“The Ideal Austrian” vs. “the Refugee”: The Construction of Collective Identities in the “Values and Orientation Courses”
By Hannah Myott and Mina Vasileva (Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna)
Numerous countries in Europe have “integration” requirements for refugees who have recently arrived, although these programs vary greatly. Many integration policies build on a foundational premise about essentialized identities of host societies (“us”) and newcomers (“them”), which is an integrationist logic that we seek to problematize. In the Austrian case, one element of this logic is the discourse of “fundamental values” which suggests that native Austrians “have” something that incoming refugees lack. In the following, we investigate this topic and its underlying assumptions by drawing from fieldwork that was conducted between October 2018 and March 2019 and focused on one of Austria’s integration requirements, the so-called “values and orientation courses” (Werte- und Orientierungskurse) for refugees.
What are the Values and Orientation Courses?
The idea of communicating Austrian Grundwerte (fundamental values) to those entitled to asylum and subsidiary protection goes back to 2010, when the first National Action Plan for Integration (NAP.I) was adopted. Even more than that, like the other seven Handlungsfelder (fields of action), the area Rechtsstaat und Werte (rule of law and values), which laid the foundation for the classes, was already developed in 2008/2009 (BMEIA National Action Plan for Integration). It then took until 2015 for the “50-Point Plan” (50 Action Points: A Plan for the Integration of Persons entitled to Asylum or Subsidiary Protection in Austria) to be officially put together by Heinz Faßmann and an expert council under the mandate of Sebastian Kurz, then Minister of Integration. This publication was the first that BMEIA brought out to explicitly target the integration process of refugees in Austria. The “Rule of Law and Values” section originally elaborated the idea for a “course format, specifically designed for [the] initial orientation purposes (..) [of] persons entitled to asylum or subsidiary protection [giving] a good overview of life in Austria and the fundamental values governing coexistence” (2015: 14).
The 50-Point Plan formed the basis for the values and orientation courses, which are mandated in the “Integration Act” of 2017. According to the Integration Act, “the values and orientation courses must teach participants about the democratic system and the fundamental principles derivable from it (fundamental values of the legal and social systems), and about the rules of peaceful coexistence” (Integration Act 2017: §5.3). They are carried out by the Austrian Integration Fund (Österreichischer Integrationsfonds, or ÖIF) and are organized as one single eight-hour session guided by aninstructor and an interpreter. According to the official training document My Life in Austria: Opportunities and Rules, the curriculum of the courses is set up to start with History and Its Effects on Present-Day Austria, then proceed to Language and Education, Labor Market and Economy, Healthcare, Housing and Good Neighborliness, Legal Integration, and Cultural Integration (BMEIA/ÖIF 2016: 86).
The course begins with Austria’s geography and history starting from Franz Joseph onwards, addressing topics such as Maria Theresia, both world wars, and antisemitism. The topics of school and work are then presented, followed by the constitutional state, media/press, equality, and democracy. This is followed by a section on duties, which mainly includes explaining the solidarity principle, taxes, and what kinds of social security they ensure. The curriculum then turns to how participants can—and why they should—learn German on their own. Health-related topics are also raised, where participants are taught what an e-card is and how it works. This is followed by rules for good cohabitation such as waste disposal, privacy, legal rest hours, nighttime periods, and the avoidance of noise nuisance. The last part of the curriculum deals with intercultural competencies. This includes an exercise in which participants must decide whether certain pictures represent something that is legally permitted in Austria, socially accepted, none, or both.
While the stated goal of the Federal Act and the courses contained therein is to “quickly integrate persons who are legally resident in Austria into Austrian society” (Integration Act 2017: §1.1), the reality is that refugees may only attend the course after receiving their legal asylum in Austria—a process that in some cases takes years. This highlights the symbolic nature of the courses and begs the question why they hold such a prominent position in recent integration measures.
