The Austrian government has announced that it will seek to ban the hijab for girls in kindergarten and primary school in the latest measure targeting Muslims in the country.
Education Minister Heinz Fassmann said on Wednesday that the draft law on the hijab – a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion – would be ready by summer, describing the measure as “symbolic”.
The announcement came just days after Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, a member of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), proposed such a ban to “protect” girls under the age of 10 and allow them to “integrate” into Austrian society.
The announcement is one in a string of moves critics say single out and target Muslims, including refugees and migrants, in Austria.
In December 2017, the FPO and the right-wing Austrian People’s Party (OVP) reached an agreement to form a coalition. It marked the second time since 2000 that the FPO became a junior partner in a governing coalition.
In January, the OVP-FPO coalition introduced a political programme that mentioned Islam some 21 times, prompting criticism of an undue focus on the comparably low number of Muslims living in the country.
That same month, Austria’s interior minister, Herbert Kickl of the FPO, said the government should “concentrate” refugees and migrants in one place, sparking widespread criticism in a country where a concentration camp was hosted during the Second World War.
Of the country’s 8.75 million people, an estimated 700,000 people identify as Muslims.
In October 2017, just weeks before Austrians voted in national elections, the government introduced a ban on the face veil. The law allows authorities to fine violators up to $180.
Both the FPO and the OVP have a lengthy history of pushing anti-Muslim measures.
A recent report – The European Islamophobia Report 2017 (PDF) – noted 256 Islamophobic incidents a cross the country last year. The report concluded that Muslims in Austria can “envisage an increasingly authoritarian form of political behaviour” under the OVP-FPO coalition.
The FPO was founded by former Nazis in 1956. Although it claims to have abandoned its Nazi roots, the FPO has been widely accused of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism.
While acting as an opposition party up until entering the government in December, the FPO drummed up populist support by focusing much of its ire on refugees, migrants and Muslims at large, said Sabine Schatz, a spokesperson for the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO).
“In opposition, the FPO combined social issues with racism, especially anti-Muslim racism,” she told Al Jazeera. “This made the party successful.”
Farid Hafez, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, explained that the FPO has attempted to distance itself from anti-Semitism in order “to legitimise its anti-Muslim racism”.
Describing the tactic as a “strategic move”, Hafez told Al Jazeera: “With Islamophobia being much more en vogue, the FPO concentrates on this form of racism, which is openly [employed].”
Despite these efforts, the FPO has found itself embroiled in a spate of controversies tied to anti-Semitism.
In one of those incidents, an attache in Israel was recalled to Austria last month after posting on Facebook a photo of himself wearing a pro-Nazi shirt.
In Suben, an area of northwestern Austria, two local FPO councillors were expelled from the party after they were arrested last month over charges that they had shared Hitler photos and slogans via the WhatsApp messaging app.
The SPO’s Schatz said there have been at least 22 similar scandals surrounding the FPO since it joined the government.
“Anti-Semitism and racism are deeply connected with the Freedom Party, its structure and history,” she said.
Austria Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the OVP has declared his support for the plan to bar pupils from wearing headscarves in primary schools and kindergartens.
“We want all girls in Austria to have the same opportunities,” he told the Oe1 radio station before the announcement.