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Europe

Austria tries to open up to youth to prevent radicalization

In Austria, an extremist hotline has been set up for parents concerned that their children may have turned toward radical Islamist ideologies, or worse, to militant religious fanaticism.

They call because a son or a daughter is starting to act strangely. They've dropped out of school; converted to Islam, or started ranting about unfair treatment. The mother - or father - is worried.

In the first three months since its inception by Austria's Family Ministry, more than 200 people have called the Extremist Hotline so far, all but two of them about religious fanaticism, according to director Verena Fabris.

The hotline is just one of several ways the Austrian government is working with the Muslim community to fend off growing radicalism. Organizing 300 workshops in schools is another, as is working in prisons and teaching religion in school. The NGO Women without Borders announced Monday it was starting "Mothers Schools," where parents of children who have gone off to fight in Iraq or Syria teach other women the early warning signs to help protect against radical influence.

In November, 130 foreign fighters were believed to have left the country to join jihadists' movements. By January, the number has risen to 190. The country has had high profile cases of teenagers traveling to Syria to marry Jihadists. They are among the . Nearly weekly, there are reports of arrests of people attempting to travel there.

Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the interior ministry, warns that the fast rising number should be viewed less as a trend and more of a reflection that the government is getting better at discovering who has gone and when they left. Five names placed on the government's list in January, for instance, actually fled Austria in September.

Ramazan Demir

One person lost to extremism is one too many, says Imam Demir

The 190 foreign fighters represent less than one percent of the Muslim population in Austria, but nearly 70 have returned, and many of them come back to recruit. While the number remains low, as Imam Ramazan Demir points out, one person lost is too many. So he and his colleagues from the Islamic community are working with the government to help integrate Muslims into society as well as prevent further radicalization.

"Integration is a two-way process. Both sides have to work at it. One needs to open the door, the other needs to walk through," says Demir.

Demir should know how hard it is to walk through that door. He's a third-generation German whose grandfather came from Turkey to work at chemical company. His mother is a cleaning woman at a local school. His family emphasized the importance of education and Demir, 29, has just received his master's in Islamic Studies from the University of Vienna. He and his wife, who is completing her master's degree in psychology, have lived in Austria for the last eight years.

"In Turkey, I'm German. In Germany, I'm a Turk. In Austria, I'm a German-Turk," he says.

He says he talks a lot about identity with his students in his main job as religion instructor at a local Austrian high school. Demir is also one of the leaders of the Islam Religious Community (IGGÖ) and General Secretary of the Muslim Prison Pastoral Care Group.

Marginalized youth

Radikalisierung der jungen Muslime in Österreich

Austria is concerned about the influence of radical Imams on young Muslims

"We have an identity problem," Demir says.

Of the 190 known foreign fighters, more than half are asylum seekers from Chechnya. The second largest group is ethnic Bosnians. Most are young men up to 25 years of age.

"In Chechnya as well as Bosnia, there were wars. These are traumatized people. And I believe they are also struggling with their identity. ‘With whom, or what, can I identify?' And if you look at that: Have these people found success in Austria? The answer is no," Demir says.

They are mostly jobless - Austrians with immigrant backgrounds have the highest unemployment rate in the country - school dropouts without hope, he adds. People with problems in the family; people with a bad circle of friends and religiously uneducated.

"That's really important. They have no idea about religion," he adds.

In addition to the hotline, Demir says working with peer groups is important. So is his religion instruction in the schools. But one important group left out is prison inmates, the young Imam says.

While Catholic priests and Protestant ministers tend to pastoral work daily in prisons, Imams work voluntarily and appear primarily for Friday prayers. About a quarter of the prisoners in Austria's largest penitentiary are Muslims.

That's not enough to prevent inmates from becoming "infected" with hate by other prisoners, who have constant access to vulnerable youth, Demir says. Many may enter prison on a minor drug charge, but they come out a few months later fully radicalized, he adds.

Being spat at

Jugendliche Islamisten Tätowierung Jihad

Jihad, or holy war, is attractive to young, unemployed Muslims with few prospects for the future

Many young Muslims have experienced discrimination and that can feed radicalization.

The hotline director, Fabris, tells the tale of spending a day wearing a headscarf just to see what it is like. Twice she experienced discrimination. In one instance, as she walked to a seat on the subway, a woman shoved her aside and nabbed the place, telling Fabris that because she didn't belong in Austria, she shouldn't be able to sit.

Young Muslim women tell her that sort of thing is common. So, too, is being spat at.

It is no wonder, then, that many Muslims are now reacting. Fabris says some of the calls to the hotline have a lot to do with youthful rebellion and a desire to provoke parents and teachers. Burkas and headscarves for young Muslims can take on the same meaning as multiple piercings, dyed hair, tattoos and punk clothing for non-Muslims.

The reaction they get "is confirmation of prejudice," Fabris adds.

Apologizing for IS

Those prejudices are particularly obvious after news of the latest atrocities from extremists like the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as IS. As a representative of his community, Demir says it wears him down to have to continually justify his religion.

"For the majority of Austrians, it's not self-evident. They always want to hear from Muslims themselves: Are you for us or against us. Why? Because of the media. Day in, day out, we hear about IS, IS, IS. Woman with head scarf; man with long beard and naturally you hear, 'Is he one of them; Is she?' Always," he says.

The gentle, burly Imam wearing a T-shirt and jeans pauses. He sips some of the green tea he has ordered.

Then he adds: "I don't belong to the extremists, but I have to constantly defend myself and my religion. Yes, it's tiring."

Now, he adds, imagine you're unemployed and 23 years old.

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