Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter, known for her tough stance on illegal immigrants, has said the strongest prejudice in Austrian society is against the Islamic headscarf and that Austrians are still unable to accept it.
Fekter spoke to Today’s Zaman in one of her rare interviews with the Turkish press and responded to questions about rising xenophobia in her country as integration has been an issue of heated debate in recent years. Late last year, Fekter and the integration policies she pursues were criticized by Turkish Ambassador Kadri Ecvet Tezcan, who said Fekter, a conservative, was “in the wrong party” because she did not embody the liberal values of her center-right party. The Turkish ambassador also accused Austria of treating Turkish immigrants like a virus.
Stating that there has been a change in Austrian society, Fekter said although Jews used to face intolerant attitudes in the past, Islam and Muslims are now facing such attitudes. Fekter said recent legal obstacles enacted in regards to immigration were measures taken to tackle problems such as unemployment and language barriers.
Responding to a question on why integration policies have been at the center of politics so frequently in the country recently, she said there are two reasons for that. She explained that one reason is Tezcan’s remarks, while the other is a recent book by Germany’s Bundesbank’s Thilo Sarrazin.
Sarrazin, who argued Turkish and Arab immigrants were failing to integrate and swamping Germany due to their higher birth rate, sparked uproar in Germany last year due to his remarks. Noting that these two issues heated up the integration debate, she said they also paved the way for questioning of integration policies. She added that although nobody in the country was able to criticize integration policies a few years ago, she said now everyone agrees there are problems that need to be solved in this area.
Noting that Turks are not the only group of immigrants in Austria, Fekter noted that even within the Turkish community there are a variety of groups. While there are groups with which integration goes perfectly, there are also some whose integration is problematic, she said.
Roughly 250,000 Austrians with Turkish roots live in Austria, along with some 112,150 Turkish citizens. People of Turkish background have long been scapegoats and vilified by the far-right Freedom Party, which recently saw its support surge in local elections in the capital, Vienna, following gains in the 2008 parliamentary polls. Other political parties have tried, but struggled to find ways to integrate the Turkish population.
Turkey frequently complains that immigrant Turks, many of whom went to countries like Germany and Austria as government-sponsored guest laborers decades ago, are not given the opportunity to fully integrate and face discrimination. Fekter also acknowledged that she had made the statement, “There is no tolerance in Islam,” but underlined that she did not mean Islam as a religion but was referring to political Islam.