Is an authentic, local Islam to be brought about via legislation, or should it come organically from within communities?
In the resort town of Lech, Austria there is only one story late in the ski season. Beneath the warm spring sun, torrents of beer flow from the taps, and the après-ski crowd share the day’s exploits. Accounts of challenges faced that day on the mountain are accompanied by the salutatory “Prost!” As glasses clink and shades replace goggles, locals and tourists alike—nearly all of whom are affluent Caucasians – worry most about the discomfort of a long day spent in ski boots.
The story of daily life is quite different in the Austrian capital of Vienna, where parliament has approved controversial reforms to the country’s century-old Islam Law (Islamgesetz), which governs the status of Muslims in the country. The original law was passed as an expedient to help integrate Muslim soldiers into the Habsburg Imperial Army after the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. The law recognized Islam as an official religion in Austria, and it allowed Muslims to practice their religion in accordance with the laws of the state.
The number of Muslims in Austria has fluctuated throughout the 20th century, first diminishing after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of World War I, then increasing after World War II with the arrival of workers from Turkey and the Balkans in the 1960s, as well as refugees from Bosnia in the 1990s. According to data compiled by the University of Vienna, the Muslim population in Austria now exceeds 574,000, or roughly 7% of the total population.
The newly reformed law, which was passed on February 25th, is designed to promote an “Islam with an Austrian character.” The law does this by halting the flow of external funds to Muslim organizations within Austria as a way to mute the influence of foreign nations and organizations, while granting Austrian Muslims more legal security in practicing their faith. Although the changes were proposed years ago—long before homegrown extremist terror attacks in France and Denmark—the recent reforms are intended to “clearly combat” the influence of radical Islam, according to Austria’s conservative foreign affairs minister Sebastian Kurz, as reported by Agence France-Presse. In effect, Austria, motivated by a desire for increased internal security, is attempting to construct a version of Islam unique to its own country.
Religion, however, is not a matter of engineering. Although it is the job of government and legislation to help nudge society in positive directions, interference in matters of faith risks creating an official form of Islam co-opted by the state but distrusted by many grassroots believers, thereby increasing the risk of extremism.
Johann Rädler, a member of the Austrian People’s Party, said the law, “guarantees Muslims more rights,” while serving, “to counteract undesirable developments,” the BBC reported. The new law meets all of the non-controversial demands put forth by Austria’s Muslim communities. These demands include the right to seek clerics in institutions, such as hospitals and the armed services; not work on religious holidays; and eat and produce food according to religious law. The final version of the law rescinded more radical measures contained in an earlier version, including the imposition of an “official” Koran in German, which understandably had sparked considerable controversy because this religious scripture is only supposed to appear in Arabic.
Nevertheless, the new law still goes far beyond what Muslims had wanted. In particular, the new law seeks to reduce outside meddling by prohibiting foreign funding for mosques, imams, and Muslim organizations in Austria. Furthermore, imams must present the central tenets of the religion in German. Finally, Muslim organizations “must have a positive attitude toward society and state” or be shut down. Muslim groups say this is unfair because it casts a “veil of general suspicion” over the entire community, Reuters reported. Moreover, the insistence on a “positive attitude” can easily be seen as a restriction on the freedom of speech. Public response to the recent legislation varies widely. The Austrian government says the new law is a milestone and could serve as a model for the rest of Europe. In contrast, Muslim groups within Austria say it is discriminatory and have vowed to challenge it in court.
The indignation is not merely a local phenomenon, and it extends to Muslim communities beyond Austria. For example, the Turkish government has expressed outrage at the financing ban, which it says amounts to “Islamophobia.” According to Mehmet Görmez, Head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, “countries cannot have their own version of Islam. Islam is universal and its sources are clear. … [E]fforts taken by state leaders to create a version of Islam that is particular to their own countries are futile,” as reported by the BBC. Many of Austria’s Muslims hail from Turkey, which sends imams to the European nation and helps finance them.
Prior to the new legislation, the government’s relationship with the domestic Muslim community had been relatively good. “What we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values,” Minister Kurz told the BBC. These “common European values,” in the words of Kurz, presumably include freedom of religion and universal human rights. Ironically, state control of, or interference in, religion may not be compatible with these values. Furthermore, the ban on foreign funding, when not applied to other comparable groups such as Roman Catholics or Jews, clearly discriminates against Muslims and violates the same common European values advocated by Minister Kurz. It is interesting to note that the bill was backed by Austria’s Catholic bishops.
According to the Austrian government, this new legislation makes it clear that Austrian civil law has priority over Islamic Sharia law. This position exhibits the inherent tension that exists between being both a human being and a citizen of a state. Individuals should all be allowed to have their own beliefs; and governments may attempt to align these beliefs in ways that assure the well-being of the state and its citizens. With the recent legislation, Austrian parliament has acted in its best interest—that is, out of deepening concern for internal security—while allowing citizens to practice the faith of their choice. Minister Kurz assesses the intention of the new law in this same light: “In Austria there must be no contradiction between being a self-conscious Austrian, while at the same time also being a devout Muslim.”
To date, Muslims in Austria have never engaged in terrorism in their country. Nevertheless, based on recent experiences in other countries, a paranoid fear of Muslim communities is growing within Austrian society, and fear is always dangerous. Its spread must be limited so that society does not become more polarized on issues related to Islamic faith. For the most part, however, life in many parts of Austria is still far removed from the situation of Muslims in Vienna. For example, questioning a resident of Lech about the status of Islam in Austria would seem out of place; in casual conversations, such matters would have been awkward to bring up, even with Austrian friends. This remains true even in mountain villages situated in Vorarlberg, the Austrian state with the highest share of Muslims in the country. It is important to remember that matters of religious diversity are not confined to any nation’s urban centers. If handled sensitively by the government and citizens of Austria, recent legislation in Vienna may prove to contribute towards positive and productive discussion of Islamic affairs throughout Austria and abroad.