On Wednesday Austria passed a new law on Islam. The historical origin of this law dates back over one hundred years. The first Islam Law was passed in 1912 after the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. The aim was to regulate the rights and duties of the new Muslim communities that had become part of the Empire.
The new law is being criticized by the large Muslim organizations in Austria for not going far enough and for promoting an air of suspicion towards Muslims. One of the biggest organizations, the Atib (Turkish Islamic Union), is already threatening to take the matter to the Supreme Court. The representatives of Muslim communities disapprove of being treated differently compared to other religious communities, the main problem being that the new law bans financing from abroad, which means cutting money coming mainly from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Compared to the status of other Muslim communities in Europe, Austrian law contains some very notable rights for Muslims within state institutions such as the army or prisons, e.g. the right to halal food and the right to spiritual guidance by imams. The Austrian government has also decided to put in place an Institute for Islamic Theology where future imams can be educated at the University of Vienna. The aim is to provide Muslim congregations with spiritual leaders who know both the language and the realities that Austrian Muslims face in their everyday lives – knowledge that imams coming from abroad may not be able to provide in sufficient measure.
Banning foreign financing of Muslim communities
The organizations’ criticism may be understandable to a certain extent. Yet the degree of the institutional incorporation into Austrian law and renewed recognition of Islam as part of society is remarkable. Being recognized as a historical part of the society makes it easier to negotiate and voice concerns and problems. The law and the ban of foreign financing are a way of acknowledging that Austria’s Muslims are exactly that: Austria’s Muslims and not Turkey’s or Bosnia-Herzegovina’s or Saudi Arabia’s. The law operates on the rationale that they are there to stay, a historical and natural part of Austria – a step of acceptance that Germany, for instance, is starting to take only now.
Press statements by both the Atib and the IGGiÖ (Islamic Community of Faith in Austria) carry a predominantly complaining tone, mainly pointing out what is missing and where the law falls short. The main criticism – Muslim communities are now banned from financing themselves with foreign money whereas the same rule does not apply, for instance, to Russian Orthodox communities – is valid to the extent that the law does not treat all religious communities the same. But it does not necessarily mean that the thought behind the ban on foreign financing is false. Eventually, the solution could be to also extend the ban to all religious communities. The problem of foreign financing for Muslim communities may also be a different one than for Russian Orthodox ones. Russian Orthodox Christianity is already fully acknowledged and integrated into all Western societies as it is part of the faith that is supposedly common to all European societies, namely Christianity. Islam has not arrived at this point yet.
Unique reminder in Western European societies
Austria’s Muslims have to make a choice. It is in their own interest to cut off foreign payments that are hindering both their own integration and acceptance by the larger non-Muslim Austrian society. They can be Erdogan’s plaything in his fights with Europe, perceived as Turkish and incapable or unwilling of being integrated. Or they can emancipate themselves from this patron that can do little for them as he is not the prime minister of the country they actually live in, and pledge belonging to their actual home, Austria. This is where their lives and futures lie.
The renewed law, together with its predecessor from 1912, stands as a unique reminder in Western European societies: Islam and Muslims have been part of the continent for over one hundred years. The definition of the continent’s identity as predominantly Christian may be correct, but it is incomplete. Through their geographical vicinity and also through various wars with the Ottoman Empire, Islam and Muslim communities have been part of European societies for centuries. New European Union members such as Bulgaria or future candidates such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, both countries with large Muslim or Turkish communities, remind us that the continent has always been much more diverse than we like to tell ourselves. The sooner we start acknowledging this, the sooner we can create more inclusive societies and develop a new, more complex and historically maybe more accurate European identity.
Read more in this column Dessislava Kirova : A New Chapter in German Identity