Clash of Communities

The planned expansion of an Islamic center in Vienna drives the right wing to the streets

News | Jessica Spiegel | June 2009

Blueprints for the Islamic center on Dammstraße that has stirred xenophobia among right wing circles in Vienna (Photo: Linda Eid)

Frigid rain couldn’t keep opposing parties from meeting head-on in Vienna’s streets on May 14. A makeshift stage had been erected in front of the Parliament building on the Ringstraße where a small crowd clung, listening intently to a speaker bawling into a megaphone against the "hate" that had brought on the demonstration, while a throng of right-wing marchers snaked through the streets behind the Rathaus.

The march was the work of the Bürgerinitiative Dammstraße in protest against the expansion of an Islamic center in Vienna’s 20th district, and a large police was there to keep them well protected.

A portion of the city center had been blocked off, bringing rush hour traffic to a halt, and certain roads were impassable even for pedestrians. Policemen guarded makeshift fences along the Landesgerichtsstraße behind the Ring, riot helmets firmly in place and shields close at hand.

In the end it seemed the cops outnumbered the right-wing activists and those from the left outnumbered both. The counter-protest had been planned by several organizations including Linkswende and the Socialist (SPÖ) and Communist (KPÖ) parties, and it was they that stole the show. They positioned themselves to cut off the 700-odd anti-Islam marchers from every corner of their carefully designated route and kept the riot police tense throughout that rainy evening.

The largely tattooed, dread-locked and pierced group were united in one thing at least: that a ‘hate-filled’ protest was intolerable in our city.

As the ring-wing marchers rounded one particular bend behind the Rathaus in what looked like a polite and orderly demonstration, counter-protestors emerged from the other side of the police protective barrier, hitting wooden sticks against anything that would cause a racket, emptying garbage cans and screaming, "Nazis raus!" (Nazis get out) at the marchers.

The police scrambled to maintain their hold of the fence separating the left from the right, thwarting what could have been a messy encounter. At another bend near the Burg Theater, and "anti" coalition managed to bring the so-called "Nazi" march to a complete halt.

But despite the fascist references, the group looked rather normal: there seemed to be few skinheads among the protesters. Nor does the website of the Bürgerinitiative Dammstraße resemble a neo-Nazi platform.

The initiative’s sole objective is to halt the planned expansion of an Islamic center near Jägerstraße, and to stop the building of what the site describes as a mammoth Muslim edifice complete with minarets.

The initiative’s spokesman, however, claimed not to be against Islam, or even against the existing small Islamic center on Dammstraße, which opened its doors in 1996. What they fear is the "Islamification" of Austria that they believe will arise from the center’s expansion, which the site claims will house apartments, a Turkish supermarket and a school for the study of the Koran.

The Initiative’s march was supported and attended by FPÖ and BZÖ constituents – Austria’s two right-wing parties that gained considerably in the Fall 2008 elections. FPÖ party chief Heinz-Christian Strache spoke to the marchers after the demonstration, proudly asking before his speech "Does anyone see right-wing extremists here?" It was later widely reported that several of the marchers wore "88" and "Combat 18" T-shirts – a symbol of certain neo-Nazi circles.

Strache was in his element, raising a hue and cry against "Islamification" through the mosque project. He proposes, among other things, a ban on the headscarf for Muslim women, and his party has been using slogans like Abendland in Christenhand (The West in Christian Hands) in the campaign for the upcoming EU parliamentary elections.

After months of looking the other way, these recent actions have now brought down stinging rebukes from nearly everyone else, including Chancellor Faymann and Cardinal Schönborn (see article: Austrian Leaders Say 'No' to Strache), and he caused an particularly vocal uproar after pulling out a crucifix during a demonstration in Graz, showing it to stress his "Christian message" once more.

This led to another small riot in Graz, where left-wing protestors doused FPÖ members with water balloons and raw eggs after Strache gave a speech, so that his supporters had to use umbrellas to protect themselves from the mess.

The Bürgerinitiative Dammstraße has called for additional demonstrations, claiming they won’t stop until their calls to stop the expansion are heeded. But the director of the Muslim center, Nihat Koca, says that the group’s fears are unnecessary.

"Neither mosque nor minarets are in the planning," Koca said, and the center will hold German language courses, among other integration-centered programs. In an interview with Der Standard on the day of the protest, Koca claimed that 40 changes had been made since planning began three years ago, demonstrating his willingness to accommodate his neighbors.

"Not much will change in the neighborhood," he claimed. The prayer room will not be enlarged, and the only real modification would be the addition of kindergarten large enough for 30 children. And along with mosques and minarets, the supposed Koran school seems to be just another myth.

Koca received approval from the Vienna city authorities in April 2009, paving the way for construction to begin without interference, which is expected to begin in 2010 or 2011. Koca claims he will keep neighbors well informed until then.

The Bürgerinitiative may keep protesting, but with the calming voice of Nihat Koca and active support from counter-protestors at events like these, the marches seem unlikely to have their desired result.

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