By Farid Hafez
- The writer is a Senior Research Scholar at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University and Senior Research Fellow at Salzburg University.
Austria, long known and appreciated for its comparably tolerant policies towards Muslims, has introduced another serious step to crack down on the Muslim civil society. With the Islam Act of 2015, formerly independent Muslim institutions now have become more vulnerable vis-à-vis the state. Now, the second step in a possible crackdown on the Muslim civil society is on its way.
Similarly, this latest initiative is preceded by ideas long in the making. Already in 2017, Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, called for a ban on “fascistic Islam”, using a term coined by a leading hawkish neo-conservative author, Norman Podhoretz, who saw ‘Islamofascism’ as the new enemy for a coming crusade in his NYT bestseller World War IV. The vice-chancellor of Austria now, Strache used this notion intentionally to follow a current strategy to reframe Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion. He argued that, by banning the symbols of “fascistic Islam”, he was going to put an end to the “creeping Islamization”, as the far-right in Europe refers to it. With this initiative, Strache builds on the legacy of Austrian law, which bans symbols that represent the Nazi ideology. Clearly, this also contributes to the attempt to reframe Islam as a political ideology rather than a religion.
While nowadays Strache is trying to make clear that he differentiates between a good Islam and a bad Islam, he spoke a different language during his days in opposition. Back then, Strache would argue that “the difference between Islam and Islamism is the same as the difference between terror and terrorism”. In other words: There is no difference, which implies that the fight against Islamism is ultimately a fight against Islam itself.
With the rise of Daesh in 2014, the symbols of Daesh and Al-Qaida were both banned by law. With a new bill being discussed this year, there are ongoing efforts to include in this ban also the symbols of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Grey Wolves, the PKK, Hamas, the military wing of Hezbollah, the Croatian Ustasa, and organizations which are designated as terrorists by EU legal acts. It is an interesting move in that organizations not defined as terrorists, either at a national or European level, are lumped together with those that are officially branded as terrorists. But most interesting is Article 1.10, which says that all groups, which are parts or successors of the above mentioned, are also to be banned.
This is especially troubling, because it makes it possible to problematize and criminalize the Muslim civil society organizations that have taken a critical stance towards the recent policies of the Austrian government towards Muslims. This is a trend that has become central especially to parts of the young leadership of the Austrian People’s Party under Sebastian Kurz, who are now in coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party. The interpretation of the Act, which is part of the official document, makes this very clear. The lawmaker explains therein that symbols of the Muslim Brotherhood are to be banned because the organization encourages disintegration, relativizing Western value systems, supports a narrative of victimization and is thus a threat to the public order. The explanatory document also assumes that while there are only a few members of the Brotherhood in Austria, there was a deep organizational, financial and ideological entanglement between them and the organizations that share the same milieu. These assertions are taken from a report written by Lorenzo Vidino, a senior policy advisor at the Brussels-based think tank European Foundation for Democracy, which is heavily funded by donors who support the Islamophobic network in the USA. One of them is the Marcus Foundation, which donated $12,155,000 to different organizations between 2009 and 2013, amongst them the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD). The EFD was also granted funds by Paul E. Singer Foundations, which gave a total of $1,475,000 to the EFD, the NGO Monitor as well as the highly Islamophobic MEMRI. Bernard Marcus serves as director of the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), which is often referred to as “Washington’s premiere hawkish think tank”.
This initiative reminds of similar attempts elsewhere. In January 2017, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz introduced a bill, for the second time, to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Sen. Cruz was mainly guided in this affair by Frank Gaffney, the leader of the well-funded Center for Security Policy, which is recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group. The conservative think tank, which was founded in 1988, has been the main driver of the “creeping Sharia” conspiracy theory, which resulted in the introduction of 194 anti-Sharia bills between 2010 to 2016, out of which 39 have been introduced and 18 have been enacted into law, as a recent study by the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley has found out. Gaffney was also likely the source for Trump’s call for a Muslim ban. Gaffney’s conspiracy theories on the Muslim Brotherhood have gained traction in the Trump White House too. Already in 2012, he had published a 10-part video titled ‘The Muslim Brotherhood in America: The Enemy Within’, where he argues that the Muslim Brotherhood is engaged in the “infiltration of our civil institutions and government”. The same argument of infiltration is brought forward by the current Austrian government.
Similar as well is the judgement by many critical experts that this initiative is primarily aiming at cracking down on critical political opposition rather than hurting the Muslim Brotherhood. As Arjun Singh Sethi, a civil rights lawyer and professor of law at Georgetown University, said, calling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization would inevitably hurt all American Muslims, since the executive order on the Brotherhood was nothing but an attempt to silence dissent and terrify U.S. American Muslim communities. As the Network Against Islamophobia (NAI), a project of Jewish Voice for Peace, argued, the Trump Administration could easily “use this legislation and Executive Order to target national and local Muslim civil liberties and other organizations that work on behalf of Muslim communities.” This seems to be the case in Austria as well.
As Daniel Pipes, one of the leading US Islamophobes, argued in a piece for the Washington Times that something unprecedented took place in Austria: “For the first time in Western Europe, a government took power that advocates anti-immigration and anti-Islamization policies”.
This government is now in power and while the eyes of the public are on Austria’s EU Council Presidency and the issue of immigration, nearly nobody takes notice of the introduction of a McCarthyism that could again serve as an example to be followed by other regimes that seek to legitimize their authoritarianism and their gradual turn to illiberal forms of democracy.* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.