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Austrian crackdown on Palestinian NGOs signals slide into tyranny

The tolerance for pro-Palestinian sentiment is narrowing throughout Europe and correlates with how far right ideas are being embraced by European governments
Armed police officers patrol near the site of a gun attack in Vienna, Austria on 4 November (Reuters)

When hundreds of Austrian security and police personnel swooped on 70 addresses in Vienna at dawn on 9 November, leaving dozens of Austrian Muslim families terrorised, shocked and distraught, the initial assumption was that it was in response to an armed attack a week earlier which left four dead and 20 injured in central Vienna.

However, eyebrows were raised when Interior Minister Karl Nehammer denied this, stating that these raids, the largest and most extensive of their sort, had absolutely nothing to do with the Islamic State group-affiliated gunman of a week before. Indeed, the minister went on to clarify that the targeted homes and offices were of individuals and organisations allegedly linked to Palestinian movement Hamas and/or the Muslim Brotherhood. 

It is notable that several human rights organisations and activists across Europe, including the Geneva Council for Rights and Liberties, condemned this operation as having violated the human rights of those targeted. 

It is intriguing that this operation, one of the largest in Europe at the time, was unrelated to the attack that preceded it and was wholly political in nature

It is intriguing that this operation, one of the largest in Europe at the time, was unrelated to the attack that preceded it and was wholly political in nature.

It came as the country was dealing with the aftermath and fallout of a major terrorist attack, in which it was revealed that the Islamic State-supporting assailant was known to the authorities and had also been known to have recently met associates in Germany, who were themselves being monitored by German authorities.

Further, the fact that numerous human rights violations were committed, including the manner in which residents with young children were raided at an impossible hour, with families seeing their possessions, including mobile phone, electronic devices and cash, confiscated without explanation, as well as the failure to officially charge any of those arrested, mirrors the practices of oppressive and dictatorial regimes in Third World countries. 

Among those who saw heavily armed anti-terrorist personnel break through their front door at 5am on 9 November was a 76-year-old widow who lives alone and who’s late husband worked for the UN. This pensioner was detained and interrogated for hours, and remains traumatised by the events of that day. 

Whether this, along with recent French official statements, indicates a systemic regression in democracy and freedoms, which accompanies the rise of far right and populist politicians throughout Europe, remains to be seen, but must be a source of extreme concern nonetheless.

Muslims pray for victims of a gun attack during their Friday prayer, outside the mosque in Vienna, Austria November 6, 2020.
Muslims pray for victims of a gun attack during their Friday prayer, outside the mosque in Vienna, Austria on 6 November (Reuters)

Unanswered questions

Moreover, at a time when Austrian people were expecting some sort of disclosure as to how the attack that took place on 2 November was allowed to happen, the sudden move against dozens of long-standing law-abiding Austrian Muslim organisations and individuals under the guise that they somehow pose a threat to Austrian values, is problematic as well as highly questionable.

If there was a common thread between all of those targeted, it was that they all campaigned for, or worked for Palestinian causes

It is unclear whether the government was attempting to distract from its security failure by creating a side show of such magnitude, or if it relented to financial pressure from authoritarian regimes in the UAE and Saudi Arabia that have declared war against democratic actors whom they see as a real threat to their grip on power. 

A third explanation seems to relate to the Austrian government’s commitment to US President Donald Trump’s forceful push for the "deal of the century", which requires the rapid removal of all impediments, including the numerous pro-Palestinian NGOs that operate throughout Europe and the West.

After all, if there was a common thread between all of those targeted, it was that they all campaigned for, or worked for Palestinian causes.

Although law-abiding, tax-paying and transparent, the tolerance for pro-Palestinian sentiment is becoming less and less throughout Europe and correlates with how European governments are embracing far right ideas.

Iron-fist approach

A favoured turn of phrase is that anyone who expresses support for the rights of Palestinians or works to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian refugees, or provides clothing for Palestinian orphans, must be pro-Hamas and subsequently seen as suspect. Besides violating the basic rights and freedoms of citizens, it is also highly dangerous, as it could potentially be exploited by extremists on all sides.

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Since none of those targeted had committed a crime, what could possibly justify this iron-fisted approach and this crackdown on legal entities carrying out humanitarian work of all sorts? Why close down personal and business bank accounts of innocent citizens at a time when families are under immense financial stress and pressure due to Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns?

It must be said that a serious threat to stability within Europe and its economic, social and political prosperity is its politicians’ inclination to behave as ideologues, activists or salespersons.

While calling on Austrian authorities to address the damage done to dozens of families, to return the possessions confiscated from the households and offices raided and to restore the bank accounts closed, it is crucial that this kind of incident never happens again anywhere in Europe.

For true stability, the scourge of extremism, all forms of extremism, must be overcome. To misdirect the struggle against the likes of Islamic State and far-right neo-Nazis, which all of society is united behind, to another struggle targeting peaceful elements that hold certain political views or carry out humanitarian and charitable work, is to divide society, and to hand an easy victory to extremists and terrorists.

To emulate dictatorships by regressing into tyranny, fascism, authoritarianism and oppression against our own citizens entails an even greater and far more substantial defeat. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Anas Altikriti is the CEO & Founder of The Cordoba Foundation, UK. He tweets @anasaltikriti
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