The new right: Austria’s Freedom Party and changing perceptions of Islam

Supporters of the FPOe Freedom Party attend the final European election rally in Vienna, Austria May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger - RC11F726B360
Editor's note:

This working paper is part of a multi-year Brookings project—”The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists.” Other papers in the series are available here.


  1. Introduction
  2. The rising importance of anti-Muslim-rhetoric within the Freedom Party
  3. Reactions of Austrian mainstream parties to the Freedom Party’s success
  4. Effects on Muslim communities
  5. Conclusion


Founded in 1956, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) descended from both libertarian and nationalist currents of the nineteenth century that favored a politically and culturally unified Germany. From the start, the FPÖ vehemently opposed the political hegemony of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the Christian conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which was the new status quo following the end of World War II. However, during the first three decades, the party remained a rather marginal opposition party. When Jörg Haider took over the FPÖ in 1986, and transformed it into one of the first (and most successful) populist far right parties (PFRP) in Europe, its focus shifted to anti-migration issues and identity politics.

The new direction was based on the exclusion of the “ethnic other,” which soon became one of the core issues around which the party built its electoral success. Initially, however, anti-Muslim rhetoric played a minor role in the Freedom Party’s campaigning. Instead, Haider maintained relatively close relationships (for which he was often criticized) with political elites from Muslim-dominated countries like Libya and even Iraq (then still under the control of Saddam Hussein). This started to change significantly once Haider left the FPÖ to found a new populist party—the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ)—in 2005. Under its new party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ began engaging in political campaigns that scapegoated Muslims and criticized Islamic culture. Anti-Islamic rhetoric started to play an increasingly prominent role in Freedom Party communication, presenting Muslims arguably as the primary “targets” in the party’s anti-immigration strategies.

In this paper, we will trace the rise of anti-Islam rhetoric in the FPÖ from 1986 until today and discuss the reasons for these developments. Drawing on ten semi-structured interviews with party supporters, voters as well as officials, we also show the role that anti-Muslim sentiments play for party supporters today, and seek to explain the causes on which these sentiments are based.  The third section focuses on the strategies of other Austrian parties as they tried to cope with the FPÖ’s electoral gains and discusses the extent to which different counter strategies have been successful. This part also shows how FPÖ’s participation in government since 2017 has affected recent Islam-related policies in Austria. In the subsequent fourth section, we analyze how the Austrian Muslim community is affected by the aforementioned political developments has adapted to these changes. The final section offers a set of conclusions about the Austrian far right and their policy approach toward the Muslim community and Islam.

the rising importance of anti-Muslim-rhetoric within the FPÖ

In terms of positioning on religion, the FPÖ was historically anticlerical and particularly anti-Catholic given that German nationalists had traditionally regarded the Church as a protector of ethnic diversity in the previous Hapsburg Empire and thus as an opponent of pan-Germanic ideas. Hence, it never saw itself as a defender of Christian or Catholic traditions.

This direction essentially remained in place until 1986 when Jörg Haider took over the leadership of the party. Haider moved the FPÖ to the right to win back the support of its traditional right-wing clientele, used a populist strategy of us vs. them, focused on public corruption and political influence peddling inherent in the Proporz system, accusing the traditional coalition of social democrats and conservatives of moral bankruptcy and misusing tax money. These multiple mobilization strategies were immediately successful so that, in the first election campaign the FPÖ fought under Haider’s leadership, the party nearly doubled its vote share (from 4.9 percent to 9.3 percent). The Freedom Party’s effort to present itself as a new and different political force in Austria was underscored by a political marketing campaign that featured the FPÖ leader and his new team in the party leadership as vigorous and energetic. The FPÖ was particularly effective in reaching out to young and male voters. In the 1986 and 1990 elections the FPÖ attracted nearly twice as many male voters as females. Moreover, in both elections, the party performed best among 19 to 29 year-olds. As a result, the “new” FPÖ under Haider increased its electoral gains in parliamentary elections from 1983 to 1999 from five percent to 26.9 percent, approaching a share of legislative representation similar to that of the SPÖ and the ÖVP.

Like other PFRPs of that time like Front National, Swiss People’s Party and Vlaams Blok, the FPÖ promoted identity politics centered on the exclusion of the “ethnic other.” In the 1990s, the FPÖ explicitly focused on immigrants of Turkish, former Yugoslavian, and African background. Explicit anti-Muslim aspects were initially quite marginal within this discourse. Still, Haider already in 1993 had stated in his book The Freedom I mean (Die Freiheit, die ich meine) that “the societal foundations of Islam are diametrically opposed to our Western values.” And as of the late 1990s, the FPÖ started to describe itself as a defender of the Christian “Occident” (Abendland) and regarded Islam, by implication, as a cultural threat (terrorism was less of an issue at the time). In a clear departure from its long-standing anticlerical tradition, the new Freedom Party Program of 1997 devoted extensive attention to Christianity as the “foundation of Europe” and the traditions of the “Abendland” (“Christian civilization”), which required a “Christianity that defends its values.” Also in the run-up to the 1999 national elections, the Freedom Party drew on anti-Muslim sentiments. Coming in second in these elections (behind the SPÖ), the FPÖ entered government for the first time after Haider had taken over the party by forming the first ever center-right coalition in Austria with the ÖVP. Being under heavy (international) scrutiny, there was little room for radical positions within government, and the FPÖ’s Islamophobic ideology was constrained.

