Summary paragraph: Police continued to protect Jewish sites. Muslims said the ban on face veils in public violated basic rights. The city government in Vienna increased inspections of city-subsidized Islamic kindergartens after a study found “Islamic political influence” in several of them. A federally funded office continued to offer the public negative views about religious groups, such as Scientology, which it described as “cults.” A government-funded study stated one third of mosques nurtured extremist views. The foreign ministry worked with the IGGIO on a campaign against extremism. The education ministry worked with the international NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to provide Holocaust training for teachers. Jewish and Muslim groups and NGOs expressed concerns about what they regarded as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment in the FPOe, which joined a coalition government with the People’s Party in December. In April the government adopted the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, which the IKG called a milestone in fighting anti-Semitism.
Some religious minority groups, such as the Unification Church, continued to complain the three-tier system of categorizing legally recognized religious groups only granted them second- or third-class status.
The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums. Law enforcement authorities stated the government provided the protection due to general concerns over the potential for anti-Semitic acts against Jewish institutions.
On various occasions, the IGGIO called on the Ministry of Justice to fund pastoral care for Muslims in prisons, where 46 IGGIO imams provided such care. According to the IGGIO, government funding would allow it to expand prison pastoral care. The ministry replied that it already funded social workers and representatives from the NGO De-radicalization Network to work with Muslim prisoners it considered extremists.
Muslim representatives expressed concern that the new ban on full-face coverings would push women wearing face veils into further isolation and, together with the Bar Association and Amnesty International, argued the law violated such basic rights as freedom of religion and expression. While characterizing the wearing of face veils in public as “socially undesirable,” the Catholic Church also criticized the ban as an “exaggerated legal prohibition.” A Viennese psychology student who was fined in October for covering her face while cycling announced she would challenge the ban before the Administrative Court.
On January 6, then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party advocated for a ban on headscarves for public servants, including teachers, reigniting public debate over displays of religious symbols in public. Kurz stated Christian crucifixes in classrooms should be allowed, as they symbolized the country’s “historic culture.” A representative of the IGGIO and a representative of the IKG both publicly opposed the headscarf ban proposal as discriminatory.
Approximately 2,000 persons participated in a February 4 demonstration against the stipulation in the government’s agenda, announced January 30, that women working as uniformed police, judges, or prosecutors were to be prohibited from wearing headscarves. Several Muslim groups, some of them affiliated with the IGGIO, staged the protests. The President of the Islamic Faith Community, Ibrahim Olgun, said the proposed ban for police, judges, and prosecutors would “pull the rug” out from under efforts to create a good working relationship between the government and the Muslim community.
In remarks made to schoolchildren in March and broadcast on television in April, President Alexander Van der Bellen expressed opposition to restrictions on clothing, telling the students women had the right to dress how they wanted and that “if this rampant Islamophobia continues … we must ask all women to wear a headscarf – all – out of solidarity with those who do it for religious reasons.” The president’s office said he believed restrictions were justified when applied to all religious symbols in certain circumstances, such as for female judges, where religious dress could raise questions about neutrality.
The government continued to apply a policy of banning headwear in official identification documents with an exception for religious purposes as long as the face was sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.
In June the Vienna city government increased its inspections of the 150 Islamic kindergartens subsidized by the city after University of Vienna professor Ednan Aslan stated in a study of Islamic kindergartens he conducted in 2016 that there was political Islamic influence in several of them, and they were helping to create “parallel societies.”
The federal Office of Sect Issues continued to offer advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults.” The office was nominally independent but government funded, and the minister for family and youth appointed and supervised its head. Some Scientologists and representatives of the Unification Church continued to state the Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered societal discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities.
A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO working against some religious groups, such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public, and it provided counseling for former members of such groups. According to the website of the society’s founder, Friedrich Griess, the society received funding from the government of Lower Austria. Several other provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults,” which members of some minority religious groups, such as Scientologists or the Unification Church, stated they considered to be negatively biased.
An amendment of transportation regulations in June stipulated the use of public roads and sidewalks for non-traffic purposes must not violate public safety and security. Based on the amendment, government representatives stated police could ban proselytizing by religious groups. There were no reports that police blocked such activity.
According to a study by the Austrian Integration Fund, financed by the Ministry for Europe, Integration, and Foreign Affairs and based on 16 mosques examined by the authors, one-third of the mosques examined were actively countering efforts to integrate Muslims by nurturing extremist views.
