In Vienna, a bid to foster 'Islam of the Austrian kind'

European countries are watching closely Austria's governance of Islam, a faith under the spotlight after recent terror attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. Austria's ban on foreign funding of preachers has raised concerns. 

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
A woman walks past a mosque in Vienna. Austria's parliament passed a law last month that seeks to regulate how Islam is administered.

A controversial legal reform on Islam in Austria could become a beacon of hope in Europe as it rushes to assimilate its growing Muslim population in an age of insecurity and Islamophobia.

Austrian lawmakers say their aim is to create a democratic, self-sufficient Islam free of radical influence from abroad, thus defusing populist fears about the faith and its minority of extremist followers. To that end, the reform fortifies the legal rights of Muslims, while also banning foreign funding for mosques in an attempt to create what Austria’s foreign minister Sebastian Kurz has dubbed “Islam of the Austrian kind.”

These are the same goals shared broadly across Europe, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But Austria’s fast-track approach – coming after Islamist extremist attacks in France and Denmark and amid continued fear of returning European jihadists – is also troubling. While it gives Muslims new protections, such as mandating a right to Islamic pastoral care in hospitals and the military, it places limits on the faith in a way that Muslim leaders says is counterproductive at best, and deeply discriminatory at worst.

At least two faith-based groups have vowed to challenge it in court. For its part, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party criticizes the law as not going far enough. And, in a recent Austrian newspaper poll, more than half of respondents said they feared the radicalization of Muslims here.

As many in Europe watch how Austria applies its law, they are asking whether the reform may ultimately do more harm than good compared to previous efforts to build bridges with Europe’s Muslim communities. One concern is that by mandating all Muslims to affiliate under a government-sanctioned roof, rather than stick to their own sects, it could prove divisive and hard to enforce, particularly if it fuels the rise of unregistered prayer rooms.

Muslims in Austria, a predominantly Catholic nation, are wrestling with these thorny questions. “We should take a chance to create an open-minded society, it shouldn’t be a conflict to be Muslim and European, and to do this we need our own structures and to take away influences from [abroad],” says Efgani Dönmez, an opposition lawmaker who is a Muslim.

Still, Mr. Dönmez, a member of the Green Party in the upper house, voted against the bill because, as a Muslim, he says, the state should take a neutral stance toward religion. Speaking moments after it easily passed his chamber on March 12, he calls it “a good step forward” in principle – but one that spells “a lot of troubles” in practical terms. The lower house passed the bill in February.

Turkish migrants put down roots

Austria’s Muslim minority numbers half a million, or about 6 percent of the population. The new legislation updates a 1912 law that governed Bosnia’s Muslim population under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire collapsed in 1918 after defeat in World War I; the law was then incorporated into Austria’s legal code.

For decades, it scarcely mattered what laws were on the books since so few Muslims lived here. That began to change in the 1960s with an influx of mostly Turkish migrants who brought their Muslim faith to Austria.

It wasn’t until decades later that Austria, along with Germany and others in Europe, woke up to the fact that Muslim migrants were putting down roots. This prompted a debate over how to integrate Islam, a debate that has only gotten louder – and often shriller – in the wake of recent Islamist violence across the continent.

Austria’s legal reform was drafted before January’s attacks in Paris on the office of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery. Still, its rapid passage speaks to the insecurity felt by many Europeans in the face of an apparent surge in radical Islamist threats.

And Austria isn’t alone in trying to stem radicalization among Muslims. France is doubling its training programs for foreign-born imams, who comprise 70 percent of Muslim clerics working in France. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also urged tighter controls on funding from abroad.

“This is a specific period of time when we have to be very careful, we have to know where the money comes from,” says Valentina Colombo, a professor of geopolitics of the Islamic world at the European University in Rome. “It is not a problem with Islam or a problem with Muslims, but a problem with some radical Islamist ideology.”

Who pays the preacher?

Austria’s government says its new law gives Muslims more rights. It also creates a new theological school for imams, which aims to impart European social values, such as gender equality. Perhaps its most controversial feature is a ban on foreign funding of the daily operation of mosques, including imam salaries, with a deadline of next March to comply. An early draft that mandated the use of a single Koran translated into German was dropped from the final bill after it raised hackles. 

