BERLIN — Earlier this year, Austria faced a dilemma.
Like other European nations, it sought to ban the full-body burqa and other coverings worn by some Muslim women. Unlike some of those nations, however, Austria did not want to call it a burqa ban, fearing possible discrimination lawsuits.
Instead, Austria came up with a controversial law prohibiting everyone in the country from covering their faces, with some exceptions for medical or professional purposes. The law took effect this month, but it does not appear to be working as intended — illustrating the problems some European nations face as they try to ban certain religious symbols viewed as contravening Western values, while also striving to uphold their own constitutions, which often enshrine religious freedom.
For one thing, most Austrians still refer to the new law as a “burqa ban,” despite officials' efforts to forestall such shorthand.
Moreover, the targeting of Muslim facial coverings without labeling it as such has led to some strange situations in Austria. With legislative elections only days away — in which the right-wing Freedom Party could gain as much as 25 percent of the vote — police appear to be enforcing the new law rather too stringently, interpreting the statute in somewhat extreme fashion.
Officers are stopping people on bikes who are wearing scarves. On Friday, police fined a man about $175 for wearing a shark costume for promotional purposes in Vienna's city center. The news about the fine was made public by the man's employer — a PR agency — and has since been confirmed by authorities.
“He was dressed as a stuffed animal and not as a terrorist,” said Jakob Kattner, an executive with the PR agency. Kattner said his company would not appeal the fine, acknowledging that the costume had violated the letter of the law.
Reflecting the confusion over the statute, however, police said Monday that the charges against the man would probably be dropped.
“This law does not apply to professionals who need to cover their faces due to their jobs,” said police spokesman Harald Sörös, who acknowledged certain shortcomings in the law. Several cyclists have erroneously been stopped for wearing scarves as protection against the cold, Sörös confirmed, but he added that none of them were fined.
“It is true that officers need to proceed quite sensitively when applying this law. It's not comparable to a speeding ticket. Instead, every case should be considered individually,” he said.
Meanwhile, authorities have clarified that Halloween will not be affected by the new law.
The widespread confusion has sparked renewed criticism of the law, but for somewhat different reasons than when it was initially proposed. Many Muslim women and other opponents of the law, which was passed as part of an “integration package” that included measures intended to help newcomers assimilate into Austrian culture, have deemed it discriminatory and racist.
Before the legislation was approved, President Alexander Van der Bellen publicly declared that he supported a woman's right to wear an Islamic headscarf — and even appeared to suggest that all women should wear a headscarf in solidarity to battle prejudice against Muslims. In the end, he still signed the ban on facial coverings, saying that he did not welcome it but that it also was not in conflict with the constitution.
Whereas opposition to the ban was previously most vocal within Muslim communities, the outrage has now spread far beyond.
“The absurdity of the recent incidents shows how useless this law really is,” Kattner said.