Last week, the Austrian National Assembly passed an act targeting the activities of ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the new law, released terror offenders will be monitored through electronic ankle bracelets, and imams leading religious services in the country will be required to register with the government. The new regulations also make Austria the first European country to ban the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities outright, as the country takes a firm stance against a growing phenomenon of political Islam.
The new legislation is only the most recent in a series of efforts by the conservative government of Sebastian Kurz to try and curb Islamist extremism in the country. While Austria is currently going further than any other government in Western Europe in targeting suspects, its model for preventing extremist activities might soon be taken up in other EU countries.
Soon after coming to power in December 2017, Sebastian Kurz steered through the passage of the Symbols Act, which criminalised the use or distribution of symbols associated with various extremist organisations and hate groups from across the political spectrum. In response to criticism for his government’s uneasy coalition with the far-right Freedom party of Austria, Kurz silenced sceptics by placing several right-wing organisations on the list as well.
By far the most visible entry on that list was nonetheless the Muslim Brotherhood, the international Sunni Islamist movement that is already branded a terrorist group in Russia, Egypt, and most Gulf states but has so far managed to dodge the label in most Western countries. When Austria placed it on the banned symbols list, the decision was met with a wave of virulent criticism from voices sympathetic to the movement, which includes the Qatar-based media conglomerate al-Jazeera. The new anti-terrorism law has sparked a similar response.
Founded in 1928 by Egyptian scholar Hassan al-Banna as an “Islamic revival” organisation, the Brotherhood came to worldwide prominence as a wave of Islamism rose up to challenge secular governments across the Arab World in the second half of the 20th century. Over the past several decades, the transnational constellation of organisations that make up the Brotherhood has also given rise to paramilitary wings which have engaged in campaigns of bombings and assassinations.
The movement’s primary goal has long been to create Islamist states ruled in accordance with sharia, or Islamic law. In the wake of the Arab Spring, branches of the Brotherhood emerged as a dominant political force in several countries, and even managed to obtain power in Egypt with the election of Mohammed Morsi to the presidency and in Tunisia through the Ennahda movement. After being democratically elected, Morsi took a sharp turn towards authoritarianism, acting to cement Islamist rule over Egypt until furious protesters and the Egyptian army forced him out of power a year into his term.
While mainstream branches of the Brotherhood often present themselves as democratising forces and compete in elections, their offshoots and sister organisations include a number of violent terrorist organisations such as Hamas or Liwa al-Thawra. For many years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been seen by scholars as a “gateway” organisation for religious extremists who are initially radicalised by its strong Islamist message and subsequently move on to more overtly extremist groups. No less than Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, started out as a member of the Brotherhood.
The Austrian breaking point
The recent legislation is nonetheless seen within Austria as necessary and long overdue. In November 2020, just hours before the city was about to enter a new coronavirus lockdown, a young man carrying an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire indiscriminately in Vienna’s busy city centre, killing four people and injuring 23. The attacker had been released from prison less than a year before under new leniency rules for young adults, and the shooting spree transformed the country’s approach to preventing terrorist activities on Austrian soil. The nation of 9 million has one of the highest per capita rates of ISIS militancy in the whole of Europe, with around 150 individuals known to have joined ISIS in either Syria or Iraq before returning to Austria in recent years.
Investigations following the November 2020 attacks quickly made it clear the shooting could have been prevented if threats posed by known terrorist sympathisers were taken more seriously. A week after the shooting, Austrian anti-terrorists squads raided 60 locations across the country associated with groups such as Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. The raids resulted in 30 arrests and 20 million Euros in seized cash. At the time, officials insisted the operation had no connection to the recent attack, and that its purpose was instead to “cut off the roots of political Islam”.
Regardless, the Vienna shooting pushed Austria to a breaking point and encouraged the government to pursue a more proactive approach to fighting terrorism, an approach that has very much informed the recent law. By implementing measures that will keep known extremists on a tight leash, Sebastian Kurz is seeking to limit radicalisation and prevent terrorist attacks without alienating the hundreds of thousands of mainstream Muslims living in Austria.
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