Participation in government was crowned with little success. The FPÖ obtained important ministries such as Finance, Justice, Defense, Social Affairs, as well as Transportation and Infrastructure, but the shortage of personnel with policy expertise as well as a general unpreparedness for governing dampened the ability to translate the FPÖ’s agenda into public policy. As a result, internal frictions between different factions increased quickly and in the end caused the coalition to fall apart, triggering national elections in 2002. The FPÖ dropped from 26.9 percent to just 10 percent but nevertheless renewed its coalition with a now much stronger ÖVP. With the FPÖ having lost much of its reputation and due to ongoing conflicts between moderate and the more radical German nationalist factions Haider in 2005 broke with the FPÖ and led a group of relative moderates out of the party. While his newly formed BZÖ continued the coalition with the ÖVP, the FPÖ under the leadership of Heinz-Christian Strache subsequently went into opposition to reconstitute itself as a radical, right-wing, populist opposition party in contrast to the BZÖ that attempted to position itself as more liberal and moderate.

Fearing an existential threat and facing dramatic electoral losses foreshadowed in the polls, the FPÖ made every effort to rebuild its hardcore base by projecting polarizing messages and pushing identity politics in ways that had not been possible while they were serving in government. The Freedom Party now concentrated on mobilizing its core electorate and positioned itself as the most right-wing and anti-establishment force in the Austrian political landscape by 2005, emerging as the principal advocate of cultural identity politics. As such, the party was in the best position to take ownership of the immigration issue and, by extension, opposition to Turkish accession to the EU. The FPÖ now focused nearly exclusively on patriotism, the defense of Austrian culture and tradition, security, and welfare chauvinism (calling for denying certain social benefits to immigrants). Strache frequently referred to himself as a cultural Christian rather than putting religion to the fore, hence using the Christian marker to exclude the Muslim.

Seeing its strategy validated after gaining votes and momentum in the 2008 national elections with 17.54 percent of the votes (and the meanwhile also right-wing populist BZÖ with 10.70 percent), the FPÖ continued its radical sociocultural message to boost its support in two state elections. In the province of Styria, the party implemented a ban on the construction of mosques and minarets following the Swiss initiative. The FPÖ ran on an anti-immigration and anti-Muslim platform reminding voters of the Ottoman siege of the city and more than doubled its vote share from 10.9 percent to 25.8 percent in Vienna, suggesting that this was a key issue for the success. Examples of major FPÖ campaign slogans at the time include: “Vienna must not become Istanbul” (Viennese elections 2005); “No home for Islam” (national parliamentary elections 2006); “No home for radical Islam” (Graz local elections 2008); and “The sound of church bells instead of muezzin song“ (Tyrol regional elections 2008).

The interviews we conducted for this project with a former national and now regional MP, three regional MPs, two local party officials, two municipal councilors and two party supporters confirm the high saliency of the Islam issue for all these groups. Unsurprisingly, for all interviewees, this subject matter is closely linked to a long-standing apprehension about migration in general. These concerns are based on three perceived problems: First, immigration is regarded as economically costly because it threatens to reduce the resources available to poorer Austrians. As a long-time party supporter put it: “We have so many poor people here in Austria. But the refugees, we are showering with money.” Second, immigrants are considered a security risk for the local population, especially women. A local party official, who has been working as a doorman for many years reported of repeated problems with Muslim migrants and also that his girlfriend had been harassed at night several times already.

Finally, and most importantly, immigration is seen as posing a threat to Austrian identity and culture. It is this third aspect in which Muslims are viewed as especially problematic. For one, even the relatively modest size of the Muslim community comprising about an estimated eight percent of the total population is seen as already too large. As one interviewee put it, every group that becomes too big poses a problem to national culture. He suggested that this had nothing to do with Islam per se. If Chinese were to immigrate in large numbers, he would oppose this too. While none of the interviewees was able or willing to refer to concrete numbers, all of them referred to a significant increase of Muslims in Austria over time and stressed that already today, they are too many, sometimes even questioning the term “minority” itself. Projecting these developments into the future, they referred to terms like creeping “invasion” or “Islamization.” Indeed, the number of Muslims living in Austria has grown consistently since the 1970s from 22,2067 in 1971 to 158,776 in 1991 to 515,914 in 2002 and 700,000 in 2016 (Figure 1), and even without further immigration, Austria’s Muslim population is expected to grow significantly in the future. The Austrian Academy of Science projected that Muslims would account for between 12 percent and 21 percent of the population by 2046.

Second, and compared to other groups of migrants, Muslims are perceived as unwilling or unable to integrate themselves well into the Austrian culture. Instead, they are generally assumed to maintain their own way of life and traditions. In fact, there was even the fear that Austrians would more quickly adapt to Muslim culture (as evidenced by discussions about banning crucifixes, pork, and Christmas-related celebrations in public schools and kindergartens) than would be the case the other way around.

Finally, many of the precepts and customs (non-radical) Muslims follow, such as those related the role of women and tolerance vis-à-vis other religions, are seen as incompatible with Austrian values and traditions. While these cultural aspects are clearly perceived as the result of Austria’s Catholic background, none of the interviewees suggested that Islam and Catholicism are in conflict with each other as a matter of principle. In fact, none of the people interviewed described themselves as particularly religious. The main problem for them was the greater role Muslims accorded to their traditional religious teachings than do Christians. As a young woman framed it: “We have our [old religious] rules too—like having no sex before marriage, for example.  But no one cares about them anymore. But Muslims still follow them very strictly.” In a similar way another interviewee stressed that while in Austria hardly anyone is taking religion seriously anymore, it still would play a very prominent role for Muslims, that his Muslim friends constantly talk about it, and even time and again try to convert him. Hence, to some extent the conflict lines seem to run between secularism and religion rather than between different religious beliefs.

