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Austrian youth flocking to ISIL

European nation hit by a wave of Islamophobia as many young fighters join ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

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Carla Baghajati from Muslim Community in Austria says anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise [IGGiO]

By

Simona Foltyn

Vienna, Austria - Five street signs surrounding a Vienna mosque were plastered with inflammatory labels such as "Shariastreet" and "IS Recruitment" last week - one among a rising number of anti-Muslim incursions recently.

The Muslim community is sounding the alarm over a new wave of Islamophobia in the wake of a polarising public discourse over the growing number of young Austrians who have joined the ranks of the group calling itself Islamic State, also known as ISIL.  

Over the past weeks, several women wearing headscarves have been victims of physical attacks. In August, swastikas were painted on the walls of a mosque in Tirol. On September 14, a right-wing group dressed up as ISIL fighters staged a fake decapitation in front of Vienna's St Stephan's Cathedral to "protest against the threat of mass immigration and Islamisation" of Austrian society.

"People always compare what is going on now with the post 9/11 era - but they say it is much worse," says Carla Amina Baghajati, spokeswoman of the Muslim Community in Austria (IGGiÖ), an organisation that represents more than 200 of the country's mosques.

Austria witnessed the biggest percentage increase in anti-Muslim sentiment among EU member states between 1999 and 2008, according to a comprehensive, cross-country study conducted by academics. 

There was a 49 percent increase in Austria's Muslim population between 2001 and 2009 [AP]

As part of the survey, 31 percent of Austrians indicated they did not want Muslims as neighbours. This development coincided with a 49 percent increase in Austria's Muslim population between 2001 and 2009, who now comprise six percent. 

Though the recent, perceived rise of Islamophobia has yet to be quantified, organisations that monitor media and the internet have already voiced concerns.

"We have observed a notable rise of right-wing, Islamophobic rhetoric throughout the online community," says Dina Malandi from ZARA, an NGO that documents acts of discrimination and offers counselling to victims.

Fears fuelled by media

More than 140 young Austrians are thought to have gone to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL, according to the Ministry of Interior, a number expected to rise as long as the conflict there continues. While this presents a small share of the 12,000 foreign fighters estimated to have been recruited by ISIL so far, Austria with its population of only 8.4 million tops European countries on a per-capita basis, including France and Germany with 700 and 500 fighters, respectively.

This high proportion of Austrian ISIL recruits, many of whom are minors including girls, has given rise to concerns about the extent to which radicalisation has infiltrated the country's Muslim youth. This fear has been further compounded by media coverage, which many Muslims have criticised for feeding into the propaganda of groups such as ISIL.

Those who have gone to Syria and Iraq didn't attend religious classes or prayers. They are easily manipulated because they have no idea what Islam really is.

- Mamdouh El Attar, imam 

Mainstream Austrian media have been filled with screen shots of Facebook profiles and posts of Austrians who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. One newspaper even published a Facebook interview with one of Austria's foreign fighters.

Faced with a delicate balancing act of condemning both extremism and Islamophobia, the Muslim community now must play a bigger role in preventing radicalisation. But many of Vienna's imams say much of what happens is not in their sphere of influence.

"Those who have gone to Syria and Iraq didn't attend religious classes or prayers. They are easily manipulated because they have no idea what Islam really is," says Mamdouh El Attar, an imam and religious teacher in Vienna who recently dissuaded a newly converted teenager from joining ISIL.  

The avenues for recruitment are complex. Analysts say radicalisation through social media has become an important recruitment channel. "Often even the parents are not aware. In addition, Western lifestyle sometimes erodes their authority to intervene," says Rolf Tophoven, director of the Institute for Crisis Prevention and a terrorism researcher.

But the Ministry of Interior says mosques may also be playing a role. "Recruitment happens where communication happens, so while the imam may not be immediately involved, the fact that a mosque is a place for gatherings makes it a target for recruitment," Karl-Heinz Grundbock, a spokesman for the ministry, told Al Jazeera.

Social exclusion the root cause?

Though the profiles of recruits vary greatly, government officials, analysts, and the Muslim community agree that social marginalisation, particularly among youth with migrant backgrounds, plays a major role in preparing a fertile ground for extremist ideology to take hold.

"We observe a certain set of social preconditions, a feeling of discrimination and marginalisation," Grundbock says.

One does not need to look far to find examples of discrimination, even among those who strictly reject radical Islam, or have recently fled a violent conflict themselves.

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One of those is an Iraqi who gave his name only as Yasser because he doesn't want reprisals for speaking out. His family arrived from Iraq two years ago and he doesn't yet speak the German language fluently. When addressing a government employee at the public employment service in English to inquire about job options, he was turned away. "The employee got angry and threw me out, saying that in Austria we speak only German," he recounts.

Even when migrants master the language and excell in their professional lives, many say they never quite feel part of Austrian society. Kamal is a recent migrant who does not want his real name published fearing implications at his workplace. "I recently won a national competition in my field, my boss didn't even congratulate me. And my colleagues asked why I don't go work at a supermarket instead."

There is no simple solution. The state will need to intervene to guarantee the immediate safety of its citizens, but intelligence and police interventions alone won't be enough.

- Rolf Tophoven, Institute for Crisis Prevention in Germany

'Us versus them'

Baghajati, who plans to work with students to single out those at risk of radicalisation, says a psychological as opposed to theological approach is often more effective in fighting extremism.

"One person told me, 'finally somebody [ISIL] has put their foot down'. Comments like this make me realise how deeply rooted the picture of 'us versus them' is in their head," Baghajati says.

Polarisation of Austrian society has been partly nurtured by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the right-wing Freedom Party, which won 20.5 percent in last year's parliamentary election.

The party's election campaigns have featured slogans such as "Daham statt Islam" (Home instead of Islam), "Heimatliebe statt Marokkanerdiebe" (Love for the homeland instead of Moroccan thieves), and "Liebe den nächsten, für mich sind das die Österreicher" (Love thy neighbour, which for me are the Austrians").  

Some observers say such rhetoric has contributed to a cycle of discrimination, social exclusion and radicalisation. It has also made verbal attacks against Muslims and foreigners more acceptable, further fuelled by the absence of effective legal mechanisms to address hate speech.

"We only see the tip of the iceberg. Most people do not report hate speech because they believe nothing will be done," says Malandi from the anti-racism organisation ZARA.

The government is now considering a set of measures to counter radicalisation, including increased border controls for minors, laws forbidding the use of symbols associated with ISIL, as well as the withdrawal of Austrian citizenship for dual nationals.

But analysts warn short-term interventions focused only on security, while needed, are not enough to solve a complex social problem built up over years.

"There is no simple solution. The state will need to intervene to guarantee the immediate safety of its citizens, but intelligence and police interventions alone won't be enough," says Tophoven.

Source: Al Jazeera

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