Let’s All Play Bye Bye Mosque

An anti-Islamic online game launched by the Austrian far-right party sparks anger across the country

News | Hannah Stadlober | October 2010

A blatantly anti-Muslim online computer game launched by the far-right Freedom Party FPÖ in the Austrian Federal State of Styria has triggered outrage and led to widespread censure by the country’s leaders.

The game with the provocative title "Moschee Baba" ("Bye bye Mosque") was uploaded Sept.1 as part of the FPÖ election campaign in Styria, adding to the party’s record of outspoken xenophobia and anti-Islamic propaganda – for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Styria, which will be held at the end of the month.

"This is pure mischief," Austrian president Franz Fischer told the Austrian Press Agency (APA). "The maturity of a democracy is also measured by how election campaigns are being run."

Laura Rudas, national secretary of the Social Democrats, saw in the game an "unprecedented scandal" and denounced it as "inciting violence against a minority," while the Conservative Party Chairman for Styria Christoph Drexler referred to it as "tasteless" in the Austrian daily Der Standard.

Even others on the far right criticized the move.

"It is utterly childish," stated Gerald Grosz from the BZÖ, Austria’s national liberal party. Claudia Klimt-Weithaler, candidate for the Styrian Communist Party (KPÖ), agreed.

"What would the [FPÖ] say if churches and priests were being shot at in a game?"

In "Moschee Baba" the player has 60 seconds to collect points for placing "Stop" signs on cartoon mosques, minarets as well as muezzins calling for prayer against the backdrop of Styria’s capital Graz, all accompanied with Austrian folklore music. It is only at the end of the game that a connection between the game and the far-right wing party is established by a link to the FPÖ website.

A pop-up window further encourages Styrians to vote for Gerhard Kurzmann, the FPÖ candidate for the upcoming elections and in a survey, the population is asked if Muslims living in the country should be required to declare the precedence of Austrian law over the Qur’an, and to vote on a possible ban on building mosques and minarets.

"Politicians are detached from everyday life but the FPÖ wants to include the population. That is why we need a public referendum," Kurzmann explained the reasons for the online survey in a recent phone Interview with The Vienna Review.

The Islamic Community finds this explanation disingenuous.

The game symbolizes "political hatred and xenophobia which is beyond comparison," said Anas Schakfeh, president of the IGGiÖ (Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich). Omar Al-Rawi, the community’s integrational commissioner agreed. The game "is basically a virtual chase after religious symbols and institutions," he said.

However, some have blamed Schakfeh himself for sparking this particular controversy with his call in an interview with APA at the end of August for "a mosque with a minaret in every Bundesland."

"[Schakfeh] has not chosen a good moment for this discussion," Christine Marek, head of the Viennese ÖVP told the Austrian daily Kurier. President Fischer agreed. "Everything that leads to an emotionalization (of the question) is harmful," at the beginning of an election campaign, he said.

Schakfeh reacted "surprised" to the strong responses his remarks had evoked. He claimed that he had made them merely in anticipation of the upcoming elections of the Islamic Community in Austria.

Kurzmann himself denied all allegations, asserting that the game is "completely harmless" and intended only to "initiate discussion."

"[It] is a way to make the youth aware of these problems and to reach out to those who are not interested in politics," he told The Vienna Review.  He denied there was any shooting involved in the game, but merely the stopping of what Herbert Kickl, FPÖ party secretary, referred to as a "bad political decision," namely an increase in the building of mosques with minarets in Styria.

According to Walter Kogler, candidate for the Green Party in Styria, however, the discussion is futile, as the game "is targeting minarets that don’t even exist." In fact, Styrian Muslims, which make up 1.6% of the total population, have no mosques with minarets. Nonetheless, at the end of the "Moschee baba" game, a pop-up window exclaims that "Styria is full of minarets and mosques!"

In total, there are four mosques with minarets in all of Austria. The oldest is located on the Hubertusdamm in the Viennese district of Floridsdorf, where it was built 30 years ago. Saalfelden in Salzburg has had a mosque with a minaret since 2002, and Austria’s newest one was built in Bad Vöslau in 2009.

The fourth is in the Tyrolean village of Telfs, where plans to supplement its mosque with a 20m high minaret led to waves of protests, and the height was eventually reduced to 15m. In 2009, the German-Austrian production of the Tatort crime television series, even broached the issue of the Telfs minaret debate in a fictional episode "Tree of Salvation" in which an alleged honor killing divides the village population. The episode is characteristic of the thoughtfulness of the issue-based series and gives insights into the latent racism and xenophobia of the population, all against the backdrop of the village’s mosque and its minaret as the central points of contention.

