Opinion |

When the Fear of Muslims Leads Jews to Whitewash the Far Right

The same vitriolic language pre-war anti-Semites used about Jews is now being used against Muslims in today's Austria. Both the far right and centrist parties want Jews to join an 'enlightened' Judeo-Christian front against the Muslim 'other'

Farid Hafez
Farid Hafez
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Anti-Muslim protestors hold up a sign depicting 'Islam: The suicide of Europe' during a demonstration of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) in Dresden, eastern Germany. Oct. 5, 2015
Anti-Muslim protestors hold up a sign depicting 'Islam: The suicide of Europe' during a PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden, eastern Germany. Oct. 5, 2015Credit: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
Farid Hafez
Farid Hafez

"In Austria today, the real anti-Semitic threat is from Muslims, not Nazis," argues Martin Engelberg, one of Austria’s first Jewish post-war members of parliament, who ran for the Liste Sebastian Kurz, the new name for the former Christian Democratic Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). In reply, Benjamin Guttmann, from the Austrian Union of Jewish Students argued, why the FPÖ is still anti-Semitic to its core.

Let me go a step further and discuss the structural problem of racism we currently have to face in Austria.

The world knows that it took Austria an especially long time to acknowledge its crimes during World War II and to relinquish its self-declared status as Hitler's 'first victim'.

A supporter of the far right Freedom Party waits for party leader Hans-Christian Strache to appear at the election party in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017Credit: AP Photo/Ronald Zak

But the structural challenge of racism even goes beyond the Nazi regime. And it is far from confined to the right-wing political camp or, in other words today's far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), as Austrians would like to believe.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are both part and parcel of Austria’s long history of nationalism and racism. When, in 2005, the Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ declared during a blatantly anti-Muslim election campaign, that "Vienna shall not become Istanbul", many commentators caught a reference to a similar slogan from the 1990s.

Then, the same FPÖ – then under the leadership of Jörg Haider – campaigned under the slogan, "Vienna shall not become Chicago", a snide reference to the assumed image of a multicultural American metropolis characterized by drug-dealing African-Americans.

But going back further in history offers another highly relevant reference. The most (in)famous fin-de-siecle mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, declared that "Vienna shall not become Jerusalem". Lueger, an inspiration to Adolf Hitler, was one of the most populist anti-Semites. Neither was he a Völkisch nationalist, nor a Nazi, but a representative of the Christian Social Party, which is in ideological terms the forerunner of today’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

Anti-Semites warned of the Jews forming a "state within a state", warned of the dangers of kosher food, and argued that Jews should speak German in their sermons, since they were suspicious about what they were speaking about "amongst themselves".

Anti-Nazi protesters outside the house where Adolf Hitler was born. Authorities ordered its demolition in 2016 so it wouldn't become a neo-Nazi shrine. Braunau Am Inn, Austria. April 2015Credit: AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR

Similarly today, the FPÖ and the ÖVP coalition government's program argues that they will launch a surveillance campaign over the "parallel society" of Muslims. Islamophobic populism against halal food and to force German-language sermons in mosques is commonplace in Austria’s political discourse today.

Today, more than ever, Austrian Jews should see the danger of this reincarnated racist discourse that construes national identity no more along the lines of racial identity, but along an 'enlightened' Judeo-Christian identity vs. the religious Muslim 'other'. While this essentially racist discourse has been located on the far right for quite some time, today it has become mainstream to such an extent that even nominally centrist political parties are using it against the invented Muslim scapegoat.

Engelberg is right in one aspect. We should not fixate on the Holocaust period alone. Yes, we should even go beyond the Holocaust and see what enabled the Holocaust. We should identify the structural dimension of racism and its reoccurrence in our days with a different language, but similar structures. Perhaps the FPÖ is currently not openly endorsing anti-Semitism, but it's never going to be far from its strategic aims.

Anti-Muslim campaign posters of the far-right Swiss People's Party:'Stop - Yes to the ban on minarets'. November 23, 2009Credit: AFP

Indeed, one strategy it's used is to try and co-opt part of the Jewish community to lobby other Jews. During a visit to Israel by Strache and numerous other right-wing parties, Kent Ekeroth, from the right-wing Sweden Democrats, openly said to his Israeli far right peers: "We have a problem with Jewish organizations in Europe. Pressure from Israel can help us, in the long-term, legitimize our parties in Europe."

The inclusion of Jews and Israel can only happens with the backdrop of the imagined Muslims as the enemy, not to save a single national identity, but for the sake of a supranational European nationalist identity for which it is opportune to include Jews for the time being. But the ar right's deeply racist ideology still sees the Jew through stereotypical prejudice, as even this statement by Ekeroth reveals in his reference to the idea of a ‘powerful Jewish state of Israel’ which pulls the strings elsewhere.

There is surely anti-Semitism as much as other forms of exclusion within Austria's Muslim community. But to fear the anti-Semitism of this marginalized and often discriminated-against comunity, while whitewashing the racist far-right, is not only dangerous; it is a license to further exploit Islamophobia by both ruling parties, the Freedom Party as well as Sebastian Kurz's ÖVP.

Farid Hafez is a Senior Research Scholar at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative and Senior Scholar at Salzburg University in the Department of Political Science and Sociology. He is the editor of the Islamophobia Studies Yearbook and co-editor of the European Islamophobia Report. Twitter: @ferithafez

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