By Sophie des Beauvais
“It is important to say clearly that the Muslim community and Islam are a part of Europe and there is a need for the Muslim communities to have a clear legal status,” says Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. “Otherwise many Muslims would feel excluded in our societies.”
On February 25, the Austrian Parliament passed a bill amending a 1912 law regarding Muslim organizations, which constitutionally recognized Islam as a religion and codified the religious rights of Muslims. The aim of these new reforms is to modernize this law, allowing Muslims religious freedoms, such as the right to see imams in hospitals, prisons, the army, and retirement homes—a privilege that was denied to them previously.
Nearly half a million Muslims live in Austria, mostly from Bosnian and Turkish origins, and they account for 6 percent of the population. Most imams operating in Austria come from Turkey’s state religious affairs directorate, the Diyanet.
Among the more controversial new amendments to the law is the banning of foreign financing for Islamic organizations operating in the country. 450 Muslim organizations will now have to demonstrate “a positive approach towards society and state” in order to continue to receive official licensing from the state. These changes to the law have sparked outrage amongst the Austrian Muslim community despite the fact supporters insist that they are essential to limiting the influence of foreign countries in the way Islam is practiced in Austria.
“On the one hand, I do believe that the renewed law can be a real chance for the Islamic community in Austria, with regard to its process of integration by restricting foreign financings,” says Ranja Ebrahim, assistant professor at the Islamic Religious Education of the University of Vienna.
Despite the great potential for progress that the overall changes to the law provide, many suspect these foreign financing restrictions serve an alternative purpose, and one not necessarily favoring the integration of the Muslim community in Austria. “It diminishes certain ideologies and world views which are not compatible with the local settings, which are automatically and often unconsciously transferred by the imams from their social context they were educated and brought up in,” she continues.
For Milena Joldo, a Ph.D. student at the Institute for Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna, these reforms are part of the integration process. “Imams should be educated in Austria,” says Joldo, “because here they are confronted with a pluralistic society and common values.” Minister Kurz echoed this sentiment, in a recent response to Turkish President Erdogan’s opposition to the reform. “At the moment, we have more than 60 imams from Turkey, and in the future we will have our own Austrian imams.”
But Joldo takes the matter one step further. She explains that these changes to the law will help to keep Muslims from being constantly under suspicion, adding that being from Bosnia she is more comfortable practicing an Austrian version of Islam in German than a Turkish one.
“I’m ‘Bosnian’ Muslim and different in my religious and culture opinions from an Egyptian or Turkish Muslim,” says Joldo. “This law is the way to live in harmony with the state and society.”
As the center of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna has strong ties with Bosnian Muslims dating back to the 19th century. Even before the passage of this most recent law, Austrian laws better guaranteed the liberties and freedoms of Muslims than most other European neighbors did. Germany, for instance, struggles to implement anti-discrimination measures throughout the country and still has not awarded its Muslim community of nearly 4 million the status of corporation under public law.
Prior to any official designation as a state-recognized religion, the Islamic religious body in Austria was labeled with a “public corporation” status, beginning in 1979. Such a status protects the right to practice communal public worship; arrange and administer their “internal” affairs autonomously; the right to found private confessional establishments for instruction and education; and to provide religious instruction in state schools.
However, these reforms precipitate an unequal treatment of differing religions in the country.
“As far as these financing restrictions are concerned—this applies only to the Islamic community, while foreign funding is absolutely common and an indispensable vital line [of support] for most of the other religious communities in Austria,” indicates Ebrahim.
Thus many suspect that the reason for these restrictions may have to do more with sensitivities over counter-terrorism efforts than any blanket xenophobia. Indeed, since January 2015, the Ministry of Interior reported around 150 Austrians to have joined ISIS. While the bulk of the law was introduced before the wave of terror attacks began sweeping through Europe earlier this year, the more restrictive provisions (such as the ban on foreign financing) were included, following a wave of counterterror legislation. According to a poll from the OGM Institute, 58 percent of Austrian believe Muslims in Austria are becoming radicalized.
Further fueling a sense of isolation among those targeted by the new law is the fact that the Muslim population is excluded from the Austrian legislative process. “An Islamic youth organization, the Islamic Youth of Austria (MJÖ), started an online petition against this law, which resulted in over 6,000 signatures expressing the refusal of the law, which is perceived as discriminating and generally suspecting,” adds Ebrahim. “They organized public campaigns, media presences and discussions with politicians, which became sort of a public dispute between the government, the Islamic Community in Austria (IGGIÖ), and the MJÖ.”
All legislative gestures aside, stigmatization and violence against Muslims is on the rise in Austria. Any nuanced distinction between Islam, Islamism, and radicalism is ignored by those of particular political persuasions and largely attributed to the rising power of the Austrian right-wing party FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreich). Islam itself is a prominent target of the FPÖ’s political program, which promotes the idea that the religion represents the ultimate threat against Austria’s traditions, democracy, and stability.
Against this right-wing backdrop, the newly passed reforms simultaneously reflect a hope from within the Muslim community for greater acceptance and inclusion in Austrian society. Beyond controversies over legislative procedures, and the true motives behind the more restrictive elements of the legislation, it could effectively help to fight against discrimination and the belief Islam is incompatible with Austria’s traditional values.
Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.