Opinion |

Hijab Ban: As the Far Right Targets Muslims, Austria's Response Is an Ugly, Complicit Silence

Few Muslim girls will be affected by the government's proposed hijab ban on under-10s. Its real message is that Muslim citizens' bodies, symbols and communities are now a threat, to be policed by the state

Farid Hafez
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Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and far-right Freedom Party head Heinz-Christian Strache aafter their first round of coalition talks in Vienna, Austria. October 25, 2017.
Farid Hafez

The new Austrian government is today one of several coalition governments in Europe with a far right populist party in a position of power. At the beginning of 2018 it seemed that the coalition was potentially fragile: it was constantly queried and challenged by civil society groups and parliamentary figures after a series of incidents which appear to confirm the clear and present danger of inviting a party with neo-Nazi roots into government.

The far-right Freedom Party, that vowed to "protect" Jews against the alleged new anti-Semitism stemming from Muslims, has confronted with anti-Semitic statements from their rank and file functionaries on a weekly basis. 

A dubious raid on the security services investigating far-right groups, orchestrated by the Freedom Party interior minister will now be investigated by a parliamentary committee, after the outrage reached the level of the president himself. 

Activists march to demand the resignation of Austria's Interior Minister Herbert Kickl from the far-right Freedom party. Vienna, Austria. April 19, 2018.

Criticism has also come from inside the Freedom Party's own house, but not on the subject of bigotry. The new government plans to severely cut social services in the health sector, a move that will primarily affect the working poor.

Such a move would antagonize large parts of the Freedom Party's electorate, which moved over from the Social Democratic Party to vote for the far right precisely because they believed they would be looked after. 

Amidst these numerous and legitimate attacks, and a neo-liberal economic program that is particularly problematic for the far-right's base, it was time for a diversionary maneuver.

The Freedom Party is indeed the master of pushing an imagined scapegoat to shift the public's focus from territory in which its own competence and its obedience to political norms has been shown to be deeply broken. It's used this tactic for three decades and now it seems the governing People’s Party under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is going to co-opt that approach.

Back in the 1990s, the populist right's most popular designated scapegoats were Turks, Eastern Europeans and blacks, but for several years now it is first and foremost Muslims. And now there is a further "refinement" of the target: Muslim children and young girls.

Read more: Rise of a New Far-right: The European 'Philosemites' Using Jews to Battle Muslims | Analysis | The Freedom Party's neo-Nazis Can't Camouflage Their Hatred of Jews by Visits to Israel | Opinion | Why Jews Must Defend Muslim Women's Right to Wear the Burqa | Opinion 

The Austrian government has proclaimed its intention to ban the wearing of the the hijab for girls in local government-run kindergartens up to the end of elementary school (age 10). Obviously, this is a non-issue, since normally Muslim girls at that age do not wear the hijab anyway. 

The ban will be introduced under the rubric of a "child protection law" to be drawn up later this year, according to the Freedom Party education minister Heinz Fassmann, and he anounced it would function as a "symbolic act" to protect Austrian culture from some Islamic influences.

Chancellor Kurz himself declared that the goal was "to confront any development of parallel societies in Austria," using a term he and the far-right Freedom Party favor to describe what they see as a threat posed by some Muslims to mainstream culture.

Activists march to demand the resignation of Austria's Interior Minister Herbert Kickl from the far-right Freedom party. Vienna, Austria. April 19, 2018.

Strangely enough, that same education minister declared unequivocally in an interview after assuming office that he would stop lobbying for a Muslim headscarf ban, as he has done in the past. Rather, he said he sought to formulate this in a “more diplomatic way”, using the argument of the need for public secularism by civil servants. 

Depressingly enough, the social democratic "opposition" criticized the move as not forceful enough; they opined that a comprehensive integration package was necessary, and some even suggested the ban include girls up to the age of 14.

It is no surprise that the education minister, and indeed, the Chancellor, both used language that appears relatively neutral. That is a ruse: to hide discriminatory legislation behind the language of "inclusion" and unity.

In response, Austria's parliamentary constitutional committee determined that such a regulation could only be constitutional and respect religious freedom, if it was imposed on all religious communities in Austria alike. Hence, it warned that also young Jewish boys who wear the kippah could be affected. 

Immediately, the government hurried to emphasize that Jews would not be affected. That fits with the Freedom Party's somewhat failing efforts to deny its anti-Semitism while moving its focus squarely on anti-Muslim prejudice.

Read more: When the Fear of Muslims Leads Jews to Whitewash the Far Right | Opinion | Why the U.K.'s neo-Nazis Are Posing With Israeli Flags | Opinion |  In Austria Today, the Real anti-Semitic Threat Is From Muslims, Not Nazis | Opinion | Far-right's Success May Lead to Escalating anti-Muslim Rhetoric | Analysis

The government is using the trick of a "Child Protection Act" to sell this regulation of the female Muslim body rather than a law regulating religious attire in general, which would have had to cover the kippah, Sikh turbans and crosses as well.

The twisted logic that the government is trying to present is that they are, in fact, liberators of Muslim women: they are the white Christian men freeing Muslim women from the hijab, which signifies the oppression of Muslim patriarchy, based on the racist assumption of a hypersexual male Muslim body.

Activists march to demand the resignation of Austria's Interior Minister Herbert Kickl from the far-right Freedom party. Vienna, Austria. April 19, 2018.

During the debate on a headscarf ban for public servants in Germany, the head of the Jewish representative council declared that a ban that singled out headscarves and not the kippah or crosses was discriminatory. When Marine Le Pen suggested Jews should "give up" wearing the kippah in order to facilitate an across-the-board ban on the hijab, there was outcry. And in Austria, the Jewish community protested strongly against any potential ban on the kippah, but have as yet to collectively protest the hijab ban.

While the Austrian Union of Jewish Students has issued a statement condemning the proposed law, the president of the Austrian Jewish Community, Oskar Deutsch diplomatically stressed the point that the people affected by the law must be involved in the decision-making, an established rule, at least up to now, in Austrian political culture. 

The Muslim community itself has sent contradictory messages, on the one hand protesting clearly against the new law, while on the other meeting the Chancellor. Muslim civil society has not yet mobilized to rally on the streets.

And while Muslim organizations clearly reject the government's initiative as a dog-whistling discrimination campaign, they are relatively isolated in their protests to find allies.

Most Austrian civil society actors sadly share the basic racist assumption of the oppressed Muslim girl on which the hijab ban has been framed: they haven't protested this discriminatory legislation. 

Activists march to demand the resignation of Austria's Interior Minister Herbert Kickl from the far-right Freedom party. Vienna, Austria. April 19, 2018.

We are watching in realtime as an Islamophobic discourse becomes hegemonic, a defining moment of "shared values," which are intended to police and exclude the scapegoated other. 

That this is the first step on a slippery slope has already been explicitly spelled out by the Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache himself, who said on national TV at the beginning of April: "I think now and have always thought that in the public school system, but also at the university and also in the civil service, a headscarf ban as in Turkey [until Erdogan’s rule] makes sense," and that this current limited ban is just a first step.

By his side, the Austrian Chancellor Kurz backed him up: “We think alike on this.”

In a report on Islamophobia in Europe that I co-wrote last year, we concluded that Muslims in Austria can "envisage an increasingly authoritarian form of political behavior" now the far-right Freedom Party was in the governing coalition.That legitimation of discriminating against the Muslim body, Muslim symbols and the community itself is now well on its way.

Farid Hafez is a Senior Research Scholar at Georgetown Universitys 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