Populist politicians around the world will go a long way to win votes. To the anguish of liberals, even politicians across the European Union have endorsed legislation that exploits, rather than assuages, the collective anxieties of voters – anxieties they have been recklessly nourished in the blinkered pursuit of power.
From Brexit Britain to PiS’s Poland we have observed with horror how, in the blink of an eye, tokenistic legislation offering the illusion of short-term gratification invites division amongst communities and leads to real-world socio-economic stalemates.
In Austria we recently peered into the abyss of such a confrontation. As the build up to the 2017 legislative elections intensified the ruling conservative and populist parties sought to stoke nationalist flames with the imposition of an ‘anti-burka law’, curtailing freedom of belief. It was my party, NEOS, and our liberal supporters who fought back.
Because the law cannot openly discriminate on the basis of religion the government was compelled to outlaw all face coverings in public places. Despite almost comedic consequences, which have seen police officers fining Austrians of every stripe for wearing so much as a scarf in winter, this sinister plot to divide our country is also an assault on our liberal values. As a NEOS Member of Parliament, I believe that minorities deserve our protection not persecution – it is right that this attempted burqa ban has been met with international condemnation and widespread derision.
Reacting with restrictive laws to a social and political challenge is not only shameful but can cause harm.
Far from promoting the open society the rightists claim, women wearing the burqa are instead criminalized by angry men in expensive suits. Instead of doing the hard political leg work to advocate tolerance our far-right lawmakers have opted to surrender to the lazy populism that circumnavigates terms such as ‘Islamophobia’ and tropes designed to instill fear of the other.
Since the Austrian People’s Party and the Freedom Party of Austria formed a coalition after the 2017 elections, prohibition has taken a more sinister turn with a proposal to ban headscarves in kindergarten and elementary schools by the summer of 2018. As a liberal charged with building a prosperous and peaceful society I am clear: Reacting with restrictive laws to a social and political challenge is not only shameful but can cause harm.
As politicians and law-makers it should be obvious – our job is not to single out divisive issues and further heighten them for political gain. Instead we should sharpen our focus on building a free society that promotes understanding; less segregating minorities, we should support them to integrate; ultimately, we should feel proud when people from different religious backgrounds wish to live and share their lives with us.
Dr. Stephanie Krisper MP, NEOS, Austria