The parliament in Vienna has passed a motion that outlaws (wearing) face-covering veils, known as Burka, and the distribution of Qurans in public. These measures are part of an Integration Act that aims to make asylum seekers suitable for residing in Austria, and also tackle Islamic fundamentalism.
The controversial motion was accepted by the coalition last Tuesday evening. The legislation prohibits the wearing of burkas and niqabs in public spaces like universities, public transportation or courthouses. These Islamic veils completely cover someone’s face or show only the eyes, making them unrecognisable. Starting from October of this year, whoever violates the rule can be fined up to 150 euros. Other types of Islamic veils like the hijab and chador are still permitted.
The measure follows in the footsteps of other European countries such as France (who was the first the ban face-concealing veils in public in 2010) and Belgium (2011). In December 2016, Angela Merkel also expressed her support for the ban. Stating it should become prohibited “wherever it is legally possible”.
In April, the German parliament had already approved a protocol prohibiting public servants in function to conceal their face. Female judges, administrators and soldiers were no longer allowed to wear a niqab or burka to work.
The ban is part of an Integration package and was agreed upon by the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Socialist Party (SPÖ). The integration law includes a required one-year integration course designed for people with realistic prospects for permanent residence.
The ban has been criticised by both extremes of the political spectrum. For the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the law did not go far enough, and the Greens (Grünen) deem the law intolerant. Protest has also risen in the Muslim community. Sevgi Kircil, spokesman for the community, called the law an “intervention in religious freedom and the freedom of expression.”
Muna Duzdar, state secretary of chancellor Christian Kern, stated that the motion is meant to help immigrants integrate. Analysts argue that the new legislation can be seen as an attempt to defuse the increasing impact of the far-right anti-immigrant Freedom Party.
The Integration legislation obliges refugees and asylum seekers to follow classes in German language, alongside so-called ‘Value-courses’ (wertekursen). Labour is seen an important part of the integration, and takes the form of mandatory charity work.
Refugees and asylum seekers can expect cuts in their social benefit payments if they fail to participate in either of these obligatory activities.
Austrian Foreign Minister, Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), expressing his support of the new measures said, “This is the only way for people to work towards the respect of the majority of society.”
The restriction on the distribution of the Quran aims to counter Islamic fundamentalist groups, in particular the Salafist organisation “The True Religion”. This group, known for its “Read!” campaign, often uses the distribution of the holy book as a cover for radical Islamic recruitment.
The organisation was already banned from Germany, but is still operating in Austria. Kurz has deemed this unacceptable and has been pleading for a ban on the “Koran-Aktion” for a while.