The extent to which interviewees actually interact with Muslims varied considerably. One had lived in different Muslim countries for several years, two others reported having several Muslim friends and colleagues, and one even had familiar ties to Muslims due to his/her Muslim mother. For others, contacts were clearly more restricted. Notably, however, no significant differences in the perception of the Muslim minority were found between these groups. All interviewees reported that they had met well-integrated Muslims, who had adapted to Austrian culture, but that other experiences had been clearly less positive. There was also no clear pattern with respect to respondents estimating correctly the relative size of these two groups.

Reactions of Austrian mainstream parties to the FPÖ’s success

As in many other countries, the first reaction by Austrian mainstream parties to the FPÖ’s rise was to adopt a policy of ostracism also dubbed cordon sanitaire in 1986. In addition, the two center parties SPÖ and ÖVP began moving closer to the FPÖ on issues related to migration, seeking to neutralize the party’s electoral appeal. Starting in the 1990s, the two coalition parties repeatedly restricted Austria’s migration policies, e.g., by introducing an “Integration package” in 1997 and the “Naturalization Act” in 1998 which, implicitly, took up several of the FPÖ’s long-standing demands (although in a watered-down way). This dual-track strategy met with little success: both parties consistently lost electoral support and the FPÖ increased its vote share fivefold between 1983 and 1999 from five to almost 27 percent (see Table 1).

Table 1: Federal election results from 1983 to today.

Year SPÖ ÖVP FPÖ Grüne








1983 47.6 43.2 5
1986 43.1 41.3 9.7 4.8
1990 42.8 32.1 16.6 4.8
1994 34.9 27.7 22.5 7.3 6.0
1995 38.1 28.3 22 4.8 5.5
1999 33.1 26.9 26.9 7.4 3.6
2002 36.5 42.3 10.0 9.5 1.0
2006 35.3 34.3 11.0 11.0 4.1
2008 29.3 26.0 17.5 10.4 2.1 10.7
2013 26.8 24.0 20.5 12.4 5.0 3.5 5.7
2018 26.9 31.5 26.0 3.8 5.3 4.4


According to Rummens and Abts, the strategy of exclusion failed not just because it was not practiced by all political competitors (especially within the ÖVP) consistently from the start, but because it also was not accompanied by a credible strategy to address the legitimate concerns of many of the FPÖ’s voters. In addition, many would share Chantal Mouffe’s conclusion according to which the strategy of ostracization (Ausgrenzung) was counter-productive because “it allowed [the FPÖ] to be perceived as the ‘victim’ of the political establishment and reinforced its populist appeal.”

The strategy of trying to meet the FPÖ halfway in terms of content was additionally hampered by the fact that policy changes in this area were taken only reluctantly and with significant delay. By doing so, SPÖ and ÖVP confirmed the legitimacy of the FPÖ’s demands after the fact while the FPÖ had already moved at least one step ahead, criticizing the government for still doing too little too late. As a result, voters concerned about migration kept voting for the FPÖ, while many others critical of the governing parties’ strategy of accommodation opted for parties taking a more liberal approach to migration and cultural issues such as the Green Party or the Liberal Forum, who provided a clear alternative to the FPÖs views. Also, the FPÖ’s losses after entering government turned out to be only temporary. Already in the first national election in 2005 after dropping out of government, the FPÖ returned to an effective campaign mode, with the BZÖ and the FPÖ together obtaining 28.2 percent of the votes, a new record for right-wing populism in Austria at the national level.

Looking at mainstream parties’ attitudes and policies directed towards Islam, Muslims in Austria until the mid-2000s were in a comfortable and politically secure situation. The Islam Act of 1912, which had laid the foundation for Islamic life in Austria, states that Muslims were free to “show their religion in public, administrate their internal affairs autonomously, and establish foundations for religious, educational and charitable purposes.” When the Islamic Religious Community was recognized as a representative body for all Muslims in Austria in 1979 based on the Islam Act of 1912, Muslims were given the same rights as other legally recognized churches and denominations.

Legal recognition went hand in hand with a public discourse, especially among Austrian political elites, which emphasized the welcoming nature and tolerance toward Islam embodied in this Austrian legal tradition. As a study conducted at the 100th anniversary of the Islam Act confirmed, the discourse on Islam was largely marked by inclusion and recognition. The view that Austrian elites had a rather sympathetic outlook toward the presence of Islam in Austria was also widely shared by the leaders of the Muslim community themselves. Even after 9/11, representatives of the Islamic Religious Community, as well as those of the foreign ministry, praised the “Austrian model” of good relations between the state and Islam. During the first Austrian Imam Conference, the then president of the national parliament, Andreas Khol (ÖVP), stated that: “Austria knows no clash of civilizations…[O]ur Muslim citizens are an important part of our society…Let’s continue with the good Austrian tradition of different cultures and religions living together in peace. Austria is a model for many states in this regard and we can be proud of that.”

The underlying themes of the FPÖ’s anti-Islamic rhetoric— security, identity, cultural compatibility—began seeping into the public discourse, and other parties began to change their political posture on Islam.

