Swinging to the right: Austria bans face veils

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This op-ed by Bridge Initiative Senior Research Fellow Farid Hafez originally appeared in Daily Sabah

It seems quite intentional that the ban on full-face veiling in public places, infamously known as the so called “Burka Ban,” came into force on Oct. 1, when Austria largely becomes cloudy, the sun fades away, and with all that, the high-time of tourism from the gulf countries is also gone. One last summer, the full-face veiled women with their families would be able to spend lots of money in the beautiful historical cities of Vienna, Salzburg, and other gulf-tourist hot spots like Zell am See. The ban on full-face veiling in public places affects more tourists than Austrians. In fact, only an estimated 100 – 150 Austrian Muslim women wear the full-face veil.

But the financial aspect may not be the most important one. On Oct. 15, the national elections are going to be held. According to the polls, the current junior partner in government, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), leads with more than 30 percent of the votes, while the current leading coalition partner, the social democrats, are competing with the far right for second place. Most importantly, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) is expected to most probably form a government with either the conservative ÖVP, or with the Social Democratic Party. To compete with the rising far-right FPÖ, the conservatives have successfully co-opted the most salient issue in this election campaign: Migration and Islam. Being the youngest among the three party leaders, current Foreign and Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz was able to catch up with the popularity rating of far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache. And with his seemingly eloquent and less radical way of saying no to open borders, shutting down the Balkan route as well as the Mediterranean route, he was able to co-opt the traditional claims of the FPÖ.

The “Anti-Face-Veiling Act,” which is part of a larger and amended “Integration Act” that was approved in May this year, has become one of the most important tools for both the SPÖ and the ÖVP to position themselves as tough on Islamism shortly before the upcoming elections. While the FPÖ has called for such a ban for more than 10 years, the ÖVP and SPÖ would position themselves as those, who not only speak, but act. Hardly surprising, the latest campaign of the FPÖ portrays its leader with the slogan “Pioneer, Not Late Bloomer” and beneath says “when it comes to the refugee crisis, border control, and Islamization.” Because in fact, the basis for these hardliner political claims regarding migration and Islam have long been laid by the FPÖ.

Both parties, the SPÖ and the ÖVP, tried to stage-manage their “success” in banning the full-face veil. Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern proudly promoted his ban of the full-face veil in a promotion video, while the new leader of the conservatives, Sebastian Kurz, has become versed in warning of Islamism, be it in kindergartens, mosques, or regarding women. According to the law, those found in breach of the “Anti-Face-Veiling Act” will be subject to fines of 150 euros. Media successfully stage-managed this move. Daily newspapers, especially of the tabloid press, were full of explaining and discussing the “Anti-Face-Veiling Act.” Reports on the first tourists that had to remove the full-face veil have appeared. The ruling parties could thus successfully claim to really act against Islamism, here identified in suppressing women.

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