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Why Austrian monarchs would turn in their graves today

  • Emran Feroz
  • 2 Jul 2019

Despite the demise of the far-right’s role in government, cases of Islamaphobia continue across the country although an open society enshrined in law by the late King Franz Josef I as far back as 1912.

Protesters carry posters reading "Nazis get out of the Parliament" during a demonstration in Vienna, Austria, October 13, 2017. ( Reuters )

A few weeks ago, Austria's far-right Freedom Party lost its power. After several media outlets revealed a huge corruption scandal, the coalition between the right-wing extremists and the country's conservatives fell apart. Several xenophobic and specifically anti-Muslim policies dominated the coalition's term in office while racist rhetoric and constant dehumanisation of ‘the other’, or as it is known in German ‘salonfaehig’, became more and more socially acceptable.

However, the temporary fall of Austria's far-right – there is still a possibility that they may return after new elections take place in September – does not mean that racism and xenophobia just vanished. Both, including Islamophobia, are rooted, not only in the country's political sphere but also in large parts of Austrian society.

The most recent and shocking example of this ongoing reality could be the case of the Abu El Hosna family. Reportedly, the Palestinian family wanted to buy a house in Weikendorf, a small community in the state of Lower Austria. Since the Abu El Hosnas are not Austrian citizens, the community has to approve the purchase.

But they declined.

According to Johann Zimmermann, Weikendorf's mayor, the moving in of the Palestinian family is not desired because "the different cultural spheres of the Islamic and the Western world share very different values, customs and practices." 

Several people, including the potential neighbours of the Palestinian family, agree with the mayor's views. It appears that the 2,000-inhabitant community might become the court for a new clash of cultures.

Many, including some Austrians who have lived for decades in Weikendorf, are shocked about current events. The community is near Vienna, Austria's capital and leading metropolis, and also next to the Slovakian border. 

However, some locals also claim that racism or Islamophobia is not the "real problem." For example, the Austrian daily Der Standard is quoting a local man who asked why nobody, including the community's mayor, had a problem with the Turkish families who moved in several years ago. The proportion of foreigners in Weikendorf is about ten percent, which is the state average.

It is obvious that not all people who live in Weikendorf are racists, and it might even be true that the local mayor from the Conservative Party did not mean what he said, even if this is hard to believe because his phrases could have been taken straight out of any far-right playbook.

But what is much more shocking and concerning is the fact that these recent developments are just the tip of the iceberg. 

In today's Austria, racism and Islamophobia have become much more socially acceptable, even among people who do not vote for the far-right or those who consider themselves as leftists or liberals.

In terms of the Abu El Hosna family, several enemy images are combined. The family is Muslim and Arab. Additionally, they are refugees without an Austrian (or any other European) citizenship, a situation obviously linked to the family's Palestinian background. The family was attacked particularly heavily on social media. Many people supported "Weikendorf's right decision" or believed that the family "looks suspect."

The hostility towards the ‘Muslim enemy’ also appears in many other places in Austria. A recent study by the Initiative of Anti-Discriminatory Education revealed, Islamophobia seems to be the most common driver behind discrimination in Austrian schools and universities. Among the 260 examined cases, 122 had an Islamophobic background. Often, Muslim girls and women who wear a headscarf are the targets.

All these developments are deeply tied to the country's recent right-wing politicisation. Nevertheless, it should also be pointed out that Austrian history and politics has many facets, and that some of them include a very optimistic and positive in the past, especially towards the role of Muslims in society.

Austria has a long history with Islam. In fact, it is unique in all of Western Europe in recognising the religion as part of the country's public law and officially accepting it in 1912. Back then, King Franz Josef I passed the so-called ‘Islam La’ that ensured the Muslim population within its Austrian-Hungarian empire a modicum of self-determination.

Since many Bosnian Muslims lived inside the kingdom during that time and also fought for it, the king's policy was not just humane, but also practical and open-minded, especially if we consider how Austrian politicians behave towards Muslims nowadays.

If Franz Josef I saw what was happening in the remnants of his kingdom these days, he would probably turn in his grave.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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