Nevertheless, once the FPÖ started to position itself as explicitly anti-Muslim in 2005, the reaction by Austrian mainstream parties largely mirrored the response they had taken on immigration in the 1990s. The underlying themes of the FPÖ’s anti-Islamic rhetoric— security, identity, cultural compatibility—began seeping into the public discourse, and other parties began to change their political posture on Islam. The ÖVP especially felt compelled to respond more forcefully on sociocultural issues because it no longer had an exclusive lock on conservative and religious voters concerned about multiculturalism and Islam. In addition, a more restrictive approach to Islam provided the Austrian Conservatives with a welcome opportunity to distinguish themselves from its bigger coalition partner, SPÖ, which was internally divided on the issue of Islam and Muslims and reluctant to take any stance in order not to risk internal divides. In 2006, the ÖVP-dominated Ministry of the Interior published a study on the basis of which the conservative Interior Minister Liese Prokop argued that 45 percent of all Austrian Muslims were “opposed to integration,” which was a misreading of the study. Later in 2008, the regional ÖVP dominated government in the Austrian province of Vorarlberg implemented locally a ban on the construction of mosques and minarets when it entered into a coalition locally with the Freedom Party. In 2009 the state of Carinthia—governed at the time by a coalition of BZÖ and ÖVP—followed suit. Both were legitimized by referring to the threat of Islamization and by framing the mosque as symbols of violence, backwardness and other Islamophobic stereotypes. Subsequently, social democratic and conservative politicians began framing the debate in terms of security and culture, invoking terms such as “Parallelgesellschaft” (parallel society) or “hate preacher,” which had originated in FPÖ rhetoric on Islam and found their way into the election manifesto of the ÖVP by 2008.

Again, the mainstream parties’ strategy of parroting far-right rhetoric and policy positions could not stop the FPO’s rise. By the 2013 national elections, the FPÖ had reclaimed most of the votes it had lost during its time in government reaching 20.5 percent. The SPÖ and the ÖVP stuck to their strategy of the mainstreaming of the FPÖ’s positions on Islam nevertheless. A clear consequence of this has been new legislation on Islam, especially the new Islam Act adopted in February 2015. Here the longstanding practice of consensual and consociationalist decision making when drafting legislation affecting diverse population groups was abandoned in favor of viewing Muslims primarily through the lens of representing an alien threat. The parliamentary debates on the new Islam Act revealed that the discourse previously prevalent among the far right had become mainstream and found its way—although not consistently— even into the rhetoric and positions of anti-racist political parties such as the Social Democrats and the Greens. The Islam Act of 2015 can be read as legislation treating Muslims as distinct from other legally recognized churches and religious communities thus violating the constitutionally guaranteed principle of parity, which calls the state to treat all churches and religious communities equally. The ban on foreign funding, the surveillance of religious institutions and the scope of influence granted to state institutions are just a few examples of this unequal treatment.

Despite attempts by the ÖVP and SPÖ to use the Islam Act to signal a more restrictive acceptance of Muslim culture, the FPÖ’s rise continued as events in 2015 put Social Democrats and Conservatives even more on the defensive. First, the refugee crisis and the government’s decision to open the country’s borders and take in nearly 100,000 refugees received vocal criticism by significant segments of the public. Events like the sexual assaults of nearly 1,000 women during the 2015 New Year’s celebrations in Cologne perpetrated primarily by young men with a North-African and Arab background, or the series of Islamist terror attacks in several European cities that had been discursively linked to the migration crisis, increased this negative perception and discourse even further. By December 2016, 56 percent of Austrians reported that their personal sense of security had worsened due to the refugee crisis. As a result, and as a reaction to open conflicts between, but also within governing parties, the government once again became more restrictive, e.g., by introducing upper limits (Obergrenzen) for taking up future refugees. Despite this, the FPÖ clearly led in opinion polls between May 2015 and March 2017, at times by more than 10 percent margins to the runner up, the SPÖ.

The situation changed markedly in May 2017 when the then Foreign Minister (and previous State Secretary for Integration) Sebastian Kurz became the new party leader of the ÖVP. Having been the party’s hard liner on migration and Islam-related issues as well as the driving force behind the new Islam Act already in the previous government, Kurz pushed his party to adopt an even more restrictive stance toward Muslim immigration. Subsequently, the ÖVP positions mirrored those of the FPÖ to such an extent that it became difficult to differentiate between the two. Like the FPÖ, for example, Kurz called for a ban on Muslim kindergartens and spoke out against an alleged “creeping Islamization.” Even more remarkable, Kurz, taking a page from the campaign handbook of the FPÖ, also turned migration and Islam into the central issues during his party’s national election campaign in 2017 (political commentators and political opponents made it a habit to count the seconds it took Kurz in televised debates to steer any discussions back to questions of migration).

At least for the time being, this latest change in the ÖVP’s strategy seems to have been quite successful for the party. Although it did not prevent the FPÖ from increasing its absolute vote-share from 20.5 percent to 26 percent these gains were significantly lower than the polls had indicated in the years past. Moreover, for the first time since 2002 the ÖVP had managed to win more voters from the FPÖ than the other way around. The ÖVP itself increased its vote-share from 24 percent in 2013 to 31.55 percent, winning the elections by 4.6 percent and 5.5 percent margins to the SPÖ and FPÖ respectively. Although post-election surveys suggested that migration turned out to be the decisive issue for only 4 percent of the ÖVP-electorate (compared with 27 percent for FPÖ voters), Kurz’ decision to move to the right still seems to have removed a significant obstacle to voting for the ÖVP in the eyes of many voters. And it had prepared a rapprochement for both parties. Soon after the elections, ÖVP and FPÖ agreed to form a coalition.

