Monday, 23 Nov 2020

Austria's Muslims wary of backlash after attack

Muslims make up eight per cent of the population, one of the highest proportions in the European Union

VIENNA (AFP) – When Mr Osama Abu El Hosna found himself under a hail of bullets during the shooting rampage in Vienna, he heroically risked his life to save a policeman at the scene.

But while Mr Hosna has been lauded for his courage, other Muslims say they are now scared to walk the streets of the city they call home as they fear a backlash against their community.

Monday’s attack was carried out by an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) supporter who had been convicted and imprisoned for trying to join the ISIS group in Syria.

Mr Hosna’s own story is testament to the Islamophobia present in many parts of Austrian society – and which has been fanned by right-wing politicians.

In the majority Catholic country, half of Austrians believe mosques should not be tolerated and say they have a negative image of Muslims, according to a 2019 study by the University of Salzburg.

Muslims make up eight per cent of the population, one of the highest proportions in the European Union.

The far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) openly uses Islamophobic and racist imagery, including during its spell in government between late 2017 and May last year.

According to the Dokustelle group, which documents anti-Muslim harassment and racism, incidents targeting Muslims went up from 309 in 2017 to 1,051 in 2019.

The NGO also reported an increase in anti-Muslim incidents in the wake of the Vienna attack, including buildings being defaced with slurs.

“So many women have been calling because they are too afraid to go outside, because they get harassed for wearing a headscarf,” said Dokustelle founder Elif Adam.

‘It may rebound on us’

Addressing hundreds of Muslims gathered for Friday prayers at the Islamic Centre Vienna, which houses the city’s main mosque, the imam condemned any form of violence as contradicting the principles of Islam, and urged parents to watch out for extremists trying to radicalise their children.

Prayers at mosques across Austria were offered for the victims of the attack, carried out by a 20-year-old Islamist with dual Austrian and Macedonian nationality.

“Anyone who is doing such an act is not acceptable, and we cannot consider him as a friend of Islam,” Mr Ahmed Al Mofareh, the director of the Islamic Centre Vienna, told AFP.

The gunman “didn’t understand our religion but I am worried that this will rebound on us”, worshipper Ahmed, who did not want to give his surname, told AFP on his way out of the mosque.

Mr Hosna’s proud father Khalid said it was his son’s actions that were the true reflection of Islamic values.

“Our culture, our religion and doctrine say we have to help others,” he told AFP. “It’s the least we can do for Austria.”

Mr Osama himself, 23, proudly sports a sew-on police patch gifted to him by colleagues of the injured officer he helped save.

Despite being urged by another police officer to run and save himself, Mr Hosna pressed his grey T-shirt onto the gunshot wound on the injured policeman’s thigh and helped drag him to an ambulance.

He identified himself and those being shot at as fellow Muslims and tried to speak to the attacker in Arabic in an attempt to stop the shooting spree.

TV stations across the world have contacted the young man, who recently got engaged, to recall the events.

The family is originally from the Gaza Strip and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has called Mr Osama to congratulate him.

‘THEY DIDN’T WANT US’

But they are no strangers to discrimination.

Mr Osama himself recalls quitting his job as an electrician because he was bullied for having the same first name as late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The family of 11 were also featured in media reports last year.

Back then, the family combined their income and savings to buy a home in the small village of Weikendorf, about an hour from Vienna.

The mayor, however, objected, citing the “different cultures of the Islamic and the Western world”, which “are far apart in terms of values, customs and traditions”.

It took a year-long legal battle to finally purchase the house.

But in the end, the family decided to rent it out and instead stay in an apartment in Vienna, for fear of living among people who “didn’t want us because we are a Muslim family”, Mr Abu El Hosna said.

Still, his father said, they don’t want to judge the entire community by the actions of a few individuals.

“There are radicals everywhere,” he said.

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