According to a George Washington University study, “The Muslim Brotherhood in Austria,” the Muslim Brotherhood had “substantial connections and influence” in the country, including over key functions affecting Muslim immigrants, such as in the IGGIO’s training institute for Islamic religion teachers. The study, which the Austrian Security Services commissioned, was done in cooperation with the University of Vienna and the Austrian Integration Fund and released in September. An official involved with the study stated the Muslim Brotherhood represented values that stood in contrast to the rule of law and promoted a political Islam that divided society. In reaction, FPOe Chair Heinz Christian Strache called for stricter action against radical Islamist activities. A Muslim youth leader privately rejected the report’s conclusions and methodology and complained about what he described as the “continuous drip” of biased studies against Muslims in the country. The organization Muslim Youth of Austria also rejected the study’s findings, which stated the organization received financial support from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the IGGIO, undertook an information campaign in mosques, Islamic organizations, and community centers, distributing written materials to convey the message that jihadism violated the principles of Islam.
The Ministry for Education and Women conducted teacher-training projects with the ADL. Seminars were available on Holocaust education, and Holocaust survivors talked to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.
Chancellor Christian Kern as well as Catholic and Jewish representatives attended an IGGIO-hosted iftar in June to express support for the Muslim Community.
In July FPOe Member of Parliament Johannes Huebner announced he would not seek reelection in the October parliamentary election, following widespread protests over a 2016 statement he made that critics said contained anti-Semitic undertones. In a speech on “mass migration to Austria,” Huebner had referred to “so-called Holocaust victims” who were criticizing the FPOe.
On September 13, Norbert Hofer, FPOe Deputy Chair, presented an election platform for the October 15 parliamentary elections with rhetoric including a statement that “Islam is not part of Austria.” At the presentation, FPOe Chair Strache stated, “We must not become strangers in our own home country.” The party campaigned against immigration and “Islamization,” and FPOe billboards carried the slogan “Islamization must be stopped.”
Speaking to the press in September, Vienna City Councilor, and previous integration representative for the Islamic Community Omar al-Rawi stated, “When parties address the issue of Islam, it’s always in a negative context.”
Some local Jewish groups expressed concern about anti-Semitism in the FPOe.
In November FPOe Chair Strache suspended a local FPOe councilor in Styria for giving a “Heil Hitler” salute.
NGOs and Jewish and Muslim community members called on the People’s Party, which came in first place in the parliamentary elections, not to form a coalition government with the FPOe, which came in third. In October the Mauthausen Komitee, a group commemorating Nazi camp victims, published a list of what it said were at least 60 anti-Semitic and racist incidents involving FPOe figures since 2013. Ramazan Demir, a Vienna-based imam and a leading representative of the IGGIO, stated, “This election result is something we feared … There’s never been this much Islamophobia in Austria.” The NGO SOS Mitmensch (SOS Fellow Human Being) released a letter it wrote to People’s Party leader Kurz, citing allegations of FPOe officials’ involvement in right-wing extremist, and neo-Nazi activities.
The People’s Party formed a coalition with the FPOe, and the new government assumed office on December 18, with Kurz as Chancellor and FPOe leader Strache as Vice Chancellor. The new government’s coalition agreement included acknowledgement of the country’s role in the Holocaust and a pledge to fight anti-Semitism. As party chair, Strache had repeatedly called for zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or glorification of Nazism, most recently in the context of the presentation of the coalition government’s program.
IKG Vienna President Oskar Deutsch continued to express concerns about the FPOe, which he said was an anti-Semitic party, and its attempts to appeal to Jewish voters by rebranding itself as an anti-Muslim party.
Then-Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter established the special prosecutor’s office for right-wing extremism in April. The office focused on enforcing the law banning neo-Nazi activity.
The government made the Mauthausen Memorial Agency an independent government agency on January 1, providing it with a legal base to implement tasks mandated in a 2016 law, which set the goal of Holocaust commemoration and education as the agency’s prime task. Mauthausen was the country’s largest concentration camp during the Nazi era and became a national monument.
Chancellor Kern, during an April visit to Israel, met with Holocaust survivors of Austrian background. In a speech he emphasized his country’s responsibility for the “darkest chapters in Austria’s history” and its commitment to learn from its Nazi past and to combat anti-Semitism.
On April 25, the cabinet adopted the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism. Then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz termed the decision an important signal to identify and combat anti-Semitism more easily with a commonly acknowledged definition. IKG Vienna President Deutsch welcomed the decision as a “milestone in combating anti-Semitism.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.