Austrian activist avoids jail over speech against Islam

After years of careful avoidance, Europe's leaders are finally raising their voices to admit that multicultural society is not working. But in Austria, a free speech activist was tried for drawing attention to the same problem.

Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff had been facing three years in prison, if convicted of inciting religious hatred, after she criticized Islam and Sharia law. She was instead ordered to pay a fine of €480.

“I advise you not to burn the Koran, but to read it! Only by studying what Islam stands for, will we know how to face it down! Know your enemy!” she said at a demonstration.

A left-wing Austrian magazine recorded and published a speech at one of her seminars, landing her in court on charges for “a hate speech against Islam”.

“I have nothing against people who want to practice their faith, but I would like them to do this in the privacy of their own homes,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said.

Her ideas, she points out, are nothing new – and when Europe’s political elite express them, they are not prosecuted for the same views.

“Multiculturalism has failed and this is nothing new. My group and I have been saying it for years. And now all of a sudden Sarkozy and Merkel and others come out of hiding and agree with this – I don’t know why,” said Sabaditsch-Wolff.

However, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff’s opponents say she crossed the line. Her speeches outraged not only the Muslim community, but also native Austrians.

“It’s not a matter of free speech that I can spread hatred about large groups of society. We have to respect individuals in our society and we have to ask them to integrate, and we have to help them to integrate,” said Tanja Wehsely, member of the Social Democratic Party of Austria.

Yet European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron say multiculturalism in Europe is not working. There are huge Muslim communities, such as in Austria, where they often live in their own areas – a physical sign of non-integration.

There is a district in Vienna known as little Istanbul. The people there speak their native language, prepare their national dishes and wear the clothes they are used to. And this is exactly what Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff and her followers are taking a stance against – self-segregation.

A topic which was once taboo is now at the top of the European political agenda, with multiculturalism now open to multi-criticism from some of the continent’s most influential political leaders.

It remains to be seen how the views of state leaders might fully influence debate on the ground – and the future shape of Europe.