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Austria's Reformed Law on Islam - a Model for Europe?

26 May 2015
Short Read by Alex P. Schmid

Austria counts among its population of 8.5 million people close to 600,000 Muslims - about half of them are Austrian citizens. This is a steep rise from the 150,000 counted in 1990. The large majority of  them are peaceful, but there are a few extremist Salafists and some other Islamists among them who want to expand the influence of their versions of Islam. In its history, Austria has had several close encounters with Islam. In 1529 Suleiman the Magnificent tried but failed to capture the city of Vienna after he had beaten the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs. In 1683, more than 100,000 Ottoman forces besieged Vienna again at the orders of Sultan Mehmed IV but the residential capital of the German-Roman empire was saved on 12 September 1683 with the arrival of 18,000 Polish Hussars. This was the beginning of a slow Turkish military retreat from much of Hungary and the Balkans. Nevertheless, today one in eight persons in Vienna is Muslim and Muslims constitute the second largest religious group in Austria after Catholic Christians. According to a recent opinion poll by the OGM institute, 58 percent of Austrians expressed apprehension that a growing radicalization of Austria’s Muslims is underway. Close to 200 Muslims from Austria have gone to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist organisations like ISIS. Against this backdrop Austria has recently been taking steps which were widely seen as meant to stem the growing influence of radical Islam.

In 1908 the imperial Habsburg army had annexed Bosnia & Herzegovina and by 1912 the Austrians tried to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims there by making Islam an official religion within the Austro-Hungarian empire, giving Muslims in many areas the same rights as Christians and Jews enjoyed, including the right to religious education in state schools. The outcome of World War I not only put an end to the Austro-Hungarian empire and its rule in the Balkans; it also marked the end of the Ottoman empire. Yet that liberal Austrian Islamgesetz (Islam Law) governing the status of Muslims from 1912 had remained unchanged until 25 February 2015 when the Austrian parliament, after nearly three years of discussions, finally updated it, leaving consulted mainstream Muslims along the way.

The new law seeks to promote a moderate “Islam of European character” and requires the nearly 450 Muslim organizations in the country to “have a positive attitude towards society and state” - a requirement which also applies to other religions than Islam. Austria’s Foreign Minister Kurz said that it could serve as a model for other European countries as well.

The new nine pages long law (six times longer than the old one) grants Muslims a whole series of rights and privileges, e.g. regarding dietary practices, the role of clergy in prisons and in the army and more. However, the new law also brings obligations, like requiring Muslim organisations to cease employing clerics who “pose a threat to public safety…or the rights and freedoms of others”. This is not only directed against itinerant Islamist preachers but also restricts the activities of those imams who are de facto agents of foreign states. For instance, more than 60 of Austria’s 300 imams are employees of the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) while others apparently receive financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Many of them also appear to receive their orders and Friday sermons from their masters abroad and might well be more responsive to their needs than to those of Austrian Muslims.

The new law forbids regular foreign funding of Austrian imams, mosques and Islamic centers and also makes clear that Austrian law applies to Muslims in Austria rather than Sharia, Turkish or Saudi law. The new Austrian law prohibiting the employment of foreign clerics will come into effect in April 2016. It is meant to give Islam in Austria a chance “to develop freely within our own society and in line with our common European values”, as Sebastian Kurz, who is also responsible for social integration policies in Austria, explained. The new law which aims to reduce the political influence of foreign “benefactors” on Austria’s Muslim communities is going to be challenged in Austria’s Constitutional Court by some Muslim organisations. Turkish government representatives have already raised their voices against an “Islam with an Austrian character”, adding the standard charge of “Islamophobia”.  Turkey’s president Recep T. Erdogan, who called on Turkish Muslims in Austria to reject assimilation, is not pleased. Yet his own government’s stern restrictions on other religions than Islam in Turkey have increased in recent years. Saudi Arabia which operates schools and mosques where a Wahhabism is preached that many find hard to distinguish from militant Salafism, is also not likely to be pleased. “Without financing from Saudi Arabia militant Salafist associations in Austria and German could barely survive”, according to Mouhanad Khorchide, a Lebanese-born theologian who is now training imams at the University of Münster in Germany after having worked for many years in Vienna.

“We want a future in which increasing numbers of imams have grown up in Austria speaking German, and can serve in that way as positive examples for young Muslims”, the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs has said. In Germany, politicians from the Christian Democratic Union have expressed interest in adopting elements of Austria’s new law; other countries, like Switzerland have also shown interest.

If more European countries follow the Austrian example, an authentic European Islam could develop – an Islam that accepts democracy, gender equality, the rule of law and human rights. Such an Islam with a European face would not only challenge Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s attempts to control the minds of Muslims in Europe. Over the years it might become a European export article for Muslims in the Middle East – something feared by those rulers who are used to instrumentalise Islam to justify the status quo and their dominant position.