My Europe: A culture war in Austrian classrooms

My Europe: A culture war in Austrian classrooms
My Europe: A culture war in Austrian classrooms. picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst
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Nobody in Austria wants girls who have not even reached puberty to wear Muslim headscarves: neither the government, nor the opposition, nor teachers, nor education experts, nor those imams who express their views in public. The Islamic Religious Authority in Austria (IGGÖ), recognized officially as the representative of Muslims in the country, is also clearly against it. But despite this extremely broad consensus, the issue has become a hot topic in Austria, a country that is admittedly always rather excitable. The internet is brimming with comments on the issue, and Austrian parliamentary debates have been marked by heated arguments from both sides.

All this hubbub says nothing about the social significance of the issue. Instead, it shows just how skilled Austria's right-wing government really is at manipulating public opinion.

On Thursday, the Austrian Parliament voted to ban girls in primary school from wearing Muslim headscarves. The Social Democrats (SPÖ) and liberal NEOS party voted against the law. Parents whose girls wear a headscarf could face a fine of up to €440 ($490). The law was passed despite the fact that there have been few actual cases of girls wearing headscarves at primary school in Austria. In the state of Tyrol, 19 such instances have been reported. So this entire political undertaking served only the purpose of stoking anti-Islam sentiment among government supporters, framing the opposition as spineless and polarizing the liberal public sphere.

Taking aim at Islam, without mentioning it

Former Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who initiated the law, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) initially even wanted to amend the constitution. Under Austrian law, this would have meant that the new rule was in no danger of being overturned by the Constitutional Court. But the social democrats and liberals opposed this, and the constitutional amendment did not pass, as a two-thirds majority would have been needed. So what is now just a normal law will likely still give rise to further debates along the lines of the previous ones.

For the law to be legally valid, the word "Islam" could not be mentioned. So instead, it stipulates that the wearing of any "ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head" is banned. This phrasing allows the Jewish kippa to be worn, but not Sikh turbans. These latter were, however, expressly exempted from the ban on covering the head in a statement from the parliamentary committee in charge of the issue. A clever move: The court is not allowed to challenge the findings of such a committee.

However, the new law could be challenged by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as its jurisdiction stipulates that headscarves may be banned by a state only if it upholds a "principle of neutrality" with regard to all religions. And this is far from being the case in Austria, where crucifixes are mandatory in classrooms.

Read more: Unveiling the history of the headscarf

Unconvincing arguments

After the law was made legally airtight for the time being, the way was cleared for attacks on critics from the liberal camp. The government argued that the headscarf led to "gender-based segregation." This is an unconvincing point to make in a country where rural children are still obliged by schools to wear traditional dirndl dresses and leather pants on special occasions – dirndls for girls and pants for boys, needless to say. ÖVP lawmaker Rudolf Taschner, a dyed-in-the-wool right-winger, called the headscarf a "symbol for the oppression of women and girls" and promised to "fight with all his power for enlightened principles."

The same lawmaker, incidentally, also wants denominational religion classes to be obligatory for all schoolchildren, even those who belong to no religion or denomination at all.

And Education Minister Heinz Fassmann, who tends to the rational rather than the ideological in his ideas, was once again put in the position of having to come up with liberal arguments to justify the government's "fight against political Islam."

How will the law affect schools?

So far, there is hardly any debate in Austria about how the new law will actually impact schools. They seem not to be that important in this matter. Critics have pointed out that young girls are not necessarily forced by fundamentalist fathers to wear the headscarf, but may simply be imitating their mothers or aunts. The fact that the law only applies at schools has also been criticized. This could have the effect of alienating children from this institution and instead lead them to retreat into the intimacy of the family, as happens with children in sects, the critics say.

Kenan Güngör, a German sociologist based in Vienna, argues that the ban could make conservative Muslim parents more receptive to radical Islamist groups. He also argues that children who do not differentiate between their parents' religious beliefs and their own identity could gain the impression that they are unwanted.

The Austrian government, which just cut back funds for integration measures by €80 million euro ($90 million), does not seem concerned by all this. On the contrary: As long as there seems to be a chance that its culture war in classrooms will end in victory, it wages it with majority support. Before his resignation, Vice Chancellor Strache had already announced plans to extend the headscarf ban to the age of 14.

Norbert Mappes-Niediek lives in Graz, Austria and is the southeastern Europe correspondent for numerous German-language newspapers. Every evening, DW sends out a selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.

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