A video posted online showed a disturbing encounter: an older woman harangues and spits on a younger, who films the incident. The attacker has been widely condemned, but it is not that simple.

An elderly woman seated at a tram stop in Vienna’s 7th District starts shouting racial abuse at a younger woman wearing a headscarf. The attack is apparently unprovoked, the language vulgarly racist, the reply of the young Muslim tense but measured.  

“This is my country you whore,” shouts the older. “I was born here,” replies the other. “But you won’t stay here … the FPĂ– kicks out animals like you…” The younger woman calmly defends her right to be in Vienna as the racial unpleasantness escalates, ending with the old woman spitting on the other, a kind of parting shot as she boards the tram.  Passersby can be heard trying to defuse the situation – clearly defending the young Muslim – and close down the abuse. Considering the explosive potential in such a confrontation, the atmosphere remains remarkably calm, with the exception of the one delivering the tirade.

A friend of the young Viennese Muslim, anti-racist activist Asma Aiad, later uploaded the video. The victim, who filmed the incident, had taken care to avoid showing her attacker’s face. The faces of others involved were redacted out, so the firestorm that followed remained mercifully anonymous.  The response from politicians and the public was predictably both shocked and judgmental. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz didn’t mince words: “A disgusting attack that I condemn in the strongest terms. In Austria we stand for a respectful and peaceful coexistence of all religions!” Anonymous Twitter postings were often sarcastic: “Has anyone from the FPĂ– offered (the old woman) a ministerial post … perhaps as Kickl’s successor?” Die Presse reported de-activating their online forum to dampen the storm.

Klaus Schwertner, General Secretary of Caritas Catholic Charities in Vienna, tried to put the incident in perspective. He posted his concern over the proliferation of the video on social media and pleaded for restraint, despite the virulence of the racist rant. “The attacker seems clearly psychologically unbalanced, at least confused and very upset.” Like the young Muslim herself, who tried valiantly to calm her attacker, Schwertner was rewarded with a further storm of abuse by those who saw his remark as an apology.

The incident revealed a broader xenophobia. Aiad told Der Standard that others had reported the same woman berating people for speaking Rumanian or Hebrew. Of course these incidents are part of the generalized resentment of “others” fueling right wing attitudes and parties across Europe, an alarming political climate in the run-up to the EU parliamentary elections in May. Whether this unpleasant moment at a Vienna tram stop will serve to temper voters or inflame them on polling day we must wait and see.