Anti-Islamic prejudice rears its head in Austria

What an ugly statement, I thought, to be dominating the streets of such a magnificent city.

The ads were part of a smear campaign by the ultra-right Freedom Party (which has since splintered into two parties) against a Turkish art exhibit, in which Turkish flags were draped around the Wien Kunsthalle museum.

This was based on a similar campaign a few years ago, when the Freedom Party's slogan was "Vienna must not become Chicago," a hostile reference to the influx of East Europeans after the fall of communism.

Immigrants make up almost 10 percent of Austria's population, so no one can argue that Austria has not pulled its weight by accepting foreigners after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It took in 690,000 in 1993, twice as many as five years before, as well as refugees, including 90,000 during the Bosnian War.

Now the Islamic community is expressing outrage at recent revisions in what is an already highly regulated immigration structure.

It might be a stretch to claim that Austria's immigration laws are too restrictive. Since the 1960s, it has had a policy of accepting workers from less developed countries, albeit conditionally. Furthermore, the nation ranks fourth among European Union members in taking asylum seekers (after England, Germany and France), no small feat for a little country of only 8 million people.

However, the reins are tightening, and it's the extreme right wing that is pulling them.

Delivering a steady diet of xenophobia at a time when many Austrians are afraid of newly opened borders with the Eastern bloc, the Freedom Party (FPO) briefly surged in popularity by preying on these fears.

Once in parliament, the FPO put a stranglehold on the immigration law, instead promoting a policy of "integration before immigration."

But why do the two have to be exclusive? And what does it mean to integrate?

"They (the extreme right) mean total assimilation," says Guenther Rathner, a sociologist at the University of Innsbruck, who has studied xenophobia in Austria.

"In the long run, immigrants always tend to assimilate after the second or third generation. This is in every culture. But the ultra-right has used this platform before. They say the immigrants have to dress like us, speak better German than us. But it's all a ruse to promote fear," he says.

Rathner's study also showed that, despite its reputation, Austria is no more xenophobic than other nations.

But many Austrians are afraid. For years after World War II, they rested surprisingly comfortably in the folds of the Cold War. They felt safe from yet more warfare and protected by being on the right side of the Iron Curtain. Their troubles were few.

Austrians worried that once people in poorer countries had a peek at Austria's goodies, the jig would be up. But generally, the worry was for naught. True, robberies in some border towns have been increasing, especially car theft, but these acts are usually carried out by crime rings operating from neighboring countries. In fact, records show that immigrants in Austria are more law-abiding than nativeresidents.

Austrians hang on to the stereotype of the dangerous and troublesome outsider. A friend of mine in a small border town with a large Turkish community near Slovakia reflects a common attitude when he says immigrant Turks are OK individually, but not in groups.

Like many others, he believes that Turkish men treat women poorly. But when pressed, he says he doesn't know any Turks personally and has no personal knowledge of Turkish men in this town abusing or disrespecting their wives.

In Rathner's study, Austrians said they didn't mind immigrants, per se, but felt it was important to fan them out so they don't form communities. This way, the immigrants have a better chance of assimilating, or so they said.

But it seems the Austrians would feel less threatened if other cultures are not allowed to take root. So as the world expands, so does it contract. With the uncertainty that globalization brings, comes the retreat in Europe and certainly in Austria to the village mind-set that is so familiar.

For 3,000 years, Europeans stuck to themselves as a means of survival against invading forces. And though now there is no threat, not much has changed. Not yet.

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