VIENNA—The guy in the shark suit last week was just the beginning. A student working part time, he was waddling around at the store opening of the Austrian Apple computer reseller McShark when the police showed up. They ordered him to take off his stuffed shark head in the name of a new law meant to stop Muslim women from wearing full-face veils known as burqas or niqabs. But the law, trying unconvincingly to disguise its intent, bans all full face coverings, even a toothsome joke like this one. “I’m just doing my job,” the young man protested.
Since then, parodies and challenges have multiplied.
“Come on, buddy,“ one police officer said to the other on Monday morning, encouraging him as they approached the French Algerian millionaire activist, Rachid Nekkaz, who was posing for the press in front of the foreign ministry. Nekkaz wore an orange Halloween mask over his eyes with a poster of Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz pulled up under his nose more or less like a veil with, for good measure, five 100-euro notes stuck to it.
The object of Nekkaz’s satire was well chosen. Kurz, 31, is the boy wonder on track to become chancellor in Sunday’s elections.
In this country with a magnificent history but a small population (fewer than 9 million), the shark spectacle and the Nekkaz incident were not the only times Austrian police have been ill at ease doing their jobs. So anxious was the government to avoid being sued for discrimination, and so broad is the law as a result, that now the interior ministry has to reassure Austrians that fines won’t be imposed on Halloween costumes.
But for some, the ban is a very serious matter indeed. “This is a demonstration of power and is being seen as such by the Muslim community,“ says Carla Baghajati from the Austrian Islamic Religious Community in Vienna.
As the cops walked Nekkaz toward the police station to pay a 100-euro fine for covering his face in public, Nekkaz got his iPhone out to take a selfie. On the sidelines, a young man in a blue suit was watching the scene. He lit a cigarette and said that he has only seen a woman wearing a full-face veil one single time in Austria. “You don’t need a law to forbid it,” he shrugged. “But—it’s not normal.” (Just so: It’s an extreme rarity in Austria.)
What’s become more “normal” however, is the far-right tone of even nominally mainstream political parties.
There was a moment last year where the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) was the most popular party in Austria. In 2016 it looked like Heinz Christian Strache, the FPÖ’s hot-headed leader who spent his youth hanging out in local neo-Nazi circles, was going to be the country’s next chancellor. But after elections were annulled and re-fought and re-voted, he lost.
Then Sebastian Kurz took over the Christian Democratic party (ÖVP) last spring and jumped ahead in the polls. The image-conscious minister quickly won the affection of conservative voters when he took (exaggerated) credit for single-handedly shutting down the west Balkans route of migrants and refugees coming into the European Union’s heartland in 2016.
So Kurz, who next suggested shutting down Islamic kindergartens, was perfectly suited to woo supporters of the far right. And he wasn’t the only one to go populist. Even the Social Democrats suddenly announced they were sending tanks down to the border with Italy in South Tyrol. (Strache could not have been more pissed off at all that stolen thunder.)
Kurz also drafted the integration package that includes the burqa ban. It complimented his style—along with some substantive reforms, there was a section on banning headscarves for police officers and judges, even though nobody knew of any police officers and judges who wore headscarves. And never mind the fact that the majority of the women who live in Austria and wear the burqa or niqab are converts to Islam who were born in Austria, i.e., not supposed to be the target of any “integration” law.
Strache, whose party looks set to enter a ruling coalition with Kurz’s Christian Democrats, claimed credit for the ban anyway, calling it a “long-standing demand of the FPÖ.“ After all, his politicians had been lobbying for it the loudest over the past seven years.
Other than that, the FPÖ is currently campaigning with posters that depict a naked blue-eyed blonde girl because, according to the slogan, “Real women look like this.“ And the only time that Strache ever came close to speaking out for women’s rights has been to star in a tabloid spread about his chore-equal marriage to a younger beauty pageant winner that was headlined with the hard-to-unsee quote, “In bed I am on the left.”
In the months ahead of this coming Sunday’s elections, several women who wear the veil have reported being grumbled at on the subway with remarks like, “Wait until the ban comes, then we will rip that veil from your head.” Other women who wear the hijab recall people going out of their way to smile and nod at them and say things like, “It’ll be OK!” and “Keep going!”
And now that the ban is in action, there were several instances this week where strangers have taken it upon themselves to tell women to take off their veils.
One study this summer indicated 28 percent of Austrians say they would prefer not to live next to Muslims. (For other west European countries the rate is between 14 and 19 percent.)
According to the sociologist Judith Kohlenberg, this isn’t just about Islamophobia. In previous decades, integration for guest workers coming from Turkey and the Balkans was difficult. They were associated with blue-collar jobs, manual labor, and that image has carried over to their children. “In Austria nobody leaves their class,” she said. “Social origin overrides education. So for immigrants, it is even harder to move up by education.”
Kurz himself used to be against banning the full-face veil. He argued that most of the women who wear it are in fact “wealthy tourists“ who “put a lot of money into this country.” (And surprise! the ban was introduced not on July 1 as planned, but on Oct. 1—after the summer tourist season was over.) Now, Kurz’s new mantra is that the burqa is a symbol for “political Islam.”
But political Islam is not the same thing as violent Islamism, even if the two terms often are used interchangeably. And “from there it is not far to spin the chain of associations further to violence, and from violence to terrorism,” Baghajati says.
Maybe that is why the PR company that hired a kid to promote computers in a full body shark costume felt compelled to exclaim that he was not a “terrorist.”
Other politicians advocating a burka ban for a tiny minority haven’t exactly helped set the record straight. In Germany, the Christian Democrats’ Jens Spahn, a self-described “burqaphobe,” used the increase in bomb threats last summer as the opportune moment to declare that a burqa ban was “overdue.” And Carmen Schimanek from the FPÖ took it a whole lot further when she suggested, “burqas are often used to hide explosives and weapons in attacks.”
Right. Because what else would you would wear if you wanted to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to yourself on the streets of Vienna?