A lesson from Vienna in countering Islamist extremism

July 17, 2020

Austria (with which I should declare I have family ties) is perhaps more widely known for Apfelstrudel, the Salzburg Festival, alpine resorts and Conchita Würst than as a European policy leader. It’s been a while since Bruno Kreisky’s edgy Middle East activism or Vienna’s early – and highly effective – engagement with conflict issues in the former Yugoslavia. On most issues, the country has largely been content to position itself in the middle of the EU pack. All perfectly sensible.

Yet on Wednesday this week, the Integration Minister, Susanne Raab boldly announced the launch of a Documentation Centre/ Observatory for Political Islam (Dokumentationsstelle Politischer Islam), designed to research, document and report on “religiously motivated political extremism” and “to shed light on the networks and structures of, and possible foreign influences on (sc Islamist) associations active in Austria”. According to official documents, the Centre is designed to form part of a national and cross-cutting strategy for counter-extremism and deradicalization. It will be supported by the national fund for integration but – like other analogous institutions – operate independently of the state.

It’s still unclear how exactly this will work. The original plan seems to have been cooked up by the Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, when his People’s Party (ÖVP) was in a conservative “türkis-blau” (“turquoise-blue”) coalition with the Freedom Party (FPÖ). After the last election, the Greens replaced the FPÖ.  Interestingly enough the maverick former Green politician, Peter Pilz, has long been one of the most outspoken anti-Islamists in Austrian politics.  But his party as a whole may be trickier to handle, in spite of the fact that they seem to have agreed to an explicit commitment on the issue in the joint governmental programme. There’s been an increasingly lively debate in Austria for some time now – as there has been across most of Europe – not just about Islamism but about extremism of all sorts. The Greens may now want to exploit this to blur the lines: some elements are indeed already doing so.

But there is growing and highly specific concern across the political spectrum about religio-nationalist meddling in communal matters by Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet). Recent street clashes in Vienna between Turks and Kurds, probably entirely nationalist in origin but worrying for those who value social stability, will have provided a hook for Raab’s announcement.  And Kurz, who has been particularly vocal on the subject of Islamism, seems determined to press ahead with action on that front specifically.  Before the election he promised his government would act to meet the challenge.  It now has. Significantly, Raab proclaimed “an end to looking the other way” (“Es ist Schluss mit wegsehen”). The FPÖ may sulkily claim that this is ÖVP showboating in advance of the Vienna local elections in October.  But it actually looks like a line in the sand. 

Perhaps coincidentally – and on the heels of a highly critical report on the subject from the Assemblée Nationale – the new French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, also announced this week that his government would introduce legislation after the summer recess designed to address the threat of “separatism”– which is code for attempts by Islamists to stir up social division. act as gatekeepers to France’s Muslim communities, and police their political participation.

This all takes me back to the heady days of the Muslim Brotherhood Review, which I led in 2014. I recommended then that, if we thought the political and security challenges posed by Islamisms of all sorts, both at home and abroad, were worth addressing (and I did), then we needed to be serious and professional in the way we did so. This wasn’t a job you could leave to generalists or Oxbridge bluffers. We needed to acquire, nurture and sustain much deeper subject, area, forensic, financial, legal and linguistic expertise within government than we had. And we needed to direct that expertise towards devising effective policy responses to a set of resilient, rapidly changing and highly adaptive actors. This would require resources. It would require a long-term commitment.  And it needed high level political backing. 

Nothing happened. Instead we bumbled on in the same old way.  Officials schedule regular meetings with known Islamists.  They listen to siren voices urging a ban on the words, “Islamism” and “Islamists”.  Some people who should know better suggest the press should tone down its coverage of Islamist violence to avoid upsetting anyone. MPs go out of their way to praise fatuous “interfaith initiatives”. Local councillors virtue-signal by adopting counter-productive and badly thought-through definitions of Islamophobia. Newspaper editors self-censor. The Foreign Office, the Home Office, the DfE, the MHCLG and the security agencies still fail to talk properly to each other.  And above all there is no central political grip.

This is – how shall I say? – disappointing.  Islamism, far from being an invention of the “Islamophobic Right”, is actually a thing.  It has a highly specialised vocabulary in Arabic (for example, al islam al siyassii, al tatarruf al islamii, al tayyar al islamii, al islamiyyuun, al taharruk al islamii, al islam al jihadii, al jihadiyyah al harakiyya, al sururiyya, al ikhwanjiyya and so forth) which has migrated to Turkish, Persian and other languages spoken in Muslim-majority countries: I don’t see why we should deny ourselves the same pleasure in English. It is a modernist, social-revolutionary ideology based on particular, decontextualised and often literalist readings of ancient Islamic texts.  It’s not “Islam”.  Many – perhaps most – Muslims think it a rigid, impoverished, textualised and joyless distortion of an extraordinary civilisational tradition.  But others believe profoundly that the goal of a universal Islamic state where non-Muslims are subordinated to Sharia is both desirable and achievable.  

It’s not a criminal offence in the UK to hold those views. And many Islamists are content for the moment to work through existing, often secular institutions. But Islamism and Islamists as a point of principle ultimately reject the liberal democratic order that has emerged over centuries in Europe and elsewhere, in which the history and identity of western nation states is encoded. In a country like Germany with a written constitution defining its underlying social and political values, the domestic intelligence agency – which is significantly called Das Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (“The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution”) – states this explicitly and publicly in its annual reports. They define Islamism as “Verfassungsfeindlich” (“inimical to the Constitution”) and Islamists as “Verfassungsfeinde” (“enemies of the Constitution”).  The same applies in Austria and the Netherlands.  In France, the Constitution states that, “La France est une République indivisible, laique, démocratique et sociale”.  That provides a foundation for any government that sees in Islamism (or anything else) a threat to secular democracy and decides – as the current one may – to do something about it.

In London, silence. Once again, it looks like something is happening and we don’t know what it is – or what to do about it. Instead the innovative thinking and the policy activism is happening elsewhere, in this case Vienna (and perhaps in due course in Paris).  Meanwhile we worry about the alleged sins of the past – some of which weren’t sins and most of which we cannot remedy – while letting the dangers of the present pass in plain sight. It’s never too late to learn. Today’s lesson is in Viennese dialect.  Do we care enough to listen, understand and act on it?



Itself informed by a set of excellent reports from the Institut Montaigne between 2016 and  2019: https://www.institutmontaigne.org/ressources/pdfs/publications/Short%20Version%2090%20pages.pdf.

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