(Vienna, February 16, 2013)
There’s always a them. The other side. The opponents, the ones who give us someone to struggle against. The ones who think they’re right, not we. The crazy ones, the ignorant, the wrong. No matter who you are, no matter which side you’re on, there’s always a them.
It’s halfway through February, 2013. The protest by asylum seekers in Vienna’s Votive Church has lasted a month and a half. And I’m beginning to hear about it from the other side, the conservatives, the right wing, the ones whose ancestors have pissed on this ground since the Dark Ages and defended it twice from Turks, the ones for whom even a single swarthy complexion feels like a fist up the ass. People like H.C. Strache, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, who wants to crack down on “asylum fraud.”
One of his ilk wrote online, “You apply for asylum in the first country that you enter after the one you flee. Judging from their appearance, not one of these “refugees” comes from Europe, and thus cannot be from one of Austria’s neighbors. So if they are to apply for asylum where they set foot after leaving their country—for most that would be Turkey, where they are neither persecuted nor religiously inappropriate. Only in Turkey, they can’t live the high life, with wealth, smart phones and white women. So they become allies of the asylum industry, which plays its role in this country, among others, in making Europe a united mush with neither individual ethnicities nor nations, similar to the USA. Thanks, but no thanks. We know real refugees, we had plenty of them here, from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. These are not real refugees, but con artists that are committing crimes against our people.”
And: “In 1956, there were refugees in Austria, in 1968, there were refugees in Austria—since then, there are organized importations, en masse. Planned, financed and protected under pressure from a small, elite group who would like to make Europe the second U.S. A refugee does not have thousands of dollars to be smuggled across thousands of miles up to ten boundaries if he’s fleeing for his life. I have experienced genuine refugees—and based on their behavior, these here are not refugees.”
These are comments by “Britta de N” from the Facebook page of the Identitäre Bewegung Österreich (Identitarian Movement Austria, “1,241 likes · 2,163 talking about this”), nine of whose members entered the Votive Church on Sunday February 10, declaring themselves to be occupying the occupation, and enduring a several-hour hunger strike before they were led out by the police.
On their Facebook page, they protest that they’re not Nazis, no matter what their critics say. And why is it that earnest young people get accused of being Nazis simply for loving their homeland? And these aren’t political refugees, because Afghanistan and Pakistan are not really so dangerous; instead, they must be economic refugees, and, more than that, a beachhead for the islamization of Europe.
Based on my conversations with the men in the church, I write back to Britta that any normal father is willing to pay thousands of dollars to smuggle his son thousands of miles to safety. I debate her and three men, a tennis game of arguments, conducted in German with the assistance of Google Translate. I smash the ball back over the net again and again, and finally the administrator of the page deletes the thread. I’m stung, until I determine that means I won.
A few days ago Shahjahan Khan, a spokesman of the church protesters, wrote an email to the president of the Republic of Austria, Heinz Fischer, asking for his support. Fischer replied in an email that he would like to help them, but there’s nothing he can do except try to help them within the framework of rules that already exists. He also asked them to move out of the church and into a monastery offered as alternate lodgings by the Catholic officials.
This is an offer the refugees have so far declined. They fear that if they leave the church, they will leave the spotlight of public attention, and can be picked off one by one by the police and deported. Any time they are outside the church, the ones whose asylum applications have been denied (and there are 20 of these, out of the 45 men in the church) are fair game. Three were caught by police last week while they were outside the church. The whereabouts of one is unknown. Two were deported to Hungary; one of those returned, secretly, on a train, to Vienna a few nights ago, and is enjoying a quiet refuge in a secret place.
At the moment it’s impossible to send them back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, because neither of those countries has an agreement with Austria.
Fischer certainly means well, but like everyone else, he’s got a delicate balancing act to maintain. The refugees are breaking rules, and this is a nation of rules; those who get away with breaking rules are generally very quiet about it, and generally very rich. So Fischer cannot be seen as supporting the breaking of rules; on the other hand, he’s convinced the Votive Church refugees have a point—they’re innocent victims of the War on Terror escaping from one of the most dangerous places in the world, the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a Scylla and Charybdis of Taliban and Pakistani secret police, drones and suicide bombers.
In his email, Fischer argued that the refugees would be more comfortable in the monastery. This is no small point. It’s still freezing cold in the church, and many of the men are weak from fasting. The day the Identitarians invaded the church marked the 40th time an ambulance had had to come and bring out a hunger striker on a stretcher and take him to the hospital to have nutrients pumped into his veins.
Another refugee spokesman, Mir Jahangir Awan, told the press that the refugees were taking the president’s offer into consideration. Thus, putting their own spin on it, yesterday a couple of the local newspapers wrote that the refugees were about to give up. Aufgeben, in German, that was the word they used. Give up.
The papers added that there was going to be a demonstration the next day. I had heard about it. I wondered if the tide had really just turned against the refugees. Maybe nobody would go to the demo.
A third newspaper wrote that the occupation of the church was a boomerang coming back at the asylum seekers, because, as the Interior Ministry reported, several of them have missed appointments and thus received negative answers to their asylum applications.
In the comment section under this article, hardly any refugee supporters were in evidence, and the right wingers were crowing like roosters on dungheaps: Great! Throw them out! Send the swindlers back to where they came from! Nobody has been able to explain to me so far why these crooks should be considered legitimate refugees!
In response to that last comment I posted a link to a video of guards in a Pakistani prison torturing bound prisoners by squeezing their testicles, and wrote that this is what happens to dissidents in Pakistan, and a similar fate and worse is likely for any of the Votive Church group who is sent back home. In response, the next poster told me I was pathetic and probably a communist. It was already quite late. I had to unplug and turn off and make myself stop thinking about it and go to sleep. The next day, today, there was going to be a demonstration. And I was going to start teaching at one of my universities again. Lots to think about. As I brushed my teeth, I remembered Britta de N’s phrase “religiously inappropriate.” Does she realize that there used to be 200,000 Jews living in Vienna? Were they religiously inappropriate, in her opinion? Is that why they were murdered? Too late to go back to that conversation now. Must sleep.
In the morning I thought about the question posed to me recently by Di-Tutu Bukasa, a lawyer, journalist, and human rights activist: Why do I even care about these Muslims—an American guy with a Jewish name? Well, based on the liberal environment I grew up in, it’s more or less automatic. This is how we roll. As the rightists are bothered by foreigners, we’re bothered by people who are xenophobic. We grew up hearing about Martin Luther King, and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and Gandhi, and Mandela, and the fighters who rose up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Did I mention Greenpeace? And as much as I despise the Taliban, I’ve enjoyed the presence of nearly every Muslim I’ve ever met. So screw Nazism and Nazism Lite, and save the gentle foreign cats who hang out in the church suffering hunger pangs, staring up at the stone vaults and dreaming of a normal life without war.
After teaching I went over to the demo and was relieved to find it had reached 2000 people. The feeling was strong, leftist, and positive. From where I stood, I could see H.C. Strache posters denouncing asylum fraud that had been defaced with Hitler moustaches and swastikas. I could hear the speaker, one of the refugees: “All we want is our human rights. All we want is to be treated as human beings.”
In the evening, back to the Internet to check the news. Austria’s Foreign Minister is over in Afghanistan meeting with Hamid Karzai to make an agreement for repatriating failed asylum seekers. And, wouldn’t you know it, another bombing in Pakistan. 60 dead. No, it’s not dangerous over there. The world rolls on, and we all roll with it, us and them.