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21 Sep, 2010 04:56

Austria’s far right riding anti-Islamic wave in elections

Far-right parties are boosting their influence across Europe amid anti-Islamic agendas and calls for tougher immigration laws.

Such rhetoric has helped elect the Sweden Democrats to parliament for the first time. Now the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party is fueling nationalism in its campaign, hoping for resurgence this weekend.

The "Bye Bye Mosque" game was released by the Freedom Party as part of its bid for election into regional government in Styria – Austria's second largest province – and the game’s message has hit a raw nerve.

The aim is simple: take aim and shoot down as many new mosques as you can, as they rise relentlessly above Austria's Alpine skyline. If you are not quick enough, the country is Islamized.

“We are defending our rights, our traditions and our culture. We do not want to be dissolved into Islam, nor do we want there to be parallel Islamic societies in our country,” states Dr. Gerhard Kurzmann, a Freedom Party Candidate.

Within 24 hours, the game received more than 200,000 web hits.

Within a week it was banned.

The computer game may have been just a small part of a political campaign, but the reaction has been nothing short of a firestorm of outrage.

There are around 500,000 Muslims in Austria. Together with the Green Party, their community leaders sued the Freedom Party.

“Islam is a reality. If we want to build mosques, we will build them anyway. I have a vision in the future where every town and city in Austria has a mosque with a minaret that people can see from the outside,” Annas Shakfeh, President of Islamic Religious Community of Austria, shared his wish.

The judicial authorities upheld the complaint and ruled that the game went beyond acceptable discussion, forcing the Freedom Party to remove it from their website.

“The numbers who played the game show that Islam is a very important issue,” Dr. Kurzmann revealed. “Thanks to us it was talked about in the first place. But the judicial system is meddling in politics, and stopping a free discussion.”

Many say the ban has had the reverse effect.

There is not even a single minaret in Styria, and less than 2 per cent of the population is Muslim. The Freedom Party failed to get a single seat at the last election.

Now it is expected to triple its vote, putting a dent in the ruling coalition of two centrist parties. This would be for “a little bit of a change in the whole system,” according to one voter, and because “they can position themselves as the resistance of the true Austrian people, which is being suppressed by the status quo,” in the view of another.

If the Freedom Party performs well, it will follow in the footsteps of recent successes by far-right parties in Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands.

It appears that no longer can the centrist parties ignore the voices of those alarmed by Islam and immigration, or they risk being penalized at the ballot box.

Professor Anton Pelinka from the Department of Political Science at the Central European University in Budapest said that, apart from the growing general xenophobia, the surge in migration from poor Islamic countries to richer countries of Northern and North-West Europe has caused the traditionally leftist political movements to drift towards nationalist sentiments.

However, Pelinka said the current nationalist trend in European politics should not be over-dramatized since the fringe nationalist movements were getting little, if any, support during elections. “I think that the democracies are strong enough to live through such a period of challenges by fringe parties from the far right,” – Anton Pelinka said.