Austria: ‘provoking and connecting’ the Kanafani way

May 19, 2009 — Interview

Written by Nina Mühe

Below we reproduce a discussion with members of the Austrian Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative.

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How did the Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative get started and what are its main goals?

Baruch Wolski: To start with we were just a circle of Kurdish, Austrian, Turkish and Arab friends. One of the first things we organised were women-only dance events. We were just trying to create a new kind of space for Muslim and non-Muslim women to come together, to party and to have fun. But these women’s dance events without men, and without alcohol, became a big success and without our intention they became political in character. Women from the Lesbian Centre, young Muslim students and other women from completely different walks of life were coming together. In the normal course of things this would never have happened.

We then moved on to organising public events, issuing invitations to lecturers, who had written on issues close to us [i.e. Orientalism] such as Irmgard Pinn, Gazi Caglar and Franz Wimmer. Even though our attempts were amateurish, we were attracting audiences of up to 600 people. That encouraged us to carry on. The next development was the founding of the journal der.wisch. We manage to publish this irregularly, not because of lack of interest or a lack of a market, but due to a lack of financial resources.

Alexandra Wolski: It was also one of our aims to make art and culture freely accessible to everyone, to create a space where young artists could present their work.

In Kanafani, Muslims and non-Muslims work together on political issues, how did this unity develop?

Kamile Sahin Batur: We came to know each other at a time of protest against the war in Iraq, and at a time when the Left were calling on Muslims to work with them against the war. But the demands of the organised Left seemed to us instrumentalist. With Kanafani it was different, it just grew out of friendship – to meet and talk just seemed natural.

Murat Batur: Yes, we were not looking for the differences between us. It was about developing a consensus through friendship.

Kamile Sahin Batur: But there were conflicts within our discussions and it was the differences between us that fascinated me. We just kept on discussing things, but always allowing others the space to openly express themselves. We did not exclude people because they thought differently. This is what gave me the incentive to carry on with this kind of work.

You have just organised a public lecture entitled ‘Integration – a miracle cure put to the test’. Why have you taken up the issue of integration?

Kamile Sahin Batur: Because integration is connected to a concept of a society which is totalitarian and has a clearly designed, closed value structure. Those on the margins have to adjust to these majority norms, and only get accepted if they meet certain standards and demands. And because everything we do has to do with immigrants, or with other excluded groups.

Murat Batur: Some time ago we organised a public discussion, which centred around the presentation of a sociological study. Nearly everybody present was in agreement with us that the concept of integration used in the research was superficial. It was at that moment that we realised that the term ‘integration’, indeed the very concept ‘integration’, was in itself problematic.

Baruch Wolski: It was really about articulating a position against integration – not from the Right, but from the Left. But it is important to point out that it is not our strategy to actively go out looking for an issue to take up. One example of what I mean is the way we organised around the question of double tuition fees for foreign students. Some of us were victims of this regulation, and we called the subsequent demonstration a ‘beggar’s procession’. (The education minister must be so poor, we mocked, if he needs to take twice as much money from foreign students!) For our association, it’s a kind of unwritten rule that if one of us is faced with a certain problem and brings this problem to the group, then we must take it up and organise around it. So you see we organise events in quite an uncomplicated manner.

Murat Batur: And today we work mainly around Islamophobia. For of course the developments since September 11 have had an important influence on the work of our association.

Are there any other organisations that share your understanding of the importance of working against Islamophobia?

Baruch Wolski: There are not really any other organisations working directly against Islamophobia. Muslim organisations are bogged down with other issues – such as how to create a space for Islam in Europe, or how to respond on a day-to-day basis to the many attacks and accusations. So they are busy with other things, and this is OK.

Kamile Sahin Batur: But now there is also an opportunity to organise an alliance against the new citizens’ initiative, which has been formed to prevent the construction of a mosque [1]

Baruch Wolski: Yes, and there is also the possibility that together with the network, we will organise a conference on ‘Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia’. A lot of hostility towards Islam and Muslims is acted out through the issue of anti-Semitism and we must seek clarity on these issues.

Do you experience much opposition?

(Much laughter), Kamile Sahin Batur: Yes, from all sides, and sometimes from the Muslim side also. One side suspects us of being anti-Semitic, the other of perhaps being too accommodating to Zionism. It’s like people outside are constantly trying to put a label on us, just because we refuse to label ourselves. Sometimes the resistance is very strong and, to be honest, it makes you tired.

