The fall of the far-right Austrian government is not just about political parties, it is deeply embedded in society.
For the moment, the government of Sebastian Kurz is history. After a huge corruption scandal, the now-former chancellor – one of the world's youngest political leaders – was forced to end the coalition between his conservative People's Party and the far-right Freedom Party.
After the Freedom Party left the coalition it supported a no-confidence vote initiated by the Social Democrats. As a result of all of this, a new government, led by the country's first female chancellor, was sworn in this week by Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.
Kurz's government, which lasted one and a half years, was dominated by myriad xenophobic and anti-Muslim policies. Many of them were initiated by the Freedom Party, which took over key ministries like the Interior and Defense Department, and supported by their conservative colleagues, including the former chancellor himself.
Shortly before the revelation of the so-called 'Ibiza gate', the Austrian parliament approved a headscarf ban in primary schools. The legal text refers to any "ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head."
However, Kurz's government repeatedly made it clear that the law primarily targets the Islamic headscarf.
It also stated that other headwear such as the Jewish kippah or the Sikhs' patka would not be affected by the law. "The law is a signal against political Islam," said Wendelin Molzer, the Freedom Party's former education spokesman. According to Conservative MP Rudolf Taschner, the measure was necessary "to free girls from subjugation."
To satisfy his electorate, Sebastian Kurz initiated anti-Muslim policies well before his chancellorship. In 2016 and 2017, the issue of Islamic preschools in Vienna was omnipresent in Austria's media and political landscape.
Kurz, then foreign secretary and integration minister, claimed that solely Muslim preschools fuel "integration problems" and demanded to abolish them.
A "study" that supported Kurz' allegations turned out to be extremely flawed. However, few places were shut down or were subject to intense surveillance while a pseudo-debate was sparked. During that time, it was not just Kurz or his right-wing extremist Freedom Party that fuelled prejudices against Austrian Muslims but also many politicians and journalists who consider themselves left-wing or liberal.
How Islamophobia became mainstream
Before the Kurz government came to power, Islamophobia had already become mainstream.
In 2017, the conservative and social democratic coalition united behind a new "integration law," which included a so-called "burqa ban" forbidding Muslim women from covering their faces in public spaces. The law also bans women working in public services from wearing the Islamic headscarf, including female police, lawyers and judges.
Contrary to the harsh rhetoric of the government and his far-right ministers, the law does not mention the word "scarf" or explicitly call for its banning. It referred instead, at least in legal terms, to the supposed neutrality of the state on religious matters. But it was abundantly clear to everyone from the proposal's authors that Muslims were their intended target.
And we must not forget that this law was not signed off by far-right, Islamophobic fanatics but by the conservatives and, far worse, the Social Democrats. Both parties are considered to be the political mainstream in Austria.
When the so-called integration law passed, Kurz said that Christian symbols like the crucifix would still be allowed in the public square. "That's a good thing," he insisted.
This was nothing new to me. Back when I was in grade school – in the middle of a city, not in some ultra-conservative rural area – we had a crucifix in every classroom. Some of our teachers preferred to start the first hour of the day with a prayer.
“You, why are you not praying? Aren’t you Christian?” I was often asked.
At the very same time, I noticed many scarf-wearing Muslim women at my school. They were cleaners – Turkish immigrants brought over to carry out menial jobs with little expectation that they would demand citizenship rights or a basic level of recognition in Austrian society. I noticed how my teachers spoke to these otherwise adept and extremely competent workers with arrogance and a put-on broken German as they told them what to clean.
Austrian-Muslim progress infuriates racists
None of the locals had a problem with these cleaners. They did a job most Austrians would never want to do. Today, these same Turkish women still do the same job, though they are now supplemented by a crew of women from other developing countries.
The children of the cleaners I knew as a schoolboy define themselves as Austrians and also as Muslims. Many of them are well-educated, studying law, medicine or on their way to good positions in the field of education. Their advancement in Austrian society is what infuriates so many ‘native’ citizens who feel they have been left behind, and it’s what far-right Islamophobic politicians seek to exploit - and this will continue to happen. Just because the Freedom Party lost its government – for now – it does not mean that they are gone or can no longer be successful.
In fact, the recent European Parliament elections proved the opposite. Despite the Freedom Party's involvement in the Ibiza corruption affair, it gained more than 17 percent of the votes.
Voters even elected former chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache himself, the main responsible person for the whole scandal, and boosted him into the European Parliament. It is still not clear if Strache will take the seat after he resigned from all other political positions.
However, this is just another clue that many voters do not care about corruption, neo-Nazism and right-wing extremism as long as their preferred parties and politicians incite enough hatred, racism and particularly Islamophobia.
Unfortunately, the result of all this is not resistance against such views but the very adoption of them by other political factions, and Austria is the finest example for that.
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