Whether the ÖVP’s new strategy will be electorally successful in the medium and long term remains to be seen. A crucial question here is whether the FPÖ (when facing electoral losses) will further sharpen its profile in terms of migration and cultural issues, which would then put pressure on the Christian Conservatives to follow suit again or risk a conflict with the coalition partner. The ÖVP-FPÖ government’s recent decision to abandon the UN Migration Pact as one of only a few countries in the EU (reportedly an ÖVP concession to the FPÖ as part of a package deal) was already met with considerable criticism within the ÖVP. The FPÖ’s ongoing probing of constitutional limits poses another challenge. Only recently, FPÖ Minister of Interior Herbert Kickl openly questioned the European Convention on Human Rights, classifying it as “strange legal structures, sometimes several years old and developed under totally different circumstances” that would “prevent us from doing what is necessary.”

The long-term political cost for a mainstream party like the ÖVP that such a strategy entails is difficult to predict largely because the explanations for the resurgence of identity politics in Austria vary significantly. Current perceptions in the electorate of migration and Islam are rather critical. In polls conducted between 2015 and 2017, between 43 percent and 53 percent of the Austrian population have classified cohabitation with migrants as “bad” (as opposed to 41-52 percent who deem it “good”). Citizens’ judgement is even more critical when looking at living next door to Muslim migrants, which is perceived as “bad” by between 51 and 61 percent (as opposed to 29-38 percent who deem it good). As long as the numbers remain that high, restrictive policy responses, especially when directed towards Muslims, may continue to be electorally successful.  However, there are at least two plausible arguments to the contrary: First, research has shown that parties do not just respond to voters’ preferences, but can shape them. Fears about Islam and migration, according to this view, are at least to some extent the result of parties framing Islam and migration as a threat. Having now two parties feeding these fears may therefore result in a vicious cycle where a traditionally mainstream party feels compelled to adopt an increasingly harsh stance, thereby mobilizing its voters against Islam. In addition, and as the 2017 elections have shown, the more parties push such issues, the more this distracts from debating other political problems which may be (at least) just as relevant in the public’s mind.

Second, for this strategy to be successful in the end, the ÖVP needs to deliver the policies the FPÖ publicly demands. According to experts, however, the measures adopted by the current ÖVP-FPÖ government so far (see also the next section) are more likely to exacerbate and compound the problems of integration rather than combat them. For one the marginalization of Muslims and their discrimination leads to further alienation and thus radicalization. The cutback in welfare and education spending for immigrants in the name of “more deserving native people” only serves to undercut efforts at integrating this population into society.  Remarkably even two of our interviewees (a local party official and a young party activist) criticized both the FPÖ and ÖVP for showing no interest in solving any of the practical and tangible problems of integration, as this is arguably something that can provide winning election issues.

Effects on Muslim communities

Beginning in the 1960s, Muslim intellectuals (students coming mainly from Bosnia and Arab countries) started building structures sustaining Muslim life and culture in Austria. After 1966, the number of Muslims arriving from Turkey substantially increased, making Turks the dominant ethnic group within the Austrian Muslim community. In 1994, a large number of refugees from former Yugoslavia arrived in Austria. They have since formed the second largest ethnic group among Austrian Muslims. Those of Arab descent had already organized themselves in the 1960s but represent only smaller contingents among Austrian Muslim organizations. Following the conflicts and political upheaval in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Somalia, significant groups of people from these countries also emigrated to Austria. With the recent war in Syria and Iraq, around 88,300 people found shelter in Austria in 2015. Currently, there are an estimated 700,000 Muslims living in Austria, which is a comparatively high percentage compared to most other Western European countries and makes up around nine percent of the whole population. In organizational terms, Muslims are as diverse as their ethnic backgrounds and ethnicity still plays a major role for the community organizations. At the same time, the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich) is the main political body representing the religious interests of Muslims based on its status under the law. It plays a crucial role in coordinating with the state, since it organizes religious education at public school and other pastoral services in cooperation with state institutions.

Compared to the proportion of Muslims in the population, they are significantly underrepresented in political life. Currently, there is only one member of parliament with a Muslim cultural background (Social Democrat), while at the regional level, there are few Muslims in political office. For religious matters, the Islamic Religious Community in Austria is the most important political actor speaking for Austria’s Muslim population.

While this institution has been seen by the government for as a trusted partner for a long while, especially after 9/11, this relationship has been strained with the emergence of the FPÖ’s anti-Islam discourse. The Freedom Party already argued in a 2008 position paper to restrict the legal recognition of Islam to the Bosnian (white) Muslims, who have been a part of Austria for over an extended period, whereas newer immigrants should not enjoy these rights. In addition, the FPÖ and some circles within the ÖVP started depicting the Islamic Religious Community as a hotbed of fundamentalism and a meeting place for peddlers of extremism. Over time, this discourse helped discredit several personnel of the organization, rather than giving reason for the left to back the Muslim community.

While the discourse of the FPÖ became gradually harsher, the Islamic Religious Community still maintained good relations with state institutions and elected representatives. A turning point, however, was the 2015 Islam Act, which resulted in protests by different Muslim groups, especially youth and more leftist Muslim organizations. As a study by Hafez shows, partly state-funded organizations such as the Austrian Muslim Youth were a leading force in this movement against the Islam Act. Smaller organizations such as the Network of Muslim Civil Society that emerged as a reaction to the Act, expressed more radical stances. By contrast, most supporters of the Act came from the Islamic Religious Community itself. Whereas these divisions reflected the relative difference in closeness to the state, another important determinant factor is the cultural understanding of democracy. While the more immigrant-based leadership of the Islamic Religious Community tended to defer automatically to state institutions even when such obedience was questionable, the younger generation, Austrian-born Muslims and Muslim converts, who had been raised with the values of Austrian democracy and political freedom, tended to question state policies. The protests against the Islam Act called for the equal treatment with other churches and denominations, demanding the same rights other religious groups enjoy. These sentiments were based on the Austrian constitution, human rights, and existing democratic standards. Few questioned the political system, the constitution, or the church–state relationship itself, but rather the new Islam Act was seen as violating the long-established policy framework, legislative approach, and political culture when it came to Austrian politics regarding Islam.

