Austrian Muslims Say Religious Intolerance Is Growing : Parallels Austria adopted a face-veil ban in recent months and is seeing a rise of vandalism at Muslim businesses and mosques. The new Austrian government denies it is ostracizing Muslims.

Austrian Muslims Say Religious Intolerance Is Growing

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Do Muslim refugees and immigrants pose a threat to Austria's security and identity? The new Austrian government, which has links to former Nazis, says yes, and it vows to curb immigration to Austria and wants anyone already there who fails to integrate to leave. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports on the reaction among Austria's large Muslim minority.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: A century ago, Austria made Islam one of its official religions and afforded Muslims the same rights as Christians and Jews. But these days, many of the 700,000 Muslims who live here feel unwelcome. Take the case of cultural anthropologist Elif Ozturk. The petite 28-year-old, who is originally from Berlin and wears a headscarf, says she was attacked twice over the past 14 months, both times on a streetcar she boarded at this busy university stop in downtown Vienna. Ozturk says one incident happened after she accidentally bumped into a fellow passenger.

ELIF OZTURK: She first said, you're not allowed to touch me. I said, I was not touching you; I was just checking my phone. And then she started mentioning my veil and my identity of being Muslim and that I will bomb myself.

NELSON: That you'll be a suicide bomber?

OZTURK: Yeah. I'm a suicide bomber. And then I said, like, you're not allowed to say it.

NELSON: Ozturk says the woman ordered her to get off and, when she refused, punched her. She says the attacks stopped when other passengers intervened. Her Dokustelle group has been tracking verbal and physical abuse of Muslims in Austria which between 2015 and 2016 rose 62 percent to 253 incidents.

OZTURK: I know from people, especially from older people, that they really have big problems with dealing with it because they don't know what's going on. They have that feeling of powerlessness.

NELSON: Muslim leaders in Vienna say there are other problems as well, including vandalism at Muslim businesses and mosques. They criticize the government for recently enacting a face veil ban and a ban on Islamic institutions raising money abroad. Farid Hafez is an Austrian author and researcher at the University of Salzburg. He predicts life will be worse for Muslims than the last time the new governing coalition was in power 12 years ago.

FARID HAFEZ: One of the major shifts that has taken place in Austria within the far-right party is that they have achieved to change their scapegoat from the Jew to the Muslim.

NELSON: But the far-right Freedom Party and center-right People's Party which heads the new government deny ostracizing Muslims. They say their goal is to ensure Austria is safe from terror attacks and to integrate refugees and other newcomers. Herwig Mahr is a regional MP for the Freedom Party in Upper Austria which is pushing for a German-language-only rule for students even during recess.

HERWIG MAHR: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says if students don't learn German, they can't function well in Austrian society or at work. Mahr adds a German language mandate would prevent students from getting a, quote, "ghetto education." It would ensure the newcomers learn proper German.

MAHR: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says, it's a given if I were to enter a mosque, I would take off my shoes like everyone else. So I expect young people who come here to adopt our customs as well. But Viennese Councilman Omar al-Rawi says defining Austrian norms that way is racist and fails to recognize that the society here is diverse. He recalls a recent parliamentary session in which a Freedom Party member opposed funding for jugend zentren, or youth centers, claiming they were heavily used by Muslims.

OMAR AL-RAWI: Look who goes there. And he starts then naming all Muslims' names that they're attending this jugend zentren. So he says, you will see there will be a Fatima and a Hassan and Hussein and Ahmad and - I don't know - many names.

NELSON: Al-Rawi says his country's Nazi past should serve as a reminder that he and other Austrians must act to stop the current situation from getting worse. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Vienna.

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