TCS Daily

Fear of the Other

By Patti McCracken - September 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Not long ago, I was riding the U-bahn in Vienna; the train ducked into underground stops, thundered through the concrete tunnels, and then re-emerged at street level at a more ambling pace. Slow enough, anyway, for me to catch sight of a stunning billboard, which I read twice, the second time just to make sure I understood. "Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden," it read. Vienna must not become Istanbul.

What an ugly statement, I thought, to be dominating the streets of such a magnificent city. The ads were part of a smear campaign by the ultra-right Freedom Party (which has since splintered into two parties), against a Turkish art exhibit, in which Turkish flags were draped around the Wien Kunsthalle museum. This was based on a similar campaign a few years ago, in which the Freedom Party created the slogan, "Vienna must not become Chicago," a hostile reference to the influx of East Europeans after the fall of communism.

Immigrants make up almost 10 percent of the population in Austria, and no one can argue that Austria has not pulled its weight by accepting foreigners after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It took in 690,000 during that time, twice as many as five years previous to the fall of communism. And 90,000 refugees were taken in during the Bosnian war. But the Islamic community is expressing outrage at recent revisions in policy to what is an already highly-regulated immigration structure.

It might be a stretch to claim that Austria's immigration laws are too restrictive. Since the 1960s, it has had a policy of accepting workers from less developed countries, albeit conditionally. Furthermore, the nation ranks fourth among EU members in taking asylum seekers (after England, Germany and France), no small feat for a little country of only 8 million people. However, the reins are tightening, and it's the far right wing that is pulling the strings.

Delivering a steady diet of xenophobia at a time when many Austrians are afraid of its newly-opened borders with the Eastern bloc, the Freedom Party (FPO) briefly surged in popularity by preying on these fears. Once in parliament, the FPO put a stranglehold on the immigration law, promoting instead a policy of "integration before immigration." This meant more restrictions in the law, including forbidding permanent residency to blue-collar seasonal workers, something that had been allowed in the past. But why does integration and immigration have to be exclusive? And what, exactly, does it mean to integrate?

"They mean total assimilation," says Dr. Guenther Rathner, a sociologist at the University of Innsbruck, who has conducted an expansive study on xenophobia in Austria, in referring to the far-right immigration opponents. "In the long run, immigrants always tend to assimilate, after the second or third generation. This is in every culture. But the ultra-right has used this platform before. They say the immigrants have to dress like us, speak better German than us. But it's all a camouflage to promote fear."

For many of the immigrants, assimilation is a relatively seamless progression. A large number hail from the Balkans or other Slavic regions, areas that were under the Austrian empire, and therefore greatly influenced by it. So being Austrian is just two or three steps removed from being Czech, or Slovak, or Slovenian. But for many of the 340,000 Muslims residing here, the gap is far wider. There are factions of Muslims in Austria that stand apart--much like the Amish in America--easily identifiable by their dress, their manner, their customs. Must they integrate to the standards set out by the extreme right, or must Austrians be more tolerant?

After the July bombings in London, tolerance is a tall order in Europe. But how can advertising anti-Turkish slogans promote integration? There are other problems. A popular reality show last year pitted a Turkish wife against an Austrian wife, who proceeded to unleash an astonishing string of racial epithets against her Turkish counterpart. Ratings soared as viewers tuned in to see a non-satirical, real life version of "All in the Family," but what does it mean for integration of Austria's most dangerously isolated population? How does bullying unify?

Austrians are concerned about the rush to their borders, but records show that immigrants are actually more law-abiding than native-born residents. Rathner's study showed that, despite its reputation, Austria is no more xenophobic than other nations. Yet stereotypes persist. A friend of mine in a small border town near Slovakia (with a significant Turkish community), says the immigrant Turks are okay individually, but not in groups. He also says they don't treat women well. But when pressed on the issue, he says he doesn't know any Turks personally, and has no personal knowledge of Turkish men in this town abusing or disrepecting their wives.

In a poll, Austrians said they didn't mind immigrants, but felt it was important to fan them out, so they don't form communities. In other words, it is okay if you come here, as long as you forget where you came from. "If the FPO continues to draw upon these fears and sensationalize the differences between new, non-ethnic Austrians or immigrants and 'Austrians,' the negative stereotypes will simply be reinforced," says Christina Sue Augsburger, an anthropologist who studied Turkish communities in Vienna.

So as the world expands, it also contracts. With the uncertainty that globalization brings, comes the retreat in Europe, and certainly in Austria, back to the villages and communities that are so familiar. For a few thousand years, the tendency in Europe was for clans to cling together, protecting themselves from outsiders. Not much has changed.

The writer is a journalist based in Vienna.


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