The Turk, Austria’s favorite whipping boy

In the prosperous Austrian state of Vorarlberg, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has harvested more than 20% of the vote by brandishing the spectre of "an invasion" of Turkish migrants who would threaten "the social peace."

Published on 6 April 2010 at 13:20
 | Still failing to get a life. Heinz-Christian Strache (2nd from left) of the far-right FPÖ leads an anti-Muslim rally in Belgium.

Up until the middle of the 1950s, you could still see a swastika carved into the rock face of the mountain that overshadows Hohenems Castle. When they took power in 1938, the Nazi militants in the town in Vorarlberg at the western tip of Austria announced the end of "Jewish domination:" the forces of national-socialism were to restore the tonic climate of the Alps, which had become tainted by the accumulated foul air of three centuries of foreign influence. Today, most of the town’s 15,000 residents are unaware that Marktstrasse (Market Street) used to be named Christengasse (Christian Street), and what is now Schweizergasse (Swiss Street), which is lined with elegant houses, used to be called Judengasse (Jewish Street). The textile factory owned by the Rosenthal Brothers, who were pioneers in the printed cotton industry, was closed long ago — and the rich Jewish families of Hohenems, whose renown extended as far as Alexandria and Constantinople, are no more than a memory.

Today the worst fears of the part of the local population are focused on a fresh target. "Turkish immigrants are the main cause of the problem," explains Horst Obwegeser, age 47, the boss of an electrical services company and head of the local branch of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the main right-wing populist party. "We don’t want to become a little Istanbul," he says. His alternately paranoid and threatening discourse — parents who do not speak German at home should be "sanctioned," and their children sent to "special schools" — is shared by a significant proportion of his fellow citizens. In local elections on 14 March, the FPÖ obtained 22.66% of the vote in Hohenems (an increase of 9.79% over 2005). In 2008 general elections, the party took 17.5% of the national vote, and it now hovers at around 20% in the polls. Bordering the Alemannic area around Lake Constance, the minuscule state of Vorarlberg is the most prosperous in Austria, and a cradle for cutting-edge companies. In this privileged region, the omnipresent mountains provide a backdrop for a collective identity fueled by xenophobic rhetoric.

The West belongs to Christians

There is no denying the link between the success of the anti-minaret referendum in Switzerland organized by Christoph Blocher’s Swiss People’s Party (which is promoted by the same communications agency as the FPÖ), and recent incidents that have troubled neighbouring Liechtenstein. The press in Vaduz suspects a core group of extremists of orchestrating the petrol-bombing of a Turkish restaurant and buildings housing migrants in late February. An attack on a Turkish schoolboy, who was hit over the head with a bottle in a bus, has also been widely reported. In late 2008, a gang of neo-Nazis from Liechtenstein and Switzerland succeeded in provoking a pitched battle with the Turkish minority, which resulted in two cases of serious injury. It is a lot for a country with a population of 35,800.

"The West belongs to Christians" is one of the main slogans favoured by the FPÖ, which is scandalized by the fact that Islam, with more than half a million believers, has now become the second most widely practiced religion in Austria. Like the state of Carinthia, the former stronghold of populist politician Jörg Haider, Vorarlberg adopted special planning regulations in 2008 to outlaw buildings that are not ortsüblich, or "typically local" — in other words a ban on minarets. On the eve of general elections in September of the same year and again in the run-up to regional elections in Vorarlberg in 2009, the Jewish Museum of Hohenems responded by organizing two exhibitions provocatively entitled "How to build a typically local minaret?" — an initiative which prompted a verbal attack on the museum’s German director Hanno Loewy, described by an FPÖ leader as "an exiled Jew from America." "When the museum opened in 1991, it was given a brief to contribute to multi-cultural society. Some people may have a problem with it, but I was simply fulfilling that mandate explains," Mr Loewy.

We will soon have a Turkish mayor

Like many in the FPÖ, Mr Obwegeser alludes to an Überfremdung, or "alienation" caused by foreigners that will undermine the social peace. "In the kindergartens, 60% of the children are from immigrant families, " which have a higher birth rate than native Austrians. There are 30,000 people of Turkish origin in Vorarlberg. "We account for 16% of the population of the regional state, but 25% of the school going population," points out Attila Dincer, the general secretary of the Vorarlberg Turkish platform, which includes a dozen different organizations. He also adds that there are close to 600 companies managed by Turks, which employ 4,000 people.

You only have to observe the affable Mr Dincer, talking volubly in English with the American ambassador to Austria at a function organized by the Jewish museum, to realize the significant political potential of this community which is putting down roots in Vorarlberg just as the community of Italian migrants did in the past. In 2005, there were seven candidates of foreign origin on the lists for election in the small Austrian state. On 14 March 2009, that number had risen to 76, and Austria’s new citizens had a significant influence on the outcome of the elections thanks to the country’s proportional representation voting system. "At this rate, we will soon have a Turkish mayor!" exclaims an alarmed Mr Obwegeser, who continues to bemoan the fate of Vorarlberg which already has a Muslim cemetery: located not far from the historic Jewish cemetery in Hohenems.

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