Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff may not be a household name, but she is now a high-profile personality in the growing movement against radical Islam’s steadying foothold in Europe.
A mother and an activist, Sabaditsch-Wolff was launched into the heart of the anti-Jihad movement, and she is currently on trial after a November 2009 article written by an undercover journalist at one of her seminars categorized her as a cold woman who spreads vitriolic rhetoric against Islam. However, Sabaditsch-Wolff insists that all she is doing is telling the truth, and she fully expects to stand trial on charges of hate speech.
“We’re going to reply to the charges and we will do that in full detail,” Sabaditsch-Wolff told The Jewish State in an interview Feb. 19. “It remains to be seen whether the truth is a defense. I don’t think it will be.”
If her case makes it to trial, it will be the first challenge to Austrian laws that ban hate speech against officially recognized religions, of which Islam is one. According to Austrian law, if a religion is recognized by the country, it is protected against hate speech unless the tenets of the religion go against the Austrian constitution. Christianity and Judaism have both been challenged and cleared in Austria, but Islam has not been challenged since it was incorporated under this law in 1912. While she did not intend to bring any case to court, now that the opportunity has fallen in her lap, she plans to run with it.
“We have been wanting to get there, let’s put it that way,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said.
Sabaditsch-Wolff spent a large portion of her life in Muslim countries — her father was an Austrian diplomat in Iran when the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979. As a 6-year-old girl, she did not have a strong grasp on the Islamic doctrine around her, but she said that the fear she felt around her scared her the most.
“We had liberty before, during the shah, and all of a sudden, it changed,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “All of a sudden, [there were] hundreds of thousands of black-clad women. As a 6-year-old, you just get so scared, and this fear stays with you, it does not go away.” All diplomatic dependents were expelled the night Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, and Sabaditsch-Wolff returned to Austria with her parents and sister, an ordeal in itself in an airport packed with people trying to escape.
“You have to understand the tension that was in the air,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said.
Her family stayed in Austria for several years before moving to Chicago, where she completed most of her schooling and improved her English. Her family returned to Austria toward the end of her high school education, and she finished schooling in Austria. Soon after, however, Sabaditsch-Wolff found herself back in the Middle East, this time in Kuwait, at a summer job stamping passports for the Austrian embassy. It was there that she saw another country turned on its head, when Saddam Hussein invaded in August of 1990.
“All of a sudden, I woke up on Aug. 2 and you had the helicopters hovering above the city, and you had soldiers in the streets,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “You started hearing about rapes, and you started hearing about Austrians. The Austrian Embassy went around Kuwait City and picked up all the Austrians to stay in diplomatic secure places. And of day 18 of the invasion, Saddam Hussein decided that the neutral countries were allowed to leave.”
Austria was one of those countries, but instead of letting Sabaditsch-Wolff and the other Austrians leave through Saudi Arabia, a more geographically direct route to Austria, Hussein forced the group to go through Iraq to the Turkish border, and then make their way to Austria. During this monthlong trip, Sabaditsch-Wolff was not let out of soldiers’ sight, essentially held hostage by Iraqi soldiers for the duration.
“Imagine, in summer heat, through the desert, we did not know at the time whether the Americans attacked or not,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “The question was, from a strategic or a military point of view, if they did attack, where did you hide in a flat desert? You cannot hide.”
When she returned to Austria, she had a brief stint in politics, but soon after found herself wanting to return to Kuwait, to “get a taste of Islam.”
“There was Ramadan, there was no alcohol… and I don’t like people telling me what to drink and what not to drink,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “I also don’t like being told what to eat or what not to eat, what to read and what not to read. It was not easy, but it made me stronger.”
It was during her second round in Kuwait that she began to make the connection between her childhood experiences in Iran, her first time in Kuwait, and Islam. What disturbed her most was the discussion in the Koran of Mohammad the prophet’s marriage to a 9-year-old girl. When she asked about it, she was told to stop talking about it immediately and never to mention it again.
But Sabaditsch-Wolff decided that that experience was not enough. She went from Kuwait to Libya in 2000, which she called “the hardest year I ever experienced,” and was in Libya during the Sept. 11 attacks.
“My landlord came into my building and said, ‘the Jews did it!’” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “I understood enough at that point to know that it was not true.”
When she returned to Austria after her year in Libya, she finished her schooling and taught English for several years. However, her mind kept turning to her experiences in Iran, Kuwait, and Libya, and she found a book called “Gabriel’s Whisperings,” written by an Indian atheist, which used only Islamic doctrine to explain Islam. In this book, Sabaditsch-Wolff read about the treatment of women, which filled in the gaps that she had for so many years between her experiences in the Middle East and North Africa and what was going on around her.
“It scared me, shocked me, and infuriated me,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “That finally gave me the answers as to what I’ve been feeling and seeing for a long time. That feeling of hopelessness and loneliness, this feeling of being alone in this fight, it gave me a lot of strength.”
From there, she became a member of the Austrian Academic’s Association, which is known for its criticism of Islamic doctrine. She quickly became a board member — and was given legitimacy with the backing of the association behind her. Sabaditsch-Wolff found herself in the heart of the anti-Jihad movement when she appeared on the Internet talk radio show The Gathering Storm in May 2007. Much to her surprise — and a credit to her English — she was launched into the international anti-jihad scene after that appearance, and she quickly became a figure similar to excommunicated Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders.
“The only difference between him and me is that he’s a politician,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “There is not much difference. OK, the death threats, they’re not here yet, but you can be sure one of these days that they will be here.”
For now, however, Sabaditsch-Wolff is concentrating on her trial, her message, and the support of her husband and her 5-year-old daughter.
“She’s actually at the right age [that] she would be forced to undergo FGM (female genital mutilation). That thought alone gives me such strength, such motivation, that I have to do this,” Sabaditsch-Wolff said. “I would not be able to look in her face in a couple of years, like I wanted to ask my grandparents, what did you do during the 1930s? Didn’t you know? Didn’t you see? Didn’t you read? And I never, ever, want my daughter to ask me that. I want her to be proud of me.”