Baruch Wolski: Yes, but that could be resistance to anything we do. When we organised an event for Ramadan and invited Sufi musicians, people asked ‘How can you invite Sufi musicians?’ And then others ask’ Why are women’s dance events needed?’ And then still others will say ‘How come I can’t get alcohol, when I come to your concerts?’

The main problem is that we cannot disguise our solidarity with the Palestinian cause. That is always a weak point in Austria, because solidarity with Palestine quickly becomes labelled as anti-Semitism, denial of the Holocaust, etc. Even many people on the Left feel threatened, particularly when they see a Muslim speak on a terrain they feel is a Left area. You see, for many people the idea that a Muslim can be religious and also on the Left just does not fit into their preconceptions.

So you are falling between stools?

Baruch Wolski: No, we are sitting on all stools. But it works in our favour too. We are neither an orthodox left organisation nor a classical Muslim association. If either of these did the work we do, they would not be accepted by their constituencies. But we are always a bit on the margins which means more tolerance coming from all sides for our work…

Kamile Sahin Batur: … We are at the border …

Baruch Wolski: … Exactly. And being at the border creates a freedom, because people are more tolerant, they say ‘Ah, it’s only them … it’s only the Kanafani’.

Do you receive any funding for your work?

Baruch Wolski: In Vienna, although this is not ever stated, the way things seem to work is that you have to survive as an organisation for about four of five years before the funding agencies perceive your existence. And then you are faced with the question, are you on the same political wavelength as the funders? And if you don’t want to allow this to predicate your work, you will always face problems. We have received small amounts of funding from time to time, but in general our work is done voluntarily.

Murat Batur: The concept of our association and how we work is also quite new and hitherto not known. This is why we have occasional alliances with partners over specific projects but don’t tend to work with partners on a regular basis. Maybe this is also another reason why we don’t get a lot of funding.

What are your next projects?

Murat Batur: A big part of the debate about Islam here in Austria is turning around the EU discussions on Turkish accession, so we are planning to do a symposium with various non-Muslim and Muslim actors on Turkey.

Kamile Sahin Batur: Actually, it is not just about doing a symposium on Turkey, but about showing people, here in Austria, the difference between the real Turkey and the Turkey of their imagination. Many people in Austria have a particular view of Turkish politics. This is also because Turkish migration to Austria in the earlier period was that of the Turkish Left, the Kemalists. The Kemalists tend to be well-integrated in Austrian politics today and dominate the discourse about Turkey.

Baruch Wolski: We also want to show that the rupture lines within Turkish society are also reflected within the Turkish community here. We are also talking with the Verband der Wiener Volksbildung which organises adult education and has a project ‘University meets the public’. Ideally, the debates at the symposium will be between an academic and public discourse, giving us an opportunity to attract a diverse audience.

Kamile Sahin Batur: What this means that if we open up to everyone, and give them a forum for discussion, then it is inevitable that there will be conflict, around the Armenian or Kurdish issue and around the headscarf, for instance. I find this really interesting and I am very curious to see what will come out of this – will new discussions be opened up?

So do you think you could get into difficulties through this?

Baruch Wolski: No …

Kamile Sahin Batur: … No, not seriously, but …

Baruch Wolski: … That’s what we want after all …

Kamile Sahin Batur: That’s good.

Baruch Wolski: It’s the advantage of being an outsider. We are probably the only association that could afford to organise something like this.

Would you say, then, that you aim to provoke with your work?

Kamile Sahin Batur: Yes …

Murat Batur: Yes, but it’s not our only aim. It’s not only about provoking, but also about connecting, bringing people with different opinions together.

Baruch Wolski: But provocation can also have an effect. Provocation does not mean frightening people, but shaking them up a little. We do not want to insult but to animate.

Related links

Kanafani Inter-Cultural Initiative

IRR Alternative Voices on Integration project

Read an IRR News interview: Kanafanis challenge Austrian integration policy

[1] Both the extreme-right electoral parties, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Alliance for the Future of Austria have been campaigning since 2007 for a constitutional amendment to prohibit the construction of mosques and minarets in Austria, and in the BZÖ-controlled state of Carinthia the construction of mosques has been effectively banned. In Vienna, according to the Austrian Times (16 April 2009), the leader of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache offered his support to a citizen's initiative which was formed to oppose the extension of the Islamic Islamic Cultural Centre in Vienna-Briggitenau on the grounds that the new mosque would spread 'religious indoctrination'. Kulturverein Kanafani, Postfach 143, 1070 Vienna, Austria. Email: der.wisch@kanafani.at. Web: www.kanafani.at.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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