Construction of “the Austrian” Identity
The course curriculum constructs and communicates an essentialized “Austrianness,” which we refer to as “the ideal Austrian.” This ideal citizen is perfect; they never cross the street when the light is red, they are extremely neighborly, and they go through life with a sense of solidarity with their fellow citizens. To illustrate this ideal Austrian, the values and orientation course’s accompanying booklet, My Life in Austria: Opportunities and Rules (BMEIA/ÖIF 2016), features photo examples with captions about Austrian society/behavior underneath. One photo features a woman wearing a high-visibility jacket and a hard hat, stating: “Technical professions and management positions are open to both women and men” (ibid.: 100). Another shows two women talking and smiling, with the caption: “Neighbours often talk to one another and help each other” (ibid.: 117). And, under a photo that shows a businesswoman standing and explaining something to three employees at a computer, the caption says: “In the labour market, as in all other areas of life in Austria, women have the same rights as men” (ibid.: 104).
This ideal Austrian lives in a utopic version of Austria as well, where gender inequality does not exist. The fact that Austria is ranked relatively low on the Global Gender Gap report compared to other countries in the Global North (WE Forum 2017) does not play a role in this version of Austria. Without presuming to understand the motivation behind representing Austrians in such a way, it is clear that it is at best oversimplified and at worst misleading. The construction and communication of this idealized character reinforces an imagined collective national identity that serves as an example for refugees and situates two essentialized, collective identities against one another: “the Austrians” and “the refugees.” These contrastive identities are reminiscent of Said's concept of Orientalism, which defines Europe as the Orient's “contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (1978: 9f). Likewise, Austrianness is developed in contrast to its “others,” in this case, “refugees.” These essentialized identities fit into the “powerful regime of classification, an apparently commonsensical system of ordering and sorting people into national kinds and types” brought to light by Liisa Malkki (1995: 6). She problematizes the widespread universalization of “the refugee” and “the nation,” categories that continue to exist in today’s “national order of things”. In the case of the values and orientation courses, defining “the Austrian” in such stark terms within this system of classification and categorization implicitly produces and reproduces constructed images of not only a homogenized Austrian identity, but also the refugees’ identity.
Construction of “the Refugee” Identity
In general, refugees are portrayed as deficient—they have to take the courses because they lack basic Austrian values. They are imagined as a homogeneous group characterized by being Muslim, non-secular, antisemitic, homophobic, and not respecting women’s rights. All these ascribed qualities create a group of external “others” whose integration into Austrian society seems difficult or even unachievable.
Part of the problem in identifying these issues is that this characterization is rarely explicit. It is implied through comparison and an overemphasis on “Austrian fundamental values.” The implication of this is that this characterization is difficult to “prove,” allowing it to pervade without too much controversy. Some markers of these pervasive understandings about the collective “otherness” of refugees include implicit or explicit comments that take for granted a common acceptance of these assumptions. For example, during our meeting with a representative of an Austrian ministry who is involved with integration programs, it was mentioned how the curriculum is especially designed for refugees and that he would not lecture American, Canadian, or German migrants on (gender) equality. Not only is this a very generalized assumption for a highly diverse group of people, but it also perpetuates the narrative of a progressive, perfectly gender equal “western world” versus a patriarchal, backwards Middle Eastern one—“the West” versus “the Orient,” as Said puts it (1978).
Similarly, in our interview with a member of the “team of experts” who formed the “50-Point Plan,” assumptions about patriarchy, modernism, and gender roles of migrants came to light. This member referred to migrants as harboring a “traditional patriarchal sort of thinking,” which was seen in Austria in the 1960s and 70s. This modernism—seeing societal progress as a linear development, for which a country like Austria is “ahead” of a country like Syria—although well-meaning, displays a subliminal understanding that homogenizes refugees into one “patriarchal” category. Likewise, our interview with a values and orientation course instructor uncovered the assumption that refugees are not used to women working, another homogenizing assumption that puts all refugees in one “basket,” so to speak. Finally, the structure and curriculum of the courses were presented to us in a workshop for “MultiplikatorInnen.” In this workshop, subtle comments and emphases, including topics such as antisemitism, women’s independence, and the importance of keeping religion private, as well as side comments such as “you can’t just go around swearing at people,” display the underlying culturist (Schinkel 2017), civilizationist (Brubaker 2017), integrationist (Meissner and Heil 2020) assumptions at the base of the courses: Refugees—especially Muslim refugees—have a cultural deficiency that makes their values incompatible with Austrian ones. They must be trained how to be more “Austrian” in order to coexist peacefully.