Following the Islam Act of 2015, the Austrian government consisting of Social Democrats and Conservatives, implemented another law, the ban on face veiling in 2017, which had unanimous support. The idea to ban the Hijab for police women, attorneys, and judges was not included, since according to the dress code—as was argued—the Hijab was not permissible anyway. When subsequently the FPÖ formed its second coalition government with the ÖVP in December 2017, it made clear that it would pursue an even tougher course on Islam and Muslims by revising the Islam Act of 2015 so as to fight “political Islam.” Within their first ten months, the new government adopted legislation banning the Hijab in kindergartens, creating a legal precedent to extend the ban to other areas as Strache has already envisioned. In addition, the government implemented a ban of symbols of so-called extremist groups ranging from leftist and nationalist to Islamist ones (except for homegrown Austrian ones). This policy can be interpreted as targeting not only terrorist or extremist organizations but also NGOs who oppose the government’s policies such as on immigration. Thus, the politics of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition is clearly focused on changing the social and political climate toward Muslims and the conditions in which Muslims live and are politically active. While from 2016 to 2017, protests were very few, it seems that with the new and much younger leadership in the Islamic Religious Community since December 2018, Muslims are becoming more and more organized in their protest against state policies.


This report illustrates how anti-Islam rhetoric has played an important role in the FPÖ’s communicative strategies as of the late 1990s and has subsequently influenced other political parties and the broader public discourse. This effect is especially evidenced in the ÖVP. The perception of Muslims on the part of the Austrian right, also according to our interviews, is based on the assumption that Muslims are much more rigid in following their traditional religious precepts. As a result, they stand out and are seen as less able to integrate themselves into Austrian society shaped by both Catholicism and secularism. The fact that Muslims do not hide their religious symbols and rituals but rather live their culture very openly is regarded as evidence that they represent a challenge or threat to what is perceived as the established national identities and traditions. Given the large (and growing) numbers of Muslims living in, and migrating to Austria, mainstream parties have responded by becoming (to different degrees) more openly critical of Islam and related issues and by adopting policies shaped by demands and rhetoric originating with the Freedom Party. As a result, the overall Austrian discourse on Islam has changed by becoming significantly less welcoming. Also, as Muslims have become more educated, they have grown more constrained, as the debates on the ban of the headscarf reveals.

What does this imply for democracy and the future of the Muslim communities in Austria? For one, the ÖVP’s strategy toward the FPÖ, characterized by imitation and accommodation, has proved electorally successful. However, it carries two great risks for a party that was previously considered centrist. First, it implicitly confirms the legitimacy of the FPÖ’s claims and is thus likely to exacerbate the threat Austrians perceive when considering Muslims and political issues related to Islam. Second, the policies adopted by the ÖVP-FPÖ government may be seen as intentionally ill-suited to address the existing economic and social problems of these minorities but will rather aggravate them. For one, the FPÖ should have little interest in integration to succeed as it would lose its main raison d’être.  In addition, both parties have argued openly that migration policies that are too accommodating would act as a pushing factor, increasing the number of refugees choosing Austria as their desired destination even further. Hence, while the parties have been elected to solve integration problems, their policies are likely to aggravate them (at least for migrants already living in Austria). As a result, it is unlikely that the salience of Muslim-related issues will significantly decrease in the near future.

The change in the politics of Islam in Austria has to be seen also in the context of a growing incongruence between the people living in Austria and the population eligible to vote. Austria has one of the most unfavorable records in providing access to citizenship and political participation for immigrants according to the migrant policy index. Equal rights and opportunities for immigrants can be found in fewer areas than in almost all Western European countries, and chances to reunite with family or to fight discrimination are comparatively low. Given that this discrepancy now comprises over one million people many of whom came from Muslim majority countries, the lack of representation of their interests and aspirations is likely to contribute to further alienation from mainstream society of significant population segments.

Muslims, especially of the younger generation, who have become more and more vocal and organized within the last 20 years, are facing increasing structural forms of racism with laws that exclude them from holding public office (by banning the Hijab) and are facing attacks from interest groups that demonize and defame them. Here, Muslims have to regain trust within oppositional social forces that would potentially target the Islamophobic strategy.

In order to reverse these trends and embrace a more inclusive policy approach, the Freedom Party would have to be isolated and politically ostracized. However, this strategy of exclusion on the part of the political mainstream carries risks of its own, since it did not work before and made the FPÖ stronger in opposition. The Freedom Party’s incendiary rhetoric and a host of genuine challenges owing to immigration are likely to keep Islam, culture, and identity at the forefront by being emotional hot button issues that allow populist actors to mobilize voters for some time to come.  Alternatively, the realities of public office may have a mainstreaming effect on far-right populists, dampening the radical sentiments of their voter base. Ultimately, only time will tell of how Austrian politics may emerge from this current period of cultural anxiety and identity politics.


