Student, Male, Minister, 24, with a beautiful blonde hairdo

Mehru Jaffer

In a major shake-up within Austria's Conservative Party, Sebastian Kurz, a 24-year-old law student with a beautiful blond hairdo, has been appointed junior minister in the coalition government led by the Socialist Party. Even before the young Sebastian is shown the way to his office, he has become a political sensation. The media has gone overboard questioning the appointment of one so young as minister of integration. 

The air is rent with, "Oh my god! A boy asked to do a man's job, what?"

Senior party members are hoarse trying to defend Sebastian. "He is fresh, unconventional and familiar with the problem of integration in Vienna. Sebastian is young but he deserves a chance," is the argument in a country where the average age of citizens is around 65.

Critics ask, what chance? To draw a salary of 15,000 euros per month while Sebastian still struggles to earn a university degree? 

The minister's office will spend an annual budget of 20 million euros to try and integrate people of foreign origins, and to make them feel at home here. In a recent interview, Sebastian calls his new job, a challenge. Social integration is what he is interested in improving. 

Instead, Sebastian has already upset Omar al Rawi of the Austrian Islamic Organisation. In an election campaign last year, Sebastian said that the sermons in the city's mosques should only be in German language. 

Al Rawi finds the views of Sebastian immature and ignorant. He recommends that the young man should do his homework before speaking.

Islam is a minority religion, adding up to about six per cent of the country's total population. In recent times, extreme Rightwing politicians have tried to whip up fear over immigrants in general, and Muslims, in particular, saying that foreigners will take over the affluent lifestyle of the Austrians. Al Rawi wants Sebastian to separate the issue of integration from security and immigration, and to concentrate on immediate problems of education, social welfare and equal opportunity. 

For Sebastian, command over the German language is the key to integration. Without knowing the language, Sebastian says, parallel societies will mushroom, weakening social solidarity.

Those who are most cynical say that the appointment of Sebastian is an attempt to improve the dwindling popularity of the Conservative Party in the next general elections two years away. The worst cynics are convinced that the pretty face of Sebastian on election posters is meant to seduce not just the youth, but also middle-aged female voters in the countryside. 

The gender ratio in Austria is 936 men to 1,000 women. An even larger proportion of women in the past was related to the death of men in wars, and today the statistic relates to a higher life expectancy among females. Moreover, owing to an increase in the life expectancy of both the genders, coupled with declining birth rates, the population of Austria continues to age.

In a lively discussion on the same topic with my students attending a course on Islam, it was pointed out that Babur, founder of India's Mughal dynasty, was 21 when he inherited a kingdom; Akbar, his grandson, was 14 when he first sat on the throne; MK Gandhi was 25 when he helped found the Natal Indian Congress; Mehmet II was the 21-year-old conqueror of Constantinople; Suleiman the Magnificent Ottoman was 26 at his coronation, while Alexander the great was 20 when he marched out of Athens to conquer the world.

Some also stated that behind the everlasting success of many of these people from the collective history of the world was a deep sense of responsibility towards the public they claimed to serve. Many others, who steadfastly served the 'self' while only talking of rights, have been blown away into nothingness by the winds of time. 

Few will oppose plum jobs being assigned to the young if their attitude is generously peppered with good counsel on the enormity of the responsibility at hand. For any 'servant' of the public, the perks have to be tagged with compulsory lessons in humility and selflessness, and in building a role-model character on the job. For present-day politicians to offer such an upright menu to the young also means to lead by example, and not many elder public servants can claim today to qualify for that job description.

That is the crucial, sensitive, relevant issue. Not merely the age of young Sebastian.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews:

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