It hasn't taken Austria's government long to show its anti-Muslim colors.
This spring, a few months after the Christian-democratic conservative Austrian People's Party formed a coalition government with the populist far right Freedom Party , one of the first bills targeting Muslims was announced – a proposal banning Muslim elementary schoolers from wearing the hijab.
The proposal is cloaked in indirect language that bans religious "full head coverings" while permitting "partial head coverings" - a means of exempting the Jewish kippa from the constraints of the bill and has meanwhile been pushed through.
The coalition’s efforts to target Muslims while exempting Jews reflects both far-right Austria’s hierarchy of otherized minority groups, and a clear attempt to divide minority groups from creating a unified bloc in solidarity against discriminatory legislation, and an appeal to the Jewish community to join a "Judeo-Christian" front against the Muslim "other", playing on fears about Muslim anti-Semitism.
It should also serve as a warning to Jews that, bearing in mind anti-Semitism on the right in Austria is hardly extinct, that getting an exemption to this law is no protection for the future – in fact, it may well set a precedent.
It should be noted that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is explicitly wooing Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - inviting him to a conference on anti-Semitism in Vienna and funding a Holocaust memorial – motivated at least in part by its desire to persuade Israel to drop its boycott of the Freedom Party, that is strongly endorsed by Austria's Jewish community itself.
The anti-hijab policy proposal reflects the politics of both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party. The Freedom Party is infamous for its ties to ex-Nazis and to racist strategies. The People’s Party, meanwhile, has started co-opting the Freedom Party’s Islamophobic agenda - in a subtler form with a liberal facade, but nevertheless with fierce dedication.
The anti-Muslim sentiment is clearly voiced by Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party, who called for the hijab ban. Kurz has also said Austria does not need Muslim pre-schools and called to close them, even while kindergartens of other religious groups are co-financed by the state.
The hijab ban fits the ruling coalition’s pattern of using symbolic identity politics and scapegoating Muslims as the cause of social ills in order to distract the electorate from socially and economic unjust measures.
While the original proposal was to ban religious garments for kindergarteners, the government realized this would be a difficult move, especially in the face of criticism by the Jewish Community. Soon, the Austrian government backtracked: A government with a right-wing party could not commit a strategic blunder and harm A community whose members were murdered in their millions on the same soil 80 years ago. While the original plan had been to implement a law by July 2018, the government realized things would be more complicated.
Instead, the government chose a different way to implement the proposal. Rather than passing a law, the government chose to draft a contract between the federal government and the nine states, calling for a ban on full hair coverings, while allowing partial hair covering.
This formulation ensured that Jewish skullcaps were permitted, while filling the proposal’s actual purpose of targeting the Muslim hijab. The proposal explicitly states that "wearing of the hijab by kids in elementary educational institutions can lead to an early sexual segregation, which is not compatible with basic Austrian values and social norms. Orienting oneself according to religious values shall not to be in contradiction with civic education, which has to secure the equality of men and women."
This statement by Austria's lawmakers reveals not only typical stereotypes towards Islam and its social practice. It also breaks with the secular nature of Austrian politics.
According to the Austrian constitution, neither the state nor a legally recognized church or religious community may interfere with one another. This also means that the state cannot define religion or acceptable religious practice. In 1992, an official education ministry document explicitly states that wearing the hijab was a religious duty for Muslim women and is protected by the Austrian constitution, which secures freedom of religion.
The lawmakers’ explanation also reflects a strategy of victim-reversal. While reports show Muslim children are the group most affected by racism in Austria’s educational institutions, the explanation blames the hijab as a marker for sexual segregation, portraying the marginalized Muslim pupil as the perpetrator of segregation. The government, rather than empowering marginalized young Muslim pupils who are confronted with racism, portrays them as the powerful actors, who define the rules in the school yard.
During the negotiations over the proposal, the federal government declared that Austria’s nine states would receive federal education funds only if they agree to implement the ban. Since this regulation needs to pass a vote in national parliament as well as the nine regional parliaments, it may be that one of the three states where the opposition Social Democrats hold power will vote against this contract.
But even in this scenario, the anti-Muslim camp will chalk up a victory.
If the opposition votes the proposal down, the right-wing government could position itself as the champion of the struggle against political Islam and paint itself as the victim, while blaming the agents of multiculturalism and anti-discrimination, namely Austria’s left-leaning political parties. Thus the governing right-wing parties could rally further public support for equating social democratic multiculturalism with alleged Islamization.
The federal government has made its goal very clear: The conservative education minister stated that "every single hijab is one hijab too many."
In the end, all nine states, even the social democratic ones, may pass the bill, partly because they feel they burnt their fingers at the polls by opposing past anti-Muslim measures.
Those campaigns by the Freedom Party allowed the far right to frame themselves as the liberators of women, and the Social Democrats as the party who wanted to make the hijab mandatory. The PR strategists for the Social Democrats fear losing parts of their electorate amid similar government strategies, even if the ban is just the first legal step to a further extension of prohibitions in other fields - which is the explicit aim of the Freedom Party's leader.
What about Austria's Muslim community itself?
Legally recognized religious communities and churches will play a major role in this battle. Since it is an explicit attack on the freedom of religion, the Islamic Religious Community, an official representative body, has a say and also voted against this law, since it is one of 16 legally recognized churches and religious communities.
But voting against the bill would be an important measure for other religious communities and churches too, especially those representing minorities such as the Jewish community. While the Catholic Church did issue a relatively critical response, other minority religions have been largely quiet. But there are many reasons for them to break that silence.
The first is solidarity. The second is fear that they could be targeted next. If the state can interfere so drastically in the affairs of a religious community, this precedent will not be easily reversed. This should particularly concern Jews given that anti-Semitism is everything but gone in Austria, especially within the current government, no matter what their public statements might suggest.
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
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now