Enforcing Austria’s burqa ban a delicate matter in Alpine resort

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A woman wearing a headscarf sits on a bench in a park in Zell am See in Austria. (AFP)
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A woman wearing a niqab sits in a boat in Zell am See in Austria. (AFP)
Updated 05 October 2018
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Enforcing Austria’s burqa ban a delicate matter in Alpine resort

  • The picturesque little town south of Salzburg draws tens of thousands of visitors from Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Oman every year
  • They make up more than a quarter of all annual visitors and holiday brochures are readily available in Arabic

ZELL AM SEE, Austria: With its pristine waters, snow-covered mountains and breathtaking Alpine views, the Austrian lakeside town of Zell am See is one of the top European destinations for visitors from the Gulf region.
And it aims to remain so, even though Austria introduced a ban on face-covering burqa or niqab veils a year ago.
The picturesque little town south of Salzburg with a population of 10,000 is regularly described as “paradise” in Arabic-language reviews online. It draws tens of thousands of visitors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Oman every year.
They make up more than a quarter of all annual visitors and holiday brochures are readily available in Arabic.
So, when Austria banned the wearing of burqas or niqabs in all public spaces in October 2017 — under pain of fines of up to €150 ($170) — the town’s authorities knew that enforcing the rule could be a delicate matter.
The aim of the ban, according to the government, is to further integration among Austrian Muslims at a time when fears about immigration and radical Islamists are sharply dividing society.
But in resorts such as Zell am See, police are having to enforce it against tourists, fueling fears that the high-spending Arab guests, and the valuable revenue they represent, might be scared off.
“I’ve heard some people say they don’t want to come back now,” said one restaurant worker who asked not to be named, even if he said hadn’t particularly noticed a drop in business this year.
Local police chief Kurt Moeschl said more than 200 fines had been handed out between June and September alone. But his officers were always at pains to remain respectful.
“We have been trying to implement the law with as much tact and sense of proportion as possible,” he said.
Austrian embassies and missions abroad had been working to raise awareness of the new law, Moeschl said. And the police chief himself had hosted the Saudi ambassador in Zell am See to discuss the issue.
Moeschl estimated that in around 90 percent of cases, the women had agreed to remove their veil after police officers explained the new law to them.
Walking along the lakeside, one couple from Saudi Arabia — who did not wish to be named — said they had been approached by police during their stay.
“Yes, the police did talk to us about the niqab law. But we are leaving tomorrow,” the husband said, as his wife, still wearing the veil, stood beside him.
A little farther along the shore, Barbara Scheicher, who operates a boat-rental business, said the law had not had a noticeable impact.
“I haven’t noticed any difference, either in the number [of people] coming, or in how many of them are veiled,” she said.
“I asked one woman whether she knew it was illegal, but she reacted so badly that since then I haven’t. I’ve seen the same reaction when the police have tried to tell people,” Scheicher said.
Police chief Moeschl said his officers had also encountered locals and even other holidaymakers who insisted that women’s veils be forcibly removed.
One Norwegian tourist, for example, went so far as to send the police photos of niqab-wearing women at various locations around the town, complete with the times they were taken, and the message: “Do your job.”
Moeschl insisted that most interactions passed off without incident and that his officers followed interior ministry guidelines.
And he is optimistic that, over time, the situation will become easier.
“I expect that in a few years from now, this won’t be an issue.”


US envoy ‘disappointed’ by collapse of inter-Afghan peace meeting

Updated 19 April 2019
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US envoy ‘disappointed’ by collapse of inter-Afghan peace meeting

  • A 250-strong delegation of Afghan politicians and civil society figures had been due to meet Taliban officials in Doha at the weekend
  • The event was abruptly canceled on Thursday amid arguments over the size and status of the group

KABUL: The US envoy for peace in Afghanistan expressed disappointment on Friday after the collapse of a planned meeting between the Taliban and a group of Afghan politicians in Qatar that exposed some of the deep divisions hampering efforts to end the war.
A 250-strong delegation of Afghan politicians and civil society figures had been due to meet Taliban officials in Doha at the weekend. The event was abruptly canceled on Thursday amid arguments over the size and status of the group, which included some government officials attending in a personal capacity.
“I’m disappointed Qatar’s intra-Afghan initiative has been delayed,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation, said on Twitter. “I urge all sides to seize the moment and put things back on track by agreeing to a participant list that speaks for all Afghans.”
The collapse of the meeting before it had even started, described as a “fiasco” by one senior Western official, laid bare the tensions that have hampered moves toward opening formal peace negotiations.
Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born diplomat, has held a series of meetings with Taliban representatives but the insurgents have so far refused to talk to the Western-backed government in Kabul, which they dismiss as a “puppet” regime.
The Doha meeting was intended to prepare the ground for possible future talks by building familiarity among Taliban officials and representatives of the Afghan state created after the US-led campaign that toppled the Taliban government in 2001. A similar encounter was held in Moscow in February.
President Ashraf Ghani’s office blamed Qatari authorities for the cancelation, saying they had authorized a list of participants that differed from the one proposed by Kabul, “which meant disrespect for the national will of the Afghans.”
“This act is not acceptable for the people of Afghanistan,” it said in a statement on Friday.
Sultan Barakat, director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Qatar, which had been facilitating the meeting, said there was no disagreement about the agenda.
“Rather, there is insufficient agreement around participation and representation to enable the conference to be a success,” he tweeted.
Preparations had already been undermined by disagreements on the government side about who should attend, as well as by suspicions among rival politicians ahead of presidential elections scheduled for September.
The Taliban derided the agreed list of 250 participants as a “wedding party.” Some senior opposition figures who had been included refused to attend.
The Taliban also objected to Ghani’s comments to a meeting of delegates that they would be representing the Afghan nation and the Afghan government, a statement that went against the insurgents’ refusal to deal with the Kabul administration.