It was on a Wednesday evening, a day before the Hanau shooting in Germany, that I decided to meet with a group of people who want to ‘save’ Vienna, my hometown, from people like me: a daughter of immigrants, ethnically non-white, and Muslim. So, I visited gatherings organized by the Identitarian movement in Austria. This is a notorious fascist group, whose leader I refuse to name but has gained notoriety after receiving money from the Christchurch shooter. For the sake of this article, I will refer to this leader as Thomas. These events were advertised online as part of an nascent movement to help with new recruits. However, the attendees referred to it as IB (Identitäre Bewegung). I took advantage of their sophistic arguments related to censorship and freedom of speech, to claim my right to attend these meetings.
To put things further into perspective, I am not just a Muslim woman, I wear a hijab too, leaving no ambiguity towards my identity, which I did not wish to conceal on this particular endeavor.
The first meeting I attended took place in a pub in Vienna´s second district. As I was walking down to the pub, I saw a tall man dressed in black military-style clothes standing in front of the entrance. Although unable to assert his position, his image triggers every conventional notion of the far-right in my mind. In a panicked move, I skip past the door, just about to abort the mission, when I take an unintended glimpse from the windows to a distressingly familiar view.
They just seemed so ordinary! Their terrible ideology was not at all reflected in their appearances. It is an ordinariness that I wanted to further understand. Is it merely a strategy to mobilize the largest possible target group, or is it perhaps the result of them concluding that their beliefs have a place in the center of society?
They just seemed so ordinary! Their terrible ideology was not at all reflected in their appearances. It is an ordinariness that I wanted to further understand
Once inside I was blocked by Thomas, who was completely ignoring my “excuse me, you´re blocking my entrance”, forcing me to squeeze my way to the backroom where the gathering was held. I could tell my attendance was perceived with suspicion, which explained the individuals assigned to watch my every move during the whole evening.
Only a few seemed interested in my intentions to attend this gathering, while others acted rather oblivious to my existence, as if wishing for my presence to cease. A feeling I know well. I have experienced it previously. Especially amongst those elite circles, who can only handle a certain amount of diversity inoffensive to an unspoken yet deeply underlying state of white supremacy.
The racism they exalted felt too close to home. The same prejudices I am confronted with in all aspects of my life were instrumentalized to legitimize their presence within a fascist group. Even the subjects they talked about ignited a feeling that is uneasy but familiar. The Great Replacement? I heard many politicians refer to it before. It is the racist theory that there is a conspiracy to depopulate white Europeans.
Racism has become an integral part of Austrian politics, where politicians would not shy away from utilizing Islamophobic tropes in exchange for votes. Every election season racist political campaigns would hang all over my hometown where it becomes an inseparable element of Vienna´s beautiful facades and infrastructure. But if it is the same racism, the same hate, why is it only acknowledged as a problem when it comes from the periphery?
What seemed even more painful, was knowing that it isn’t merely about statistics. My very existence is a public exhibition of foreignness
The first gathering had an abrupt end as a result of the police, media, and counter-protesters outside the pub. For the second meeting, the organizers kept the location secret. Instead, we gathered at a meeting point about a 10-minute walk away. On our way to the pub, we passed by a Sikh temple, to which a man walking in front of me reacted with displeasure. I tried to repress my giggles. Perhaps another case of “unable to differentiate a Sikh temple from a mosque”?
Upon our arrival, I took a seat and started striking up conversations with the people around me. An hour into the evening, a higher ranking Identitarian member gave a speech. It took on the usual radical right topics, about female birthrates, whites becoming a minority, etc. It was quite distressing to listen to in real life. Up to this moment, there was always a screen separating us. His expression of disdain about the “migration background” status being statistically inapplicable after two generations was when I could see those words tightening around my arm like a brown ribbon.
If I am statistically undetectable as an “Ausländer”, how else will this ideology hold up in a post-race world of facts and numbers? But what seemed even more painful, was knowing that it isn’t merely about statistics. My very existence is a public exhibition of foreignness.
After the speech, I turned to the man next to me who I was talking to earlier. He then revealed that he was indeed an eastern European migrant. “So, apparently we are the two ‘Kanaken’ (a derogatory term used to refer to foreigners in German speaking countries) here who are to be blamed for the devastation of Vienna?” I cheekily say to him. He appeared confused by my question, failing to see himself reflected in this speech. Because when we say migrants, they hear brown, black, Arab, Turk, or Muslim.
Later on, a prominent figure of the group took a seat at my table. We had a long talk that had attracted a small audience. I decided to have some fun and started a rant about systemic racism and Islamophobia. The discomfort and awkwardness I produced was incredibly entertaining to me. Lastly, I asked him why they use extremist slogans while rejecting the label of extremist group.
When confronted with a difficult question, he did not hesitate to throw the “Austrian people” under the bus, claiming they might have a hard time understanding scientific or neutral terminology. What he ultimately blamed on the “stupidity” of the people was nothing more but a cheap excuse for utilizing racist and extremist propaganda.
YES, I went to meet a radical-rightwing group to tell you that systemic racism is far more dangerous
To my surprise, Thomas joined the discussion at my table. To avoid any provocations I actively try to repress my eye rolls every time he said something I found ridiculous. I had no particular interest in talking to him. I know what he is like. His ideology is splattered all over the internet. However, he said one thing that I would like to reply to here:
“Your parents came to this country for financial reasons, they couldn’t possibly have taught you how to truly love Austria.”
Minorities' experiences are some of the most honest reflections of Austria’s self-confrontation with its recent history. This includes our fight against racism and discrimination in light of Austria’s unforgivable dealings with its Nazi past. Children of migrants don’t just love; they endure a heavy burden; a fundamental struggle against discrimination that is paramount to the protection of our democracy. But this Thomas will never comprehend, as he is standing on the wrong side of history yet again.
I thought talking to such people might grant me some closure. Was it a naïve quest to understand why? Why what exactly? I struggle to know the answer. Perhaps, why does racism exist? Instead, I could see crystalizing before me an image of the societies those people were mobilized from. Societies that have curated a tolerance to racism in their most central institutions, the very societies whose borders are blurring in the face of the radical right.
We so easily claim to be anti-racist but cannot recognize it when it's embedded in our systems, behavior, beliefs, or speech. The normalization of racism, and in particular Islamophobia, is connected to the mainstreaming of the radical right and its narratives. This experience made that even further evident to me. The political and societal center is in no way the victim in my reality. It is not hijacked by an extremist other, rather it is the enabler. It is a responsibility we so desperately need to acknowledge.
An adequate fight against the radical right cannot exist within societies that do not take seriously the dangers of (systemic) racism and white supremacy, and its effects on emboldening the radical-right. So, if you allow me dear reader to conclude: YES, I went to meet a radical-rightwing group to tell you that systemic racism is far more dangerous.
*This article is a guest entry by independent journalist Nehal Abdalla as part of our series on the radical right.