There are about half a million Muslims in Austria, according to Statistik Austria, and Islam is the country’s second biggest denomination after Christianity. In addition to the four mosques, 200 prayer rooms allow Muslims in the whole country to practice their religion. As the number of Muslims living in Austria increases, so do anti-Islamic rhetoric and xenophobic slogans in the FPÖ.

"Mosques are a hatchery of radical Islam," FPÖ MP Harald Vilimsky said in a press release, further calling for an "immigration ban for people from Islamic regions." While this particular vision has not taken hold, there are existing bans on the construction of mosques and minarets in both Carinthia and Vorarlberg.

In February 2008, instead of an outright ban on the construction of mosques and minarets, a special commission was installed in Carinthia to determine if "extraordinary construction projects [would] fit in the overall appearance of the locality" ("Bauvorhaben in das gewachsene Ortsbild einfügen") and thus to prevent the construction of Islamic places of worship.

Influenced by Carinthia, Austria’s westernmost federal state of Vorarlberg passed a law that would put construction for cultural purposes and public-intensive venues such as mosques under the so-called Special Dedication Law. And while what the Muslim municipal council (Gemeinderat) of the Viennese SPÖ Omar Al-Rawi refers to as "discriminatory regional laws" do not directly breach the constitutional right to freedom of religion, their de facto restrictions do nonetheless succeed in preventing the construction of mosques and minarets.

The controversial issue regarding the online game has now even divided the FPÖ camp, with Styrian FPÖ politicians siding with Kurzmann and Heinz-Christian Strache, the party’s chairman, distancing himself from the issue. Strache, who will be running for office in Vienna in October, asserted that he declined an offer to use "Moschee baba" in his campaign. But "I am nobody’s babysitter," he added in a press conference on Sept. 2.

"Moschee baba" has also drawn sharp criticism from the international community, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

The game is "inacceptable and islamophobic," Ban said in an interview with the Austrian daily Die Presse. "It is inhuman how muezzins and minarets are being shot at. A world religion is being vilified."

Initially, the controversial game could only be accessed on the www.moschee-baba.at website, owned by the PR firm GOAL AG, that had already designed a similar game for the Swiss anti-minaret initiative in November 2009. However, "Moschee baba" – which had up to then registered almost 214,000 hits – had to be taken off the Internet on Friday, Sept.3 after formal complaints that it was "inciting hatred and degrading a religion" were filed by the Styrian Green Party and the Islamic Community in Austria (IGGiÖ). Both of these conditions are illegal under Austrian Law.

On his website, Kurzmann announced that the game had to be taken off due to "exertion of political influence on the independence of the judiciary" which he considers the result of "political chicanery." "It is surprising how quickly the judiciary reacted to a political hue and cry," he told The Vienna Review.

However, the game later appeared on a Neo-Nazi website, whose US server prevents Austrian authorities from running legal action against it. Kurzmann claimed that he did not know how the website’s operators got access to "Moschee baba."

Alexander Segert, who developed the game, and his PR firm GOAL AG have announced that they will sue the website for data theft and misuse of copyright. "The incident, however, shows what bans and the suppression of opinions can lead to," Segert said. "They foster extremists on the right and left side of the political spectrum. An open society without prohibitions and control of opinion is the best prevention again left- and right-wing extremists."

In response to staunch criticism from all sides, the parliament voted to annul Kurzmann’s parliamentary immunity Sept. 22, thus allowing his prosecution.

Austria is not the only country where election campaigns are being fought – and more and more often won – with anti-Muslim slogans and ideologies rooted in xenophobia. Several other countries and parties not only from the right-wing extremist side of the political spectrum are part of what is becoming an Europe-wide trend: In France, the Senate has recently passed a niqab ban, while Geert Wilder’s anti-Islam party has doubled its parliamentary seats in the Dutch elections in July.

A Swiss initiative in November 2009 led to a nation-wide ban on minarets, and in Germany, the book "Deutschland schafft sich ab" ("Germany is doing itself in") by Thilo Sarrazin, central banker and member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sparked discussion about the growing number of Muslim immigrants in Germany who Sarrazin blames in part for the "downfall" of the country. With the Swedish Democrats, a party with right-wing extremist roots is now, following the elections on Sep.19, for the first time represented in the Swedish parliament.

And Austria is following suit. On Sept. 26 the FPÖ celebrated as they doubled their percentage to 10.83% of the vote in the parliamentary elections in Styria, making it the third most powerful party in the Bundesland after the two major Austrian parties – the People’s Party (37.14%) and the Social Democrats (38.43%). While the socialists and conservatives experienced losses, Kurzmann’s program of simplified messages, catchy slogans and polarizing campaigns seems to have worked. After what FPÖ MP Vilimsky referred to as a "small Styrian landslide," Kurzmann sees no reason to change his party’s course.

"We prefer to hear church bells instead of muezzins," he told The Vienna Review.

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