As guilty until proven innocent increasingly becomes authorities’ approach to Muslims, basic rights such as freedom of religion are at great risk Farid Hafez 8 December 2021, 12.00am
After a spate of violent attacks throughout Europe in autumn 2020, including the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, and the shooting of four people in Vienna, several European interior ministers issued a joint statement of solidarity against terrorism.
The first draft that was authored by Austria, France and Germany included several mentions of Islam, but was significantly watered down in the final version due to opposition from most other EU member states that did not embrace a ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric on EU values. The final version included only one explicit mention of Islam and removed a proposal to sanction migrants who refuse to integrate. It called on EU member states to take “systematic action to prevent radicalisation”.
However, countries supporting more hawkish policies regarding the surveillance of Muslims, such as Austria and France, did not give up. Instead they worked towards the inception of the “Vienna Forum on Countering Segregation and Extremism in the Context of Integration”, an annual conference established to intensify cooperation in the fight against “political Islam”, according to the Austrian Integration Minister Susanne Raab, of the conservative ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party), which was recently shaken by corruption allegations. The first iteration took place on 28 October, without much global media attention.
Raab invited the Integration Ministers of Denmark (Mattias Tesfaye), and Flanders (Bart Somers), as well as the Deputy Minister for Citizenship in the French Interior Ministry (Marlene Schiappa), to the event, along with 100 experts.
But what do countries such as Austria, France and Denmark mean, when they refer to the fight against so-called political Islam? One thing is sure: They do not mean militancy and violence.
French crackdown on Muslim groups
In the name of fighting what the French government calls “Islamist separatism”, French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has legitimised a crackdown on Muslim civil society organisations.
According to Macron and his government, “Islamist separatism” is protected by Islamo-Leftism, itself emanating from alien “social science theories entirely imported from the United States’’, such as post-colonial or anti-colonial discourse.
In France, many mosques suspected of “separatism” were systematically raided, as they were seen as “breeding grounds of terrorism”. Aid and anti-racist organisations monitoring Islamophobia were also closed. And although the reasons for closing them were revoked, the outlawing was upheld by France’s top administrative court, the Council of State.
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Denmark has no better portfolio. Its parliament adopted a statement on 1 June signed by all major parties, including the governing Social Democratic Party, that targets academic freedom, as well as freedom of expression. The statement goes after what it calls “research that produces politics disguised as science”.
Several reactions have underscored that academics working in the fields of race, gender, migration and post-colonial studies, are especially targeted by this document, as they have been publicly attacked in the past by Danish politicians and media outlets.
This came after the Danish government was criticised by the UN and human rights organisations for implementing the infamous ‘ghetto’-policies that regulate life in 25 low-income and predominantly Muslim-populated areas, officially described by the government as “ghettos”.
The laws in question differentiate between “ethnic Danish” citizens and “non-Western” citizens and revoke public funding from Muslim independent schools. Seven Muslim private schools were closed, alleging they are not sufficiently promoting Danish values of freedom, democracy and gender equality.
A key EU rights agency has warned against the “discriminatory impact of counter-terrorism measures on specific groups, in particular Muslims”
Meanwhile, Austria, the host of the Vienna Forum for Democracy and Human Rights, is at the forefront of criminalising Muslims in the name of fighting so-called political Islam. Since breaking with its tolerant accommodation of Islam in the Austrian political system with the amendment of the Islam Act of 2015 that put the legally recognised Islamic Religious Society under heavy state control, it has implemented one legislation after another targeting its Muslim residents and citizens. These include the full-face veil ban in 2017, the 2018 ban on the hijab in elementary schools (later revoked by the Constitutional Court), as well as the closure of several mosques (also revoked by administrative courts).
All of these measures were legitimised by the argument that they work against so-called political Islam. However, many measures were revoked because they were found to be unlawful or discriminatory against Muslims.
The EU’s primary agency that helps ensure that the fundamental rights of people living in the EU are protected, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), has recently warned against the “discriminatory impact of counter-terrorism measures on specific groups, in particular Muslims”. But this finds little echo in the conservative-led Austrian government.
The Austrian government continues to push for such policies. It established a state-funded organisation called Documentation Centre for Political Islam last year and made political Islam a criminal offence. Although the centre offers no clear definition of the term ‘political Islam’, it monitors all organised Muslims, as its first reports show. Amnesty International Austria has criticised the introduction of ‘political Islam’ as a new criminal offence, which singles out Muslims. By going after the ‘wrong’ beliefs rather than criminal deeds, this is a clear threat to freedom of thought.
Lorenzo Vidino, one of the members of the academic advisory board of the Documentation Centre for Political Islam, has declared political Islam to be more dangerous than militant Jihadism. The centre also published an ‘Islam map’, a digital map that shows 623 addresses of mosques, Muslim associations and individual representatives, which sparked major controversy and lead to interventions from even the Council of Europe. But with no effect. Two weeks later, the website was put online again.
In fact, rather than correcting its restrictive approach in managing Muslims, Austria is trying to export it via initiatives such as the Vienna Forum.
What has been coined as ‘political Islam’ in Austria, is what other policymakers have called ‘legalistic Islamism’ in Germany, or ‘Islamist separatism’ in France. The main shared idea is not that Muslims break the law or commit violence. Rather, the argument is that Muslims use the law to subvert their European nation states.
As one proponent, Mouhanad Khorchide, professor of Islamic theology at the Westphalian Wilhelm University of Münster, claimed, political Islam is “wrapped with a cloak of democracy”, while masking “inwardly” values. In other words, the accusation is that Muslims deceive Western audiences by masking their true beliefs, while presenting themselves as democrats, who would finally take control and ‘Islamise’ European governments.
These measures, laws and attitudes deem Muslims guilty until proven innocent. In Austria, the crackdown on ‘political Islam’ has not targeted only so-called extremists, but rather organised Muslims and critical voices as well.
The similarity is glaring between the institutionalisation of a general demonisation of Muslims and US senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s witch-hunt of Black and left-wing groups under the banner of anti-Communism, which became known as ‘McCarthyism’ in the US. In both cases, fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion were put at risk. In the present case, the outcome will lead to nothing but further division between European states and their Muslim populations.