As Austrians grow more openly hostile towards Muslims, major political parties are deliberately brandishing Islamophobia in the Catholic majority country ahead of next month’s parliamentary election.
A torch-lit procession of ultra-nationalists gathered recently on the outskirts of Vienna to listen to fiery speeches on the anniversary of a 17th-century victory over Muslim Ottomans.
“Today we have to defend our homeland again,” thundered the leader of the Identitaren movement.
While the small extremist group is on the fringes of politics, nearly a third of Austrians told a recent survey they would not like to live next to Muslims — a higher figure than in Germany, France, Switzerland and Britain.
National newspapers warn of “spiralling refugee costs”, Muslim “rapists” and impending Islamist assaults, in response to a record influx of migrants and jihadist attacks across Europe.
Despite a largely successful integration model, traditionally centrist parties are tapping into these fears to win votes in the country of 8.75 million people.
Encroaching on far-right territory, the popular new leader of the conservative People’s Party (OeVP), Sebastian Kurz, wants to slash migrant benefits and shut all Islamic kindergartens, which he says create “parallel societies”.
His party was instrumental in prohibiting foreign funding of mosques and pushing through a ban on the Muslim full face veil, due to enter into force in October.
That paid off with the OeVP stealing top spot in opinion polls for the October 15 election. The far-right Freedom (FPOe) is now battling for second place with the Social Democrats (SPOe).
Not to be outshone, SPOe Chancellor Christian Kern kickstarted his campaign with a video of him chatting to disgruntled voters in a pub.
“I’m not a racist but… it’s unacceptable that people wear burqas and I am afraid in my own country,” an agitated woman says.
Kern nods his head, replying: “Everyone has to respect our rules.”
The FPOe meanwhile claims that “Islam has no place in Austria” and has vowed to replace the integration ministry with a department for the “protection of the homeland and dominant culture”.
‘Insidious’ political Islam
“When parties address the issue of Islam, it’s always in a negative context,” said Vienna City councillor Omar al-Rawi who previously worked as integration representative for Austria’s Islamic Community, a key Muslim group.
“The populist undertone is always present. It’s a shame because Austria used to be a success model for how to deal with Muslims,” the 56-year-old from Baghdad told AFP.
Austria was the first European country to recognise Islam as an official religion in 1912 following its annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Today Islam is the fastest-growing religion, with around 700,000 Muslims in the country — twice as many as in 2001.
Turks make up almost half of them, followed by Bosnians, Chechens, Syrians and Afghans.
There are now more Muslim than Catholic children in Vienna’s state primary schools.
In some classes, less than half speak German — an issue the OeVP wants to rectify with mandatory language lessons for pre-schoolers.
Separately, radicalisation among young Muslims is also a concern, with some 300 Austrians having joined Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.
“Most Muslims here are good people but the danger of insidious political Islam is real,” said Austrian-Iraqi journalist Amer Albayati who heads the Liberal Muslims Initiative of Austria.
The terrorism expert in his mid-70s lives under police protection after receiving death threats from Islamists.
“The government is not acting on the problem,” he told AFP.
No ‘one-size’ solution
At Vienna’s Brunnenmarkt, a huge multicultural market, the rhetoric cuts no ice.
“I understand that people are more afraid of Muslims now” because of the attacks in neighbouring Germany and elsewhere, said Julian Mihailov, a Bulgarian Turk who moved to Austria in 1959.
“But normal Islam has nothing to do with extremists,” the vegetable vendor, 47, told AFP.
Although the security concerns are real, analyst Peter Filzmaier warned against a “lumping-together” of Muslims in the election.
“There are extremely big differences depending on the country of origin,” he told AFP.
First-generation Turks are more isolated than their Austrian-born children, while Somalis tend to be more hardline than Bosnians or Iranians, Filzmaier said.
“There are no one-size-fits-all solutions,” he added.
For Rawi, Austria has never faced a more uncertain election.
“I think a majority of Muslims are worried about what direction the country is moving into,” he said.
“Many are in a socially vulnerable category… and they wonder if their children will still have the same opportunities.”
© Agence France-Presse