Austria: Anti-Muslim rhetoric rises after Vienna attack

Some Muslims have experienced death threats, while children have been bullied by teachers, according to activists.

Muslims pray for victims of a gun attack during their Friday prayer at a mosque in Vienna, Austria [Leonhard Foeger/Reuters]

When Gözde Taşkaya remembers the November 2 attack in Vienna, it is the sense of panic that is so vivid.

People running to the subway station, people falling to the ground, on broken glass, the sound of gunshots.

As the attacker killed four people and injured 20 more, Taşkaya, a 32-year-old multimedia designer and her two friends hid in the basement of the coffee house they had been meeting in.

For hours, they waited and followed the developments on social media.

“We were at least 15 people in that cellar and at some point we started to encourage each other, saying things like, ‘Everything will be fine. The police are outside. We’re safe here,’.”

Gözde Taşkaya lays down a wreath together with members of the Network Muslim Civil Society [Murtaza Elham/Al Jazeera]

For Taşkaya, the night ended at three or four in the morning – the attack had started at approximately 8pm – when she finally found a driver to take her home. He did not accept any money from her.

“It was important to him to bring as many people as possible home safely in this emergency situation.”

A couple of days later, she laid a wreath together with members of the Network Muslim Civil Society, an organisation she has been involved in for years, and other representatives minority communities in Austria.

After the attack, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said: “Our enemy, Islamic extremism, which is directed against all our values and our constitution, does not only want to cause death and suffering – it also wants to divide our society, and we will not allow this to happen.”

“This statement has given hope to many people”, said Taşkaya.

But many feel Kurz’s sentiment is at risk of being lost.

On November 11, he announced Austria was banning “political Islam”.

The government agreed on a wide range of “anti-terrorism” measures, including the ability to keep individuals convicted of “terror” offences behind bars for life, electronically surveilling people convicted of “terror”-related crimes upon release, and criminalising religiously motivated and politically “extreme” acts.

“It is frightening that the government is constantly announcing and deciding on something that actually needs to be examined constitutionally,” Taşkaya said.

Ramazan Demir, 34, who has worked as a Muslim prison chaplain in Austria for eight years, said: “We see that radicalisation in the prisons is increasing more and more.”

There are 2,000 Muslims in Austria’s prisons, and only one prison chaplain who is financed by the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, Demir said. The rest of the work is done by volunteers.

“We need full-time employees so that we don’t lose these people.”

Prevention work starts where people are exposed to ‘radicalisation’, Ramazan Demir says [Courtesy: Ramazan Demir/Al Jazeera]

Prevention work should start as soon as people are exposed to “radicalisation”, especially in prisons as many people turn to religion, he said.

“There are radicals among the Muslims, but they are a fringe group against which we must act together. Of course, we have to prevent terrorism. But what we do about it must be discussed with [experts] and representatives of the religious community.”

Nadim Mazarweh, who works as an extremism and deradicalisation expert at the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ), said the government’s plan was a rash decision.

“And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there has of course also been international discussion that the government and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BTV) have failed all along the line.”

Further details over the attack have been revealed in the past few days.

The attacker had been classified as dangerous by BVT, two weeks before the attack, after his failed ammunition purchase in Slovakia was belatedly added to a database.

“The assassin could and should have been arrested in advance,” Mazarweh said, adding that instead of investigating why this did not happen, the government is presenting a package of measures against “terror” and “political Islam”.

‘The term ‘political Islam’ is completely useless and is rejected by experts, Mazarweh says [Courtesy: Nadim Mazarweh/Al Jazeera]

“I was shocked by this completely aimless formulation. The term ‘political Islam’ is completely useless and is rejected by experts. It is like talking about political Christianity or political Hinduism,” said Mazarweh.

For the Muslim community, such rhetoric means people feel like they are automatically suspected.

Currently, between 700,000 and 800,000 Muslims live in Austria, about 8 percent of the population.

Since the shooting, anti-Muslim racism has been on the rise, said Elif Adam, 31, the co-founder and president of Dokustelle, an organisation which supports victims of Islamophobia.

“We hear of recriminations, insults and slander. Of intimidation and verbal attacks on the street. We have heard about teachers who insulted their students the day after the attack, they said things like ‘S***** Muslims’ in class. A woman was hit on the chest. Others were spat on,” said Adam.

In one of the most serious cases, a mother was verbally attacked in a hospital waiting room, while her 12-year-old daughter was present. A man had pointed at them and made a cutthroat gesture.

“You should all be killed,” he said.

The mother informed the police and called Adam afterwards.

“She wanted to know whether it was exaggerated to file a complaint. I encourage the person and try to empower them.”

Adam works with a small team on a voluntary basis in order to fight Islamophobia [Courtesy: Murtaza Elham]

Women wearing headscarves are particularly affected.

“I was called by a mother who herself had been verbally attacked. She doesn’t dare to go out at the moment and has reservations about sending her daughter to school,” said Adam, who works voluntarily.

She described the Kurz’s plan as a populist move, and plans, with other representatives of civil society groups, to call on the government to ensure human rights and the rule of law are upheld.

Source: Al Jazeera