  • Footnotes
    1. Reinhard Heinisch, Populism, Proporz, Pariah: Austria Turns Right: Austrian Political Change, its Causes and Repercussions (New York: Nova Science, 2002)
    2. Ibid., 118.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Hans-Georg, “Radical right-wing populism in Western Europe: recent developments and political implications,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft 31, no.3 (2002):253-256.
    5. Jörg Haider, Die Freiheit, die ich meine (Ullstein, 1993), 93.
    6. The Freedom Party Program for 1997 and 1999, and
    7. Literally translated, the word “Abendland” means “Occident,” marking a geographical and cultural contrast to the Muslim “Orient.” The term is often translated to mean “Western,” which, I believe, would be a mistake here because of its clear ideological, especially Catholic, connotations.
    8. Farid Hafez, “Hijab Ban: As the Far Right Targets Muslims, Austria’s Response Is an Ugly, Complicit Silence,” Haaretz Newspaper, April 25, 2018,  
    9. Franz Fallend, “Austria,” Journal of Political Research 40, no 3-4 (Political Data Yearbook 2001): 238-253.
    10. Reinhard Heinisch and Kristina Hauser, “The Mainstreaming of the Austrian Freedom Party: The More Things Change…,” in Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe: Into the Mainstream? eds. Tjitske Akkerman, Sarah de Lange and Matthijs Rooduijn (London: Routledge, 2016), 46-62.
    11. Kurth R. Luther, 2008. “Electoral Strategies and Performance of Austrian Right-Wing Populism, 1986-2006,” in The Changing Austrian Voter (Contemporary Austrian Studies), eds. Günter Bischof and Fritz Plasser (New Brunswick N.J./London: Transaction Publishing), 101-122.
    12. Farid Hafez, Islamophober Populismus: Moschee- und Minarettbauverbote österreichischer Parlamentsparteien (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2010).
    13. Jenny Marcelo, “Austria,” European Journal of Political Research Political Data Yearbook 50 (2011): 907-908.
    14. Farid Hafez, “Zwischen Islamophobie und Islamophilie,” in Islamophobie in Österreich, eds. John Bunzl and Farid Hafez (Bozen/Innsbruck/Vienna: Studien Verlag, 2009).
    15. Authors’ interview with a party supporter, Ried im Innkreis/Austria, November 8, 2018.
    16. Authors’ interview with a local party official, Salzburg/Austria, November 12, 2018.
    17. See the latest population data reported in: See also the Austrian statistics portal:
    18. Authors’ interview with a local party official, Salzburg/Austria, November 12, 2018.
    19. Authors’ interview with a local party official, regional MP, Salzburg/Austria, November 14, 2018.
    20. Authors’ interview with a local party official, Salzburg/Austria, November 12, 2018.
    21. Authors’ interview with a local party official/regional MP, Salzburg/Austria, November 8, 2018.
    22. Anne Goujon, Sandra Jurasszovich, and Michaela Potančoková, “Demographie und Religion in Österreich. Szenarien 2016 bis 20146,” Vienna: Institut für Demographie – VID Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, (2017)
    23. E.g., authors’ interview with a party supporter; Salzburg/Austria, November 9, 2018, with a local party official/regional MP, Salzburg/Austria, November 11, 2018, with a local party official, Salzburg/Austria, November 12, 2018, Salzburg, Austria, and with a party supporter, Ried im Innkreis/Austria, November 8, 2018.
    24.  “Schweinefleischverbot im Kindergarten: Aufregung um TV-Bericht,” Der Standard, July 7, 2017,
    25. Clemens Fabry, “Kreuze im Klassenzimmer: Alles bleibt, wie es ist,” Die Presse, October 27, 2016,
    26. Kurier, “Schulverbot für Nikolo? ‘Österreich’-Bericht ‘vollständig falsch’,”, December 4, 2017,
    27. Authors’ interview with a municipal councilor, Villach/Austria, November 10, 2018.
    28. Authors’ interview with a local party official, Salzburg/Austria, November 12, 2018.
    29. Authors’ interview with a party supporter, Ried im Innkreis/Austria, November 8, 2018.
    30. Authors’ interview with two local party officials, Salzburg/Austria, November 9, 2018 and November 12, 2018.
    31. Authors’ interview with a regional party official/regional MP, St. Pölten/Austria, November 6, 2018.
    32. E.g., authors’ interview with a local party official/regional MP, Salzburg/Austria, November 8, 2018 and with a party supporter, Salzburg/Austria, November 9, 2018.
    33. Results shown only for parties that managed to enter parliament at least once between 1983 and 2018.
    34. Elections from 1994 to 2008 were contested only by the Liberal Forum (LIF). For the elections in 2013, the LIF and the newly founded New Austria (NEOS) contested on a joint electoral list with. Soon after, the parties fused to The New Austria and Liberal Forum.
    35. Stefan Rummens and Koen Abts, “Defending Democracy: The Concentric Containment of Political Extremism,” Political Studies 58, no. 4 (2010): 649–665.
    36. Chantal Mouffe, “The ‘End of Politics’ and the Challenge of Right-wing Populism,” in Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. Francisco Panizza (London: Verso, 2005), 63-64.
    37. Martina Schmied and Wolfgang Wieshaider, “Islam and the European Union: the Austrian way,” in Islam and the European Union, ed. Richard Potz and Wolfgang Wieshaider (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), 199-217.
