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Austria plagued with Islamic controversy

Published time: September 12, 2010 02:16
Edited time: September 12, 2010 02:16

Austrian authorities have prosecuted the leader of the right-leaning Freedom Party of Austria for inciting religious hatred, but some say the move sacrifices people’s freedom of speech.

In 2008, Susanne Winter became a hate figure among much of Europe’s Muslim community.

She told her fellow members at the right-leaning Freedom Party of Austria that, if the Prophet Mohammed were alive today, he would be considered a child molester. Austria, she warned, faced an “Islamic immigration tsunami”.

“Over the past 10 years we've become the third largest party in Austria, so I know people agree with us. ‘Mainstream’ parties are trapped by political correctness. We don’t play on fears, we raise the genuine concerns of normal people,” Winter says.

Austria’s politicians and its president, however, were swift in their condemnation. A two-year suspended sentence for inciting religious hatred and a €24,000 fine followed.

Austria’s Muslims feel bolstered by her punishment – a victory in the fight against, what they call, an increasingly dangerous trend spreading across the continent.

“The new cultural racism is Islamophobia. In this sense we are concerned about the situation in Europe, but especially also in our country Austria,” Tarafa Baghajati from the Initiative of Muslim Austrians says.

Europe is split over its position on Islam. Supporters of Dutch politician Geert Wilders described Britain’s decision to refuse him entry over his anti-Islamic rhetoric as disgusting and cowardly. In Germany, a lack of media coverage of the murder of Marwa el-Sherbini sparked outrage in her native Egypt.

Austria itself is no stranger to the Islamic debate. In recent years, the country’s politics have been torn between moderates and nationalists. Right-wing parties have been strengthening their position by playing on fears of mass immigration from Muslim countries. Until his death last year, the controversial and far-right figure Jorg Haider was Austria’s most famous MP.

However, Tarafa Baghajati’s wife thinks the country still has a much better relationship with Muslims than Germany, for example. Carla, who converted to Islam in 1989, renounced her German citizenship.

“I’m happy for the role we Muslims have in Austria and official recognition. I really appreciate that we have the basis for an institutional dialogue. And it works out well, especially in the case of crisis as we saw with Susanne Winter,” Carla Baghajati says.

Yet others have seen Winter’s case not as an attack on Islam, but on freedom of speech. A German alternative news website backed her and, for similar reasons, reprinted the controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, two years ago, saying it was fighting to protect traditional European values.

“If you are a woman, a Jew or a homosexual, you have problems with Islam. We feel that all these archaic ideas are against what we believe are human rights,” Dr Christine Dietrich from the “Politically Incorrect” website says.

The Viennese Islamic Centre, built in 1979 on the outskirts of the city, is one of only two mosques in all of Austria that looks identifiably like a mosque, while the rest are housed in ordinary looking buildings. It is surprising, given that for such a small country its 400,000 strong Muslim community makes up almost 5% of the total population.

The likelihood is that figure will continue to grow. Austria, and all of Europe, is at a crossroads in its relationship with Islam. The absence of a visible, architectural symbolism belies deep, and potentially explosive, emotions on both sides.

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