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.”


Anjem Choudary: UK TV's favorite hate preacher

Updated 3 min 57 sec ago
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Anjem Choudary: UK TV's favorite hate preacher

  • British lawyer embraced radical Islamism and vigorously defended extremist groups after attacks including the 7/7 London bombings
  • Given 5½ prison term in 2016, Choudary was released last year and is completing the sentence under strict supervision

DUBAI: A UK-trained lawyer by trade, Anjem Choudary knew just how far to take his rhetoric before it went from freedom of expression to hate speech.

In 2005, he appeared on BBC “HardTalk” after the 7/7 London bombings, which left 56 people dead. Instead of condemning the attacks, he said: “As a Muslim, I must support my Muslim brothers and sisters wherever they are in the world. I must have allegiance with them, I must cooperate with them, I must run with them, and similarly on the other hand, I must have hatred towards everything that isn’t Islam.”

He added: “At the end of the day, when we say innocent people, we mean Muslims. As long as non-Muslims are concerned, they haven’t accepted Islam, and as far as we’re concerned, that’s a crime against God.”

Choudary embraced radical Islamism and joined the extremist organization Al-Muhajiroun, working with Islamist militant leader Omar Bakri Muhammad.

The organization was banned in 2004 under UK anti-terror legislation. 

Muhammad later left for Lebanon, and Choudary assumed the leadership position.

Al-Muhajiroun’s official disbanding had little real impact on its British supporters, and in the next few years Choudary led various groups that were just rebadged to circumvent anti-terror laws.

These included Al-Ghurabaa, which hosted links on its website to internet chat forums that justified attacks on civilians.

Another group, Islam4UK, campaigned for a hardline Daesh-style global caliphate. 

Its website featured a picture of Buckingham Palace converted to a mosque.

“What Choudary managed to do is to stay very much on the side of the law, until recently. He made sure he wasn’t inciting actual direct acts of violence, but was very offensive in his hate speech,” Haras Rafiq, chief executive of counter-extremism think tank Quilliam International, told Arab News. 

“What he did very cleverly was he talked in broad aspects, he talked about Christian Crusaders, he talked about lots of things in a broad way, very rarely about specific individuals.”

Choudary managed to stay one step ahead of the law, and he knew it. After 9/11 and 7/7, his firebrand style landed him primetime spots on international news talk shows, including on Fox News and CNN.

Pitting him against a moderate, viewership always rose when there was a “good guy vs bad guy” model, as Rafiq put it.

“Like WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), he (Choudary) became the villain, and they always tried to have a good guy with him. Unfortunately, what that causes is access to an audience that in the past he never had,” Rafiq said.

“Anjem has been very good at being this villain … and he liked it, he enjoyed it, he thought it was good for the cause, and he was, from his perspective, very good at it.”

This posed a significant problem as many viewers began to form opinions on Muslims based on his comments.

Choudary’s charismatic preach-ing earned him the label of a top recruiter for Islamist terrorism in the UK and Western Europe. He is thought to be responsible for indoctrinating many of the UK’s Daesh loyalists.

“Just about everybody I know wants to go and live under the caliphate and the Islamic State, because we’ve lived in this country for so long and with all this gambling, pornography, alcohol … the promiscuity and the kind of, like, divorced lifestyle here,” he said in 2014.

“I know people already there, and I know some people, including myself, who’d love to go. I’ve said that openly to the media that I like to go there, give you my passport, and we can have a nice press conference at Heathrow airport where I can wave goodbye to everyone.”

He told the Washington Post that Daesh is “providing the basic needs to the people in terms of food, clothing and shelter. They’re protecting their life, honor and dignity, wealth etc.”

While Choudary has repeatedly voiced his desire to join the terrorist group, he has never done so. “He’s a coward,” Rafiq said.

“He encouraged, empowered, indoctrinated so many people to join Daesh, and he didn’t do it himself.”

But Choudary’s vocal support for Daesh did finally give the UK the opportunity to arrest him. 

On Sept. 6, 2016, he was sentenced to five and a half years in prison.

The judge told him he had “crossed the line between the legitimate expression of your own views and a criminal act.”

Released in October 2018, Choudary is completing the rest of the sentence under
strict supervision.