Largely associated with Muslim-run takeout joints, the popular late night snack has also become an obsession for the far-right and politicians looking to win votes.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, authorities in Austria have a new priority: Going after kebab vendors who serve on the streets of Vienna.
The country’s Ministry of Finance is warning owners of kebab stands to comply with government regulations on the sale of food.
While Austria is governed by a coalition led by the Austrian People’s Party (OVP), in the capital it holds only seven out of a 100 municipal seats available, trailing way behind the 44 seats held by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO).
Curiously the OVP’s lead candidate in the election scheduled for October 11 is Austria’s Minister of Finance Gernot Blumel.
The timing of the advertisements has therefore led many in the Austrian media to question whether there is an electoral motivation.
Past precedent in neighbouring countries, as well as popular sentiment across Europe tilts towards the idea that kebabs are more than just a tasty but slightly greasy indulgence.
For many, there is a strong association between the late night staple and the presence of mainly Muslim migrant communities in Europe.
Some Austrian media outlets have made a direct link between the campaign against kebab vendors and unsubstantiated statements made by politicians about Turkish government influence in the country. The inference being that the campaign against the snack is one way of tapping into voter fears surrounding foreign and migrant influence in Austria.
Austria is by no means alone in its anxieties over the kebab. Variants of the dish, such as the Turkish-origin doner and Arab-origin shawarma, are sold across European cities.
Neither is hostility towards the dishes universal, either among politicians or the masses.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron praised the entrepreneurial spirit of kebab vendors and stated: “Kebabs have become part of our food heritage, alongside fish and chips and curry.”
For her part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had pictures of herself taken slicing meat off a doner spit.
A 2019 poll found that the kebab was the UK’s seventh most popular takeaway, trailing classic options such as Fish and Chips and Burgers, but ahead of traditional English snacks, such as pies and sausages.
Germans have a similar love affair with Doner, with the Turkish kebab ranking highly on the country’s list of favourite takeout options.
But despite their popularity with customers of all backgrounds, the presence of kebab shops makes many uneasy.
In France, which has instituted bans and restrictions on a number of Islamic symbols, such as headscarves and face veils, the kebab shop has become a symbol of ‘creeping Islamisation’ among the right.
In a 2014, a Reuters report about kebab-related tensions in France, one kebab shop owner said that debate around the snack had become a safe conduit to express anxieties over the presence of Muslims.
Criticism of the kebab was a way to “speak ill of Muslims without speaking ill of Muslims,” according to Parisian kebab vendor Damien Schmitz.
Noting anxieties surrounding the food, the far-right National Front had made combatting ‘kebabisation’ a key campaign pledge.
Many cities in France and Italy have tried to ban or have succeeded in prohibiting the sale of kebabs in city centres, while leaving vendors of ‘traditional’ snacks untouched.
Official prohibitions are just one expression of kebab anxiety, in a number of cases across Europe, kebab shops have found themselves the target as racial tensions simmer.
In October 2019, a German Neo-Nazi began an attempted massacre at synagogue by first attacking a kebab shop. The rampage resulted in two deaths.
Christchurch terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, described himself as a ‘kebab remover’ before embarking on his massacre of worshippers in two New Zealand mosques.
The self-description was a reference to the ‘remove Kebab’ meme in alt-right circles, which celebrates the Bosnian genocide, as well as other instances of Muslim populations being ethnically cleansed, such as during the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland.
Serb forces used ‘kebab’ as a racial slur and code for Muslims they would go onto massacre and today’s far-right extremists use it to plan for similar ends.
By wrapping their hate of Islam and Muslims in the semi-humourous imagery of the humble kebab, the far-right masks their broader agenda of reestablishing a Europe free of Muslims.
In an opinion article for TRT World following the Christchurch massacre in 2019, the academic Ibrahim al Marashi wrote:
“Gastronomic racism constitutes a narrative employed during the Bosnian civil war and kept alive today by far-right European political parties. Tarrant took this sentiment to an absurd and deadly conclusion.”