With Austria’s latest Covid lockdown due to begin at midnight, Viennese citizens were enjoying a final night of freedom. And then the shooting started. The temperature was warm for this time of year, and people were sitting at pavement tables outside the bars and cafes, enjoying the balmy weather and obeying the coronavirus guidelines. What followed was what the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, called a ‘repulsive terror attack.’
So far, four civilians are reported dead – two men and two women. Seventeen more are in hospital with serious injuries, including one policeman. Seven of these injuries are reported as critical. An attacker was shot dead by police. At least one other gunman is believed to still be at large. Schools in Vienna are closed, and the authorities have urged people to stay at home.
Austria’s interior minister, Karl Neuhammer, stated that the dead attacker ‘sympathised with the militant terrorist group Isis.’ Video material has been seized from the dead man’s home. The police have made several arrests. ‘Austria for more than 75 years has been a strong democracy, a mature democracy, a country whose identity is marked by values and basic rights, with freedom of expression, rule of law, but also tolerance in human co-existence,’ said Neuhammer. ‘Yesterday’s attack is an attack on these values.’
Neuhammer was quite right to call this security crisis, ‘A situation that we have not had to live through in Austria for decades.’ Until now, Vienna has been spared the level of Islamist atrocities that have struck London and Paris. And yet the debate about Islamism has played a leading role in Austria these last few years. This tragedy is bound to put it centre stage.
Around 600,000 Austrians are Muslim (out of a population of about nine million) and the overwhelming majority are a great asset to Austrian society. Most are of Turkish descent, the children and grandchildren of those Gastarbeiter (guest workers) who came here from Turkey after the Second World War, to rebuild Austria’s shattered cities. Many stayed on to do the essential but unpleasant jobs that prosperous Austrians didn’t care to do.
Slowly, steadily, this migrant community has become more assimilated and more successful, but alongside this peaceful process there has been growing unease in Austrian society about Islamism. In 2018, Austria shut down seven mosques which they regarded as overtly political, and said they would expel imams who, it claimed, were funded by foreign states. ‘Parallel societies, politicised Islam or radical tendencies have no place in our country,’ said Kurz.
Beside these specific concerns about the dangers of radicalisation, there is a more general anxiety about Muslim immigration. In 2017, a Chatham House survey found that 65 per cent of Austrians agreed with the statement that ‘All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.’ In the recent migration crisis, Austria took in 130,000 refugees, many of whom were Muslim.
For Kurz’s centre-right government and its supporters, last night's atrocity is an especially bitter blow. More than any other European politician, he’s regarded as a leader who can build bridges between centrists and populists, between progressives and traditionalists, especially with regard to immigration and integration. His first cabinet job was as Austria’s first integration minister. He rejected the far-right claim that Islam is not a part of Austria, but he’s never been afraid to confront Islamism. If you had to sum up his approach in a soundbite, it’d be ‘Tough on Islamisation, tough on the causes of Islamisation.’ As he said, integration has to be a matter of give and take.
Kurz shut down the migrant route into Austria through the Balkans. He led the drive to ban the burqa. Headscarves in kindergartens have also been forbidden. Firm but fair, his inclusive policies are designed to bring Islamic migrants into mainstream society, rather than leaving them marginalised, at risk of radicalisation. Migrant children are required to learn German before they start school, and imams are given free German lessons.
Of course, there’s a world of difference between these everyday issues and the atrocities Vienna endured last night. These attackers may very well have no connection whatsoever with anyone in Austria. Their indiscriminate assault was on Muslims, just as much as Christians. Muslims and Christians throughout Austria will unite to condemn this murderous attack.
Yet ordinary Austrians are not party to the intricacies of state security. Their focus will be on what they see around them, in their daily lives. After the dust has settled, and the dead have been buried, Austria will face an intensified debate about Islamism and Islamisation. It may well be the biggest test of Sebastian Kurz’s dynamic premiership. The one consolation for Austria at this awful time is that, of all the politicians in Europe, the Austrian Chancellor is the one man who’s uniquely well-equipped to tackle this momentous task.