Armed police in Vienna
Armed police officers patrol the scene after a gunman killed four people in Vienna in early November © Ronald Zak/AP

After an Islamist extremist went on a shooting rampage in Vienna last month, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz identified what he said provided the ideological framework legitimising the attack: “political Islam”. He fell short of defining the term, however.

The piece of legislation Mr Kurz’s government plans to bring to parliament this month will include a ban on membership of designated “Islamist” organisations, preventive arrests, wider-ranging authority for police to close mosques and other institutions deemed radical, and powers to strip radicalised individuals of their citizenship.

“In the fight against political Islam, we will create a criminal offence called ‘political Islam’ in order to be able to take action against those who are not terrorists themselves but who create the breeding ground for such,” Mr Kurz said on November 11.

The move goes potentially further than new legislation pushed by French president Emmanuel Macron, who in a speech in October singled out the dangers posed by “Islamist separatism” for France’s secular values such as gender equality and the right to blasphemy. Since the speech, France has suffered two deadly jihadist incidents.

The initiatives have sparked accusations of Islamophobia. The French leader - who has insisted his goal is to target religious extremists, not Muslims - was vilified in protests that erupted throughout the Muslim world after being accused by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s premier Imran Khan of attacking Islam.

After Mr Kurz’s declarations on political Islam, Umit Vural, the president of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, cautioned against conflating violent extremism with religious orthodoxy.

“There is no definition of political Islam,” Mr Vural told Die Presse newspaper. “I would like to invite all people of prudence and reason, [to consider] that we as a society must distinguish between the peaceful religion of Islam and these extremists.”

Trying to define political Islam is a complicated task, said Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the security think-tank RUSI whose research focuses on terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Islamism is a “spectrum from moderate stuff, donation and worship, all the way through to hard political Islam . . . and then jihadis and terrorists”, he said. “There is a point on that spectrum where, as a society, you draw the line. And where you draw that line depends on your political orientation.”

Sebastian Kurz
Sebastian Kurz: ‘We will create a criminal offence . . . to take action against those who are not terrorists themselves but who create the breeding ground for such’ © Ronald Zak/AP

For the past five years Mr Kurz’s rhetoric against Muslim immigration and Islamist groups has set the Austrian premier apart from Europe’s other conservative leaders.

“Macron gets all the headlines, but Kurz has been saying this since he was a minister for foreign affairs,” said Lorenzo Vidino, director of the programme for extremism at George Washington University.

Mr Vidino is an adviser to the Austrian Observatory on Political Islam, an independent, government-funded body created by legislation pushed through by Mr Kurz as minister for foreign affairs and social integration in 2015.

That year, Mr Kurz was instrumental in overseeing changes to the 1912 Islamgesetz — a Habsburg-era piece of legislation regulating relations between the state and its Muslim citizens. In its original form, the law was intended to guarantee the rights and freedoms of Muslims in the Habsburg empire, giving them latitude on religious matters.

Mr Kurz changed the legislation to stipulate criteria for the appointment of imams, restrict foreign funding for religious institutions and designate representative bodies.

In June 2018, as chancellor governing in a coalition with the populist right, he used the law to expel 60 of the 260 Turkish imams preaching in Austria and to close seven mosques. In 2017, he pushed through a ban on face coverings.

The Austrian Academy of Sciences estimates the number of Muslims in the country of 9m has doubled to 700,000 since 2001, a small minority of whom are linked to foreign Islamist groups. Among such groups are the Muslim Brotherhood, Palestinian groups such as Hamas and clusters of Salafists with ties to the Gulf.

The Austrian chancellor used an amended Habsburg-era law in 2018 to expel 60 Turkish imams and to close seven mosques © Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Mr Kurz’s longstanding animus towards radical Islamism is as much a question of culture as security policy, according to both critics and supporters.

“The violent side is secondary,” said Mr Vidino. “It takes the back seat to a larger concern about the influence on Austrian society of political Islam . . . [it] is about the negative impact on social cohesion and integration.”

In a 2017 interview with the Financial Times, Mr Kurz decried anti-Semitism, misogyny and the creation of “parallel societies” as totems of the hardline Islamist beliefs he opposed. 

The 34-year-old leader has staked much of his political career on tapping into such concerns — winning back votes for his party, the moderate conservative Austrian People’s party (OVP) from the populist right.

Indeed, many Austrians are worried about immigration and what they see as growing challenges to traditional societal norms. A 2017 survey for think-tank Chatham House found 65 per cent of Austrians were in favour of banning any further immigration from Muslim countries.

“The fight against political Islam has become something like a trademark for the OVP,” said Thomas Schmidinger, lecturer at the University of Vienna and an authority on jihadism in Austria.

“There are two agendas: to mobilise your own biased electorate and also to switch attention away from the failings and shortcomings of the ministry of the interior and the police after the attacks,” he added.

Austria’s intelligence chief has resigned over the Vienna shootings after it emerged his agency had forewarning of the danger posed by the attacker, who had attempted to join Isis in Syria last year. The justice system was also criticised after having released the attacker early from prison.

The factors driving individuals to commit violence are multifarious, and hard to reduce to the religious milieu in which individuals grew up, according to Mr Pantucci. Other factors such as broken homes, criminal activities and mental disorders also play a role. 

“This conflict is really about modern Europe,” Mr Pantucci said. “And how modern Europe is going to rationalise living with large indigenous Muslim communities . . . [Kurz and Macron] are worried about the broader divisions in society.”

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris

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