuts. 

In summary: Muslims are not regarded through the lens of human rights and freedom of religion as people to be protected and people who are particularly affected by racism, but instead are explicitly cast in the role of a potential threat that must be contained with the help of discriminatory, repressive measures, including some that fall under security policy. The government intends to apply the Islam Law of 2015 and further security policy measures in order to achieve this aim. 

Farid Hafez
© Qantara.de 2017
Farid Hafez is a political scientist, senior research fellow at the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University and publisher of the "European Islamophobia Report".