Austria's conservative Freedom Party [official website, in German] on Monday called for a special vote [press release, in German] on whether to ban face veils and the construction of minarets, two of the most visible symbols of the Islamic faith. Specifically, the referendum would ask Viennese citizens to decide whether to ban the construction of mosques with minarets, whether to ban the wearing of the burqa and the niqab [JURIST news archives] and whether the government should require Muslim citizens to sign a statement affirming a commitment to Austrian secular law over the Sharia law [CFR backgrounder; JURIST news archive]. Though such a referendum would be non-binding, it could be used by the Austrian Parliament [official website] to guide policy decisions and would likely generate a swell of debate in advance of an October 10 regional election in Vienna. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache [official profile, in German] said the burqa "promote[s] the oppression of women" and characterized the proposed vote as a statement on Austrian cultural values:
People have a right to evaluate [Islamic] symbolism and vote whether they permit Muslims to build such buildings ... Many Muslims openly admit that [they] prefer to live in a theocracy under Sharia law, but that is totally unacceptable.Conservatives in Austria were galvanized earlier this month when Anas Shakfeh, the president of the Austrian Islamic Denomination said [Austrian Times report] he hoped to see the erection of mosques with visible minarets in each of Austria's nine provinces. Of the approximately 1.2 million Viennese who would be eligible to vote on the referendum, approximately 120,000 are Muslim.
Last month, the French National Assembly voted 336-1 to ban [JURIST report] the wearing of burqas. Also in July, the Syrian Minister of Education issued a directive [JURIST report] forbidding students and teachers from wearing the niqab, while Spain's lower house of parliament rejected a proposal to ban Islamic face veils. In March, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution [text, PDF; JURIST report] condemning international religious discrimination and xenophobia. The resolution specifically criticized Switzerland's controversial 2009 ban [JURIST report] on the construction of minarets. In December 2009, a Swiss Muslim launched a legal challenge [JURIST report] to the ban in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website]. It has been argued [Reuters report] that the ban violates Articles 9, 13 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights [text, PDF].