Muslim Austrian academic shares tale of gunpoint raid

Months after officers barged into the home of Farid Hafez, who has still not been charged, he and his children are being treated for PTSD.

Farid Hafez, a prominent critic and professor, was born and raised in Austria [File: Courtesy of Farid Hafez]

On November 9 last year, at 5am, police in Vienna rammed into Farid Hafez’s two-storey apartment and pointed their guns at the political scientist and his family.

After monitoring him for more than 20,000 hours, he was suspected of supporting “terrorism”, a charge he strongly denies.

“It was just unthinkable. I could never have conceived of anything like that happening to me here,” Hafez, who works at the University of Salzburg, told Al Jazeera via Zoom. “I felt like this was a Hollywood movie with GIs surrounding me.”

The incident took place a week after an Austrian man, who had been jailed before for trying to join ISIL (ISIS) but released after attending a deradicalisation programme, killed four people and injured more than 20 others in the Austrian capital.

On the same day, the raid on Hafez’s home took place. Austria’s interior minister called it “Operation Luxor”, in which some 60 homes of Muslim activists and academics were searched.

Hafez told Al Jazeera that his family is still shaken.

“I have been speaking to a psychoanalyst. In fact, we are all being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said, “and we are doing it especially for the kids.”

They have “hardly been sleeping”, he added. “In the first month, every noise we heard, we wondered if they [police] would come barging in again?”

Aside from supporting terrorism, police have accused him of other crimes including “hostility to the state” and “money laundering”.

To date, he has not been charged.

His phone and laptop were among the items seized, and remain in possession of the police.

Hafez’s bank account was also frozen, leaving him unable to pay lawyers or repair the damage caused during the raid.

“There is a GoFund campaign ongoing to help me with those expenses,” he said.

This week, the Austria-born and raised lecturer released a short film, After The Raid, providing details of his life, career and the encounter.

In the slickly produced video, images purport to show windows that were broken in the search, and a bullet that was left behind.

He describes the raid as “surreal” and says his daughter still has nightmares in which she sees Hafez being shot to death by police.

Austrian authorities have three years to investigate and bring formal charges against him.

The search warrant for the raid included his communication with the head of a local political party and his support for a school project involving a well-known Protestant professor and a Muslim woman.

Hafez said there was nothing controversial about his meeting or his support for the project, telling Al Jazeera he would “do it again”.

Islam under scrutiny in Austria

Hafez is the founder of the European Islamophobia Report, a yearly study that analyses 32 European countries. He has criticised the conservative Austrian government, and has previously said Islamophobia is a dominant form of racism in Western democracies.

His case has raised concerns over Islamophobia, and led to a debate on social media after hundreds shared his story on Twitter.

“The Austrian government is attempting to intimidate, punish, and bankrupt one of the most prominent and visible Austrian Muslims in the country – and one of the government’s most outspoken critics – despite having nothing to charge him on,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at Brookings, tweeted.

Recently, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has taken a hard line on what he calls “political Islam”, proposed to criminalise it – a move which would see a registry of imams created and mosques closed.

In 2017, Kurz played a key role as then-foreign and integration minister in seeing through Austria’s ban on the Muslim veil, or niqab.

After becoming chancellor later that year, his government introduced a headscarf ban in primary schools in 2019.

Austria’s Constitutional Court overturned the headscarf law, saying it discriminated against Muslims and would hinder “Muslim girls’ access to education”.

In the aftermath of the Vienna attack, Kurz said “Islamic extremism” not only “caused death and destruction”, but it also “wants to divide our society, and we will not allow this to happen”.

Sebastian Kurz
Austria’s chancellor and leader of the People’s Party (OeVP), Sebastian Kurz [File: Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP]

John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University, told Al Jazeera that he saw Austria as a tolerant society towards all religions, but that perception has declined in recent years with the rise of the current government.

“Unfortunately what we are seeing is similar to the [Emmanuel] Macron government in France. Their approach to Islam and Muslims is one which seems to operate from a concern about extremism that winds up brushing ordinary and prominent members of the Muslim community [in Austria],” Esposito, the former President of American Academy of Religion, noted.

Macron came under intense criticism last year for saying Islam was “in crisis” across the world, as he advocated for a controversial law curbing “Islamist separatism”.

Hafez is a senior researcher at Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative – a research project on Islamophobia of which Esposito is the founding director.

“Farid is a prominent international scholar. I have seen him in action,” Esposito said, adding that Georgetown had hired him based on his “significant corpus” of work.

“If something [the raid] like this can happen to him, a successful and mainstream citizen, it raises questions … what is happening here?

“We will see this issue not only raised by the many academics professionally, but it could mushroom where more people will publicly speak out and inform their respective governments.”

Source: Al Jazeera