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Are France and Austria Fighting a War on 'Political Islam' – or a War on Muslims?

'Terrorists' and 'separatists': What two European states' legislative campaigns against a 'political Islam' they never properly define really mean for their Muslim citizens

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French President Emmanuel Macron and Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz
French President Emmanuel Macron and Austria's Chancellor Sebastian KurzCredit: Benoit Tessier, Leonhard Foeger, Reuters

There is a noisy controversy over a law drafted by France’s government, and currently being debated in the country’s Senate, which purportedly aims to confront Islamic "separatism" and violent radicalism, but which critics charge is a clear example of the assumption of collective guilt of all French Muslims for acts of murder, of the denial of individual rights and of state-backed Islamophobia. 

But at least there is an energetic national debate in France and beyond about the framing of Europe’s largest Muslim community. A similar campaign is being waged against the Muslim community of Austria, but with far less media amplification or public solidarity.

In fact, both Austria and France are paving the way to restricting the lives of their Muslim citizens. They justify their actions in the name of fighting a nebulous "political Islam" and "Islamic separatism." But what they’re really attacking is the long-held principle of the fundamental equality of all their citizens.

At the Elysee Palace in Paris, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith signs the "Charter of principles" requested by French President Macron as part of an anti-extremism drive earlier thisCredit: POOL/ REUTERS

For decades, Austria has largely been imagined as an island of serenity, devoid of political violence. After 9/11, Austria's political elite used their Muslim population as an example to the world of the "good domesticated Muslims." No clash of civilizations there. 

But this apparently harmonious climate changed over time, especially with the rise of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, or FPÖ, whose characterization of Islam as a menace to Austrian society has slowly but surely won dominance in the national discourse, way beyond the far-right fringe from which it emerged.

When on 2 November 2020, a former ISIS sympathizer killed four people in the heart of Vienna, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s immediate reaction was to calm the situation. But within less than 24 hours, he changed course. 

It was the government that should have come under fire when it became obvious that the perpetrator of the shootings had been under observation by the domestic secret service. But Kurz’s conservative Austrian People's Party (or ÖVP) took the bull by the horns: In less than 24 hours, the ÖVP-led government diverted blame by fueling a debate about the alleged menace of "political Islam."

This was part of a longer-term ÖVP strategy of compounding suspicions about what it called "political Islam," but seemed more like plain "Islam."

Under the pretext of combatting "political Islam," the ÖVP and its coalition ally from 2017-2019, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, or FPÖ, had already closed mosques and banned the hijab in state elementary schools. 

Then-leader of the far right Austrian Freedom party, Heinz-Christian Strache, delivers a speech during a 2009 protest against a mosque in ViennaCredit: REUTERS

Following the November shooting, the current ÖVP-Green-coalition government immediately closed a mosque, while openly accepting that there were no legal or crime prevention reasons to do so. 

As a consequence, a number of these initiatives failed in court. The hijab ban was repealed by the Constitutional Court. The mosques were reopened again by the Viennese Administrative Court. Even the closing of the mosque following the shooting in November was suspended.

But for Kurz’s ÖVP, the fight against "political Islam" seems to have become a core ideological pillar of the party. Even amid the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the ÖVP opened what it called a "European lighthouse project," the Documentation Center of Political Islam, a monitoring center that maps and surveils Muslim NGOs. 

Following the shooting, Chancellor Kurz proclaimed that Austria and Europe were "fighting two challenges," mentioning the threat of the coronavirus and the threat of (Islamist) terrorism and radicalization as equals. For Kurz, political Islam (always undefined) is the breeding ground for terrorism, the extremist ideology that paves the way for violent acts.

In its undifferentiated, punitive assault on its Muslim community, Austria is in ‘good’ company. France, too, has proclaimed its dedication to fighting "Islamist separatism," which equates to what Austria's political leadership called "political Islam." And similarly, Macron’s government has failed to define its enemy, with senior government ministers launching aggressive, all-encompassing campaigns against the "Islamo-leftist threat."

In the wake of the shooting both France and Austria wanted to demonstrate a strong hand against violence. But rather than pinpoint violent Muslim individuals and groups, they cracked down on Muslim civil society figures and anti-racism campaigners. It seems obvious that these initiatives did not hurt violent Muslim individuals at all, but were aimed at maiming civil society and anti-racist voices that stood up against a creeping, repressive politics. 

Austrian forensic police at work in the area of the multiple shootings shooting that occurred the previous night in the center of Vienna, Austria, November 3, 2020.Credit: HERBERT PFARRHOFER - AFP

France’s Macron closed 50 institutions. Amongst them was the largest NGO that monitors anti-Muslim hate crime, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, which moved to Belgium in order to avoid dissolution by the French state. 

In Austria, the homes of 30 people unrelated in any way to the ISIS sympathizer were raided in early November, some of them long-time leaders of the Muslim community. Perhaps because of my position as one of the harshest critics of Austria’s policies towards Islam and Muslims, I was amongst them.

At least Austria and France are still outliers in the European Union. Both countries presented a draft paper on terrorism following the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty and the Vienna attack, mentioning Islam more than once in relation to extremism and violence, but the rest of the EU member states ratcheted down the paper’s tone. 

EU justice and home affairs ministers finally adopted an anti-terrorism declaration without mentioning Islam, and stepped aside from the clash of civilizations rhetoric. Most governments refused to link their counter-terrorism efforts with their migration policy and refused to equate Islam in general with terrorism.

Protesters hold a banner during a demonstration against a French 'anti-separatism' legislative bill dubbed as Islamophobic in Paris this monthCredit: ALAIN JOCARD - AFP

Still, Austria is planning to make "political Islam" a criminal offense without offering any legal definition of the term; it also intends to introduce an anti-terror law, amend the citizenship law, the law of national symbols, and the Islam law, which regulates the Austria’s Muslim community.

Amnesty International Austria has called these "quick shot" laws highly problematic from a human rights perspective, due to their vague formulation and openness to abuse, their targeting of "lawful activities and affiliations of Muslims" that could be used to "justify surveillance, arrest, expulsion, nationality-stripping" and other penalties, and the risk they present to freedom of speech and civil rights. 

The Kurz government seems to have found a way to exploit the November 2020 attack to expand the power of state authorities, and to specifically target Muslims, despite a parliamentary commission explicitly stating that the attack could have been prevented based on existing laws.

Just as with France, Austria’s new legislation, now being debated in parliament, will serve neither to bolster national security nor help foster a democratic society of equal citizens: It will achieve just the opposite. The main ‘accomplishment’ of these laws will be far more frustration for Muslims and, sadly, their further estrangement as citizens from a state which seems committed to constricting and excluding them.

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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