On a piece of land on the last stop of the subway line in Vienna, a prayer room is under construction for the Alevi community, a minority Muslim sect. They hope to have it operating by the fall after six years of construction. Slabs of wood litter the ground floor.

“We are building it by ourselves,” says Cengiz Duran, the federal secretary of the Islamic Alevi Faith Community in Austria. Men sip black tea over games of cards and backgammon at their current prayer room inside a former office building next door. “We don’t want support from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, or anywhere else,” he says. “Islam in the Western world should develop itself.”

Other Muslims in Austria are less convinced. Carla Amina Baghajati, spokeswoman for the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, says the funding ban will have an immediate impact on Turkey, which directly funds nearly one in four imams here, or roughly 60 out of 250. “There is something like multiple identities. It is a misunderstanding to think that if someone feels emotional towards a country of origin this means they feel less loyal towards Austria,” she says. 

Ms. Baghajati argues that the new law is counterproductive because it conflates security and religion at a time when Muslims are already under a cloud of suspicion. She adds that other countries, such as Germany, are watching the law’s evolution.

A law for one faith

Then there’s the question of why Islam, and not other minority faiths in Austria, is the object of such legal scrutiny. Rüdiger Lohlker, an expert on modern Islam at the University of Vienna, says he fully supports the principles of the law, but that he can't embrace it because it treats Islam differently than other religions.

“The principle of treating everyone equally is one of most important principles we have,” says Mr. Lohlker, who sits on the committee to develop a curriculum for Austria’s new theology institute.

Jan Jaap de Ruiter, an expert on European Islam at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, says Austria’s law should only protect those groups vulnerable to foreign influence that could seed radicalism.

He says governments in Europe are debating whether to intervene more forcefully in migrant communities to attempt to lessen the influence of such forces. But he recognizes that no law can wall off European Muslims from the ideologies of the Middle East, particularly in an era of social media and viral videos.  

“You cannot stop ideas. But from the other point of view, Muslims are now forced to consider their positions. This should be seen as a challenge to Austrian Muslims rather than threatening them,” Mr. Ruiter says. And this, he believes, will ultimately help Muslims be more accepted by Europe’s non-Muslim majority.

Ideologues in a vacuum

But Jonathan Laurence, author of “The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims,” says an outright ban on funding, without a backup plan, could backfire. “If you look at where political extremism comes from, it’s not where you have well-trained imams in nicely appointed mosques. It is where you have a vacuum,” he says. 

Austria’s government hasn’t spelled out exactly how mosques that depend on overseas donors are to fill their funding gaps. However, under a loophole in the law, Muslim foundations can be set up to handle donations, potentially making it harder, not easier, to follow the money. 

Since the 1990s, governments across Europe have put great emphasis on setting up Islamic councils as official conduits to the community. But many of these bodies have proven ineffective on key issues. In France, this initiative has been paralyzed by rivalries between Algerian and Moroccan Muslims, underscoring what Muslim leaders and academics say is the peril of a one-size-fits-all approach to a diverse faith with no central authority like Rome.

Mr. Laurence says the debate over Islam in Europe today parallels a similar debate in 19th-century America over the role of the Roman Catholic Church and its foreign origins. And the lesson for Europe may be that fears of such influence are overblown and will eventually fade as immigrants’ children assimilate and bring their new language and culture to bear on their faith.

“A transition to locally trained people in strong local institutions – it is exactly what needs to happen,” Mr. Laurence says, but he says “transition” is the key word. "There is no need to deny that the religion they practice has international roots and sources of inspiration."

Danish debate on freedoms

One country on the front line in Europe’s fight with Islamic extremism is Denmark. Last month a Muslim gunman shot dead a filmmaker at a cultural center in Copenhagen that was holding a free-speech seminar. He killed a security guard outside a synagogue a few hours later. 

Anders Gadegaard, the dean of the Cathedral of Copenhagen, says that integration of Islam can happen without such laws. A mosque built with money from Qatar created political controversy when it opened in the Danish capital last summer. But Mr. Gadegaard says it has since become a mainstream voice in society and that it stood with the larger Danish community to denounce terrorism.

The Protestant minister says he fully supports the flourishing of Islam in a European context. But he worries that laws that don’t grant equal rights are a slippery slope to discrimination.

“What on earth should Danish Christian churches around the world do if [they are] not supported from Denmark?” he says. “You cannot have that right yourself and not give it to others, it is a very wrong road to take.”

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