Austrian McCarthyism: Banning Symbols

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This op-ed by Senior Research Fellow Farid Hafez originally appeared on Anadolu Agency

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.

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