Austrian reform singles out Muslims for harsh new requirements

The law requires imams to preach in German, closes mosques of fewer than 300 people, and bars foreign funding of Muslim organizations. The government says it will give Islam an 'Austrian character,' but many say it is anti-Islam.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters/File
Supporters of the movement of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) gather during a demonstration in Vienna Feb 2. The Austrian government passed a law today that singles out Islam for new restrictions that it says will bring “Islam with an Austrian character,” but that Muslim leaders say is prejudicial.

The Austrian parliament Wednesday singled out Islam as a faith by passing a law that restricts its adherents' religious activities. The new “Law on Islam” bars outside funding of Islamic religious communities, forces small mosques to close within a year, and requires imams to preach in German. 

Analysts say the law, which the parliament passed overwhelmingly, is an attempt to “Austrianize” Islam and bring more official oversight of the faith at a time when fears of radicalization are rife in Europe.

The law lays down regulation that aren't required of faiths like Christianity and Judaism. It amends a 1912 law, considered progressive at the time, that recognized Islam as an official faith.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, a popular new face on the political right, has described the effort as bringing an “Islam with an Austrian character.” He denies the move is directly tied to fears of jihadi groups like Islamic State following extremist attacks in France and Denmark.

"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," Mr. Kurz told the BBC yesterday.

Austria's largest Muslim organization, IGGiO, appeared to accept the new law, Reuters reports, though many smaller groups – including IGGiO's youth arm – vocally opposed it.

Muslim nations and a variety of prominent Islamic figures also slammed the new rules as prejudicial and as stigmatizing Muslims as a collective threat. Mehmet Gormez, president of Turkish religious affairs, said that "Austria will reverse 100 years of religious freedom with its Islam bill."

An estimated six to seven percent of Austria’s population – some 500,000 people – are Muslim, many of them of Turkish descent. Islam is numerically the No. 2 faith in the capital Vienna, after Roman Catholicism.

Analysts say the new law, which will cause Austrian imams who receive support from abroad to lose their funding and potentially their visas, seeks to curtail religious exchange between the Islamic crescent and the land-locked Alpine state. Kurz, the foreign minister, has openly said that Austria wants more “control” over the development of its Muslim community. 

Austrian authorities point out the bill will promote and extend an official Islam by encouraging and sanctioning new protections and affirmative aspects like Muslim imams in hospitals, and as clergy in the military. 

As the law takes effect, it will require mosques with more than 300 people to register, and, according to Reuters, will require “any group claiming to represent Austrian Muslims to submit and use a standardized German translation of the Koran.” 

Enes Bayraklı, professor at Istanbul's Turkish-German University, was quoted by as saying the lack of equal religious treatment in the bill will increase anger and radicalism among Austria’s followers of the prophet, a reversal of the bill's purported intent: 

A paranoid fear is being instilled in society. Muslims in Austria have never engaged in terrorism or extremism in Austria thus far, Bayraklı said. Taking into consideration the peaceful atmosphere in Austria, the government's purpose seems to be nothing but an engineering and social manipulation project.”

Both Austria and Switzerland have been restricting the building of mosques and minarets for nearly a decade. Yet the threat of IS has brought new attention to Muslims in Europe, as The Christian Science Monitor recently pointed out. Austrian authorities say there are an estimated 170 persons that have traveled to war-torn Syria.  

Austrian right-wing groups today called the new law on Islam an insufficient measure to combat a faith they openly criticize. Reuters writes that:

...,the opposition far-right Freedom Party, which opposed the bill as too mild, attracts about 25 percent support with an anti-immigrant stance that is also highly critical of Islam. Meanwhile, the ruling Socialist and conservative parties struggle to muster a majority together.

Austria's neighbor Germany has also experienced an upsurge of anti-Islam sentiment in the form of the weekly PEGIDA protests in Dresden.

These have, however, been met with much larger anti-racism demonstrations and a robust response from Chancellor Angela Merkel, mindful of Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews, who asserted that "Islam belongs to Germany."

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