Many recent policies in countries in Europe and beyond share a common grounding in identitarian civilizationism, or “construing the opposition between self and other not in narrowly national but in broader civilizational terms” (Brubaker 2017: 3). This is one manifestation of an “us” versus “them” rhetoric often used in relation to an imagined Muslim other. Similar to this concept of “civilizationism,” the values and orientation courses place emphasis on the concepts of secularism and liberalism. Both of these categories are activated through their placement against Muslims, who are thus portrayed as the opposite and therefore a potential threat to liberal and secular values such as gay rights, women, Jews, and freedom of speech.
In order to legitimize Muslims’ position as “the other,” the religion itself must be instead viewed as a kind of culture (Karagiannis and Randeria 2016). Emphasizing the civilizational threat of Islam and the cultural identity of Christianity allows increasingly restrictive integration policies to exist and gain popularity without drawing accusations of religious discrimination. It can even simultaneously highlight secularism as a sign of progressive “Western” society, as evident in the Austrian values and orientation courses.
In this regard, the problem is not that the values and orientation courses bring up women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, freedom of speech, or nonviolence, but that they construct them as an exclusive attribute of the “we-group” that “the others” must learn.
The problem of the values and orientation courses appears to be twofold. First, they create and promote homogeneous, sacrosanct, rigid values that do not include or even ignore real challenges faced by Austrian society, such as racism, sexism, or the rise of right-wing politics. On the other hand, they also implicitly produce and reproduce constructed images of the refugees’ identity by placing them against this “ideal Austrian,” thus representing them as non-Austrian and therefore deficient. This is a manifestation of the “us” versus “them” rhetoric in relation to Europe’s imagined Muslim other, which frames Islam in cultural terms and therefore constructs a civilizational threat. As opposed to nationalism alone, the process seen here could be understood as Brubaker’s “civilizationism” (2017).
The values and orientation courses are portrayed as providing an “overview of life in Austria and the fundamental values governing coexistence” (BMEIA 2015: 14), but this disregards several realities. First, most of the course participants have already been in Europe and Austria for a longer period before they are granted asylum and allowed to take the courses. Additionally, according to recent interviews, more information about Austrian life can often be gained from individual interactions and personal connections rather than institutional, mandated courses. 
In conclusion, the courses promote “fundamental,” “non-negotiable,” “shared values” as if they were natural and neutral. Despite the intention to “enable persons to participate in social, economic and cultural life in Austria” (Integration Act 2017 §2.2), integration measures such as the values courses often lean on essentialized ideas about national identity. The values and orientation course curriculum constructs and communicates an optimal, essentialized “ideal Austrian” by communicating “what Austrians do.” Simultaneously, they exclude contradictory perspectives and ban refugees themselves from influencing the discourse. In fact, no refugees were consulted or included in the team of experts who organized the curriculum. This way, the courses become a selective, hierarchical, hegemonic interpretation of who and how Austrians are and what refugees “are to learn what society expects from them and what is not negotiable in order to enable peaceful coexistence of all people in Austria” (50 Action Points 2015: 15).
 Although the term “integration” is still used commonly in policies and even in migration studies, we would like to note that we do not accept the term “integration” at face value, given its problematic underlying logics. Although there is not the space to discuss it in depth here, see e.g. Meissner and Heil 2020, Rytter 2019, Schinkel 2018, and Korteweg 2017 for discussions about this topic.
 Members of a far-right ideology in Austria (Identitäre Bewegung Österreich or IBO) and several other European countries actually call themselves “identitarians,” referring to a similar logic studied here (albeit in explicit ethno-nationalist terms rather than seemingly neutral ones). Our thanks to Prof. Ayse Caglar for pointing this out.
 See Hannah Myott’s MA thesis (forthcoming; 2020).
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