    38. Farid Hafez, “Gedenken im ‚islamischen Gedankenjahr‘. Zur diskursiven Konstruktion des österreichischen Islams im Rahmen der Jubiläumsfeier zu 100 Jahren Islamgesetz. ” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlands 104 (2014): 63-84.
    39. Maja Sticker, Sondermodell Österreich? Die Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich (Klagenfurt: Drava Verlag, 2008).
    40. National Assembly Speaker Andreas Khols, opening remarks at the Conference of European Imams and Ministers, Parliamentary correspondence Nr. 309, (Vienna, Austria: April 7, 2006),
    41. Farid Hafez and Reinhard Heinisch, “Breaking with Austrian Consociationalism: How the Rise of Rightwing Populism and Party Competition Have Changed Austria’s Islam Politics,” Politics and Religion 11, no.3 (2018): 1-30.
    42. Farid Hafez, Islamophober Populismus: Moschee- und Minarettbauverbote österreichischer Parlamentsparteien (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2010).
    43.  ÖVP Governor Erwin Pröll called minarets “artfremd” (culturally alien) in language reminiscent of Nazi-style terminology that has strongly racist völkisch connotations. A former minister of the interior said that tolerance was “an absolute no-go in Islam.”
    44. This refers to the Austrian political tradition of decision-making through bargaining among the affected institutions and communities.
    45. Farid Hafez, “Debating the 2015 Islam Law in Austrian Parliament: Between Legal Recognition and Islamophobic Populism,” Discourse and Society 28, no. 4 (2017): 392-412.
    46. Rijad Dautovic and Farid Hafez, “Institutionalising Islam in Contemporary Austria: A Comparative Analysis of the Austrian Islam Act of 2015 and Austrian Religion Acts with Special Emphasis on the Israelite Act of 2012,” Oxford Journal of Law and Religion (2018).
    47. Peter Hajek and Alexandra Siegl, Integrationsbarometer 1/2016 (Vienna, Austria: Österreichischer Integrationsfond, 2016).
    48.  “Wahlumfragen,” Neuwal,
    49.  Fritz Plasser and Franz Sommer‚ Richtungswahl 2017,“Determinanten und Motive der Wahlentscheidung 2017,” Presseunterlage, Politische Akademie, 2017,
    50.  Ibid.
    51.  “Empörung nach Österreichs Ausstieg aus UN-Migrationspakt,” Der Standard, November 4, 2018,
    52. Judith Mischke, “Austrian opposition call on interior minister to step down,” Politico, January 25, 2019,
    53. Peter Hajek and Alexandra Siegl, Integrationsbarometer 2/2017 (Vienna, Austria: Österreichischer Integrationsfond, 2017).
    54. Marco R. Steenbergen, Erica E. Edwards, and Catherine E. de Vries, “Who’s cueing whom? Mass-elite linkages and the future of European integration,” European Union Politics 8, no. 1 (2007): 13-35.
    55. Authors’ interview with a local party official, Salzburg, Austria, November 9, 2018; Authors’ interview with with a party supporter; Salzburg, Austria, November 9, 2018.
    56. Farid Hafez, “One representing the many, institutionalized Austrian Islam,” in Debating Islam. Negotiating Religion, Europe, and the Self, eds. Samuel Behloul, Susanne Leuenberger and Andreas Tunger-Zanetti (Bielefeld, 2013), 228-229.
    57. Buber-Ennser, I., Goujon, A., Kohlenberger, J., and Rengs, B. “Multi-layered roles of religion among refugees arriving in Austria around 2015,”  Religions 9, no. 5 (2018).
    58. Goujoun et al. Demograohie und Religion in Österreich. Szenarien 2016 bis 2046, (Österreichischer Integrationsfonds ÖIF-Forschungsbericht, August 2017), 34.
    59. Farid Hafez, “Zwischen Islamophobie und Islamophilie,” in Islamophobie in Österreich, eds. John Bunzl and Farid Hafez (Bozen/Innsbruck/Vienna: Studien Verlag, 2009)
    60. Farid Hafez, “Muslim Civil Society under Attack: The European Foundation for Democracy’s Role in Defaming and Delegitimizing Muslim Civil Society,” in Islamophobia and Radicalization: Breeding Intolerance and Violence, eds. Iner Derya and John Esposito (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 117-137.
    61. Farid Hafez, “Muslim Protest against Austria’s Islam law. An Analysis of Austrian Muslim’s Protest against the 2015 Islam Law,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 37, no. 3 (2017): 267-283.
    62. Ibid.
    63. Reinhard Heinisch, Populism, Proporz, Pariah: Austria Turns Right: Austrian Political Change, its Causes and Repercussions (New York: Nova Science, 2002), 118.
    64. Farid Hafez, “Austria’s new programme for government. En route to a restrictive policy on Islam?,”, December 21, 2017,
    65. Reinhard Heinisch, Populism, Proporz, Pariah: Austria Turns Right: Austrian Political Change, its Causes and Repercussions.
    66. Farid Hafez, “Banning Symbols of Extremism in Austria: Targeting Extremism or Civil Society?” Perspectives, (Istanbul, Turkey: SETA, 2018)
    67. Farid Hafez, “Austrian McCarthyism: banning symbols,” Anadolu Agency, Oct. 18, 2018,
    68. Medien-Servicestelle Neue Österreicher/innen, “Mehr als 1,1 Mio. Menschen in Österreich nicht wahlberechtigt,” Medien-Servicestelle Neue Österreicher/innen,
    69. “Austria, 2014,” Migrant Integration Policy Index 2015,
    70. Tjitske Akkerman and Matthijs Rooduijn, “Pariahs or partners? Inclusion and exclusion of radical right parties and the effects on their policy positions,” Political Studies 63, no.5 (2015): 1140-1157.