Opinion: Austria’s Islamic Reforms

New York Times – Opinion Pages

The mosque at the Islamic Cultural Centre, Vienna, Austria
The mosque at the Islamic Cultural Centre, Vienna, Austria

In February, the Austrian Parliament amended the country’s century-old “Islam Law.” The new legislation, though controversial, is a significant achievement. In promoting a moderate, homegrown Islam compatible with democratic values, Austria has taken a positive step to combat extremism while protecting religious liberties.

The original Islam law, passed in 1912, sought to integrate thousands of Muslims who officially came under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following its annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Predominantly Roman Catholic, Austria-Hungary extended Muslims the same rights of worship as other official religions, and granted state protection to Islamic customs, doctrines and institutions. But the empire’s breakup following World War I left just a few hundred Muslims in Austria, and the Islam Law became irrelevant.

The current landscape is vastly different. A 2014 University of Vienna report put the number of Muslims in Austria at over 550,000, or about 7 percent of the national population as of 2012.

The number of Muslims first began to increase in the 1960s and 1970s, with the arrival of tens of thousands of guest workers from the Balkans and Turkey. Refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo followed in the 1990s; more recently, Austria absorbed thousands of asylum-seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There has also been natural expansion among second- and third-generation immigrants; as of 2009, about half of the country’s Muslims were Austrian nationals.

The reforms follow years of lobbying by Muslim leaders, who argued that their people have effectively remained second-class citizens. The updated law confirms Islam’s official status and expands Muslim rights. Muslims will be allowed time off from work to observe Islamic holidays and be able to receive spiritual care and halal meals in hospitals, prisons and the armed forces. The law also establishes a theological program for imams at the University of Vienna, where instruction will reinforce European social values.

But other reforms, which Vienna says are aimed at counteracting extremism, are contentious. The updated law bans other countries from financing Islamic groups, and bars foreign clerics from leadership positions in Austrian mosques. All imams must speak German, and Muslim clergy must prove “professional suitability,” either by completing the University of Vienna program, or demonstrating equivalent training. Stressing that Austrian law takes precedence over Shariah, it requires Muslim organizations to show a “positive attitude toward society and state,” or risk closure. (It remains unclear exactly what constitutes a “positive attitude,” or how this will be monitored.)

Austria’s reforms set a precedent in Europe, where concerns about extremism have been echoed by other governments. The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, has voiced disapproval of a “reflexive” reliance on foreign funding by France’s Muslim institutions. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s integration minister, says German and Swiss officials have expressed interest in similar financing controls.

Austrian reactions have been mixed. Muslims have generally — if grudgingly — accepted the reforms. The Islamic Religious Community in Austria, an umbrella group that helped draft the amendments, conceded that the outcome “probably comes closest to the needs of both parties.”

But because Austria’s Christian and Jewish groups do not face language restrictions, and may receive foreign financing, others find these measures highly discriminatory. Some Muslim organizations have vowed to bring complaints to Austria’s Constitutional Court. On the other end of the spectrum, the anti-immigration Freedom Party opposed the law, deeming it ineffective in curbing extremism.

Some objections have merit. A blanket ban on foreign financial support is a blunt instrument that risks alienating Muslims by subjecting them to special rules. And while many Islamic institutions depend on foreign funding, not all of these donors have extremist ties. But the law eschews any attempt to differentiate between foreign sources, and some moderate Islamic groups are unlikely to survive. Even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, reviewing the proposed bill, found the ban unnecessarily broad.

The language requirements may not achieve much: Extremism is as likely to spread in German as in any other language.

But these measures respond to a real concern. A small yet growing number of Austrian Muslims is embracing radical Islam; officials say nearly 200 have left the country to join jihadist movements in the Middle East. With the reforms, Vienna is acknowledging the current climate while striking a balance between civil liberties and national security.

Freezing foreign revenue streams remains the best way to encourage the development of an independent Austrian Islam. The ban is aimed especially at Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which are vying for leadership of the Sunni Muslim world and whose governments have exported their competing versions of Islam to Austria for decades. Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of sponsoring the spread of Salafism and Wahhabism — anti-Western ideologies that seek to impose Shariah — has financed the construction of mosques in Austria and operated schools and cultural centers. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has urged Austria’s Turkish Muslims to reject assimilation. According to Mr. Kurz, at least 60 Muslim clerics currently working in Austria are Turkish civil servants paid by Ankara’s religious affairs directorate.

Funding by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other foreign governments is often aimed at shoring up their broader geopolitical interests. Preserving this patron-client relationship will only impede the full integration of Austria’s Muslims. The financial restrictions are necessary in order to break these ties, and will help foster greater self-determination.

Austria’s updated Islam Law may be imperfect, and Muslims have a right to request more nuanced legislation. But to the extent that the reforms broaden the rights of Austria’s Muslims, and help thwart extremist foreign influence, they are essential. One century ago, Austria officially recognized Islam. Today it may again be at the vanguard of Muslim integration.

Soeren Kern is a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute, a New York-based nonprofit that reports on international policy.