Khaleda Rahman, Daily Mail, June 8, 2018
Austria said today it could expel up to 60 Turkish-funded imams and their families and would shut down seven mosques as part of a crackdown on ‘political Islam’ that was described as ‘just the beginning’, triggering fury in Ankara.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the government is shutting a hardline Turkish nationalist mosque in Vienna and dissolving a group called the Arab Religious Community that runs six mosques.
His coalition government, an alliance of conservatives and the far right, came to power soon after Europe’s migration crisis on promises to prevent another influx and clamp down on benefits for new immigrants and refugees.
In a previous job as minister in charge of integration, Chancellor Kurz oversaw the passing of a tough ‘law on Islam’ in 2015, which banned foreign funding of religious groups and created a duty for Muslim societies to have ‘a positive fundamental view towards (Austria’s) state and society’.
‘Parallel societies, political Islam and radicalisation have no place in our country,’ Kurz told a news conference outlining the government’s decisions, which were based on that law.
‘This is just the beginning,’ far-right Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache added.
Ankara quickly denounced the move, and Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter: ‘Austria’s decision to close down seven mosques and deport imams with a lame excuse is a reflection of the anti-Islam, racist and discriminatory populist wave in this country.’
Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in Austria’s coalition government, said: ‘The circle of people possibly affected by these measures – the pool that we’re talking about — s comprises around 60 imams.’
Kickl was referring to imams with alleged links to the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations (ATIB) organisation, a branch of Turkey’s religious affairs agency Diyanet.
The interior minister added that the government suspects them of contravening a ban on foreign funding of religious office holders.
The ministry said 40 of them had an active application for extending their residency and that a number of these had already been referred to immigration authorities, where a process for expelling them was underway.
Once family members were taken into account, a total 150 people risked losing their right to residence, Kickl told a Vienna press conference.
Seven mosques will also be shut after an investigation by Austria’s religious affairs authority sparked by images which emerged in April of children in a Turkish-backed mosque playing dead and re-enacting the World War I battle of Gallipoli.
‘Parallel societies, political Islam and radicalisation have no place in our country,’ said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the ruling centre-right People’s Party.
The photos of children, published by the Falter weekly, showed the young boys in camouflage uniforms marching, saluting, waving Turkish flags and then playing dead.
Their ‘corpses’ were then lined up and draped in the flags.
The mosque in question was run by ATIB.
ATIB itself condemned the photos at the time, calling the event ‘highly regrettable’ and saying it was ‘called off before it had even ended’.
One of the mosques targeted by Friday’s measure was in the Favoriten district of Vienna.
The government said it had been operating illegally and that it was under the influence of the far-right Turkish political movement, the Grey Wolves.
Worshippers arriving for Friday prayers were met with a sign on the door reading ‘closed’ in Turkish and German.
Kursant, a 26-year-old, told AFP: ‘I’ve been coming to this mosque frequently since I was a child, I’ve had lessons here, I’ve never heard anyone at the mosque, any of the employees, express any Salafist opinions. That’s laughable.’
Six other mosques are being closed down, three in Vienna, two in Upper Austria and one in Carinthia.
All but one of the mosques affected belong to the ‘Arab Religious Association,’ according to the government.
But while Turkey’s presidential spokesman on Friday lambaste the measures as ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘racist’ move, other European far-right leaders welcomed the announcement.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National, said on Twitter: ‘Austria is taking things in hand and showing that ‘when you want to, you can!”
Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s League and interior minister in the new government, also tweeted his approval, saying: ‘Those who exploit their faith to endanger a country’s security should be expelled!’
Turkey’s relations with Austria have long been strained, with Kurz calling on the European Union to break off negotiations on Ankara joining the bloc and banning Turkish politicians from campaigning in Austria for upcoming elections.
Austria, a country of 8.8 million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim inhabitants, more than half of whom are Turkish or have families of Turkish origin.
Around 360,000 people of Turkish origin live in Austria, including 117,000 Turkish nationals.
Last week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked Kurz, saying: ‘This immoral chancellor has a problem with us’.
‘He’s throwing his weight around and making a scene,’ Erdogan went on.
Both Kurz, of the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) and the FPOe made immigration and integration major themes in their election campaigns last year.
The topic had been pushed up the political agenda by the migrant crisis of 2015-16, which saw more than 150,000 people seek asylum in the country of 8.7 million.
In Friday’s press conference Kurz was keen to emphasise that the action was being taken under legislation to regulate Islamic associations that he himself brought in as a minister in the previous government and which had so far – in his opinion – not been used often enough.
The conservative Kurz became chancellor in December in a coalition with the anti-migration Freedom Party.
In campaigning for last year’s election, both coalition parties called for tougher immigration controls, quick deportations of asylum-seekers whose requests are denied and a crackdown on radical Islam.
The government recently announced plans to ban girls in elementary schools and kindergartens from wearing headscarves, adding to existing restrictions on veils.