Austria’s parliament passed a law on Wednesday (25 February) that seeks to regulate how Islam is administered, singling out its large Muslim minority for treatment not applied to any other religious group.
The “Law on Islam” bans foreign funding for Islamic organisations and requires any group claiming to represent Austrian Muslims to submit and use a standardised German translation of the Koran.
The law was backed by Austria’s Catholic bishops, and was grudgingly accepted by the the country’s main Muslim organisation. But it upset Turkey’s religious establishment.
“We want an Islam of the Austrian kind, and not one that is dominated by other countries,” said Sebastian Kurz, the 28-year-old conservative Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration – who is easily Austria’s most popular politician.
Austria’s half a million Muslims make up about 6% of the population and overwhelmingly hail from the families of Turkish migrant workers. Many of their imams are sent and financed by Turkey’s state religious affairs directorate, the Diyanet.
Mehmet Gormez, President of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs , said before the law was passed that “with this draft legislation, religious freedoms in Austria will have fallen back a hundred years”.
Austria’s biggest Islamic organisation, IGGiO, accepted the law, but its youth arm opposed it, as did the Turkish-financed Turkish-Islamic Union in Austria (ATIB), which runs many mosques and has vowed to challenge the bill in the Constitutional Court.
While the government has said Islamist militancy is on the rise, and around 170 people have left Austria to join jihadists in Syria or Iraq, Austria has experienced no Islamist violence of note, and relations with the Muslim community have been relatively unproblematic. Unlike France, Austria has not banned Muslim women from wearing full-face veils in public.
Nevertheless, 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 Austrian People’s Party parties struggle to muster a majority together.
Austria’s neighbour 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.”
The Austrian government says that the new law strengthens Muslims’ legal status, for example by guaranteeing Islamic pastoral care in hospitals and the army, and protecting Muslims’ rights to eat and produce food according to Islamic rules.
The bill updates a “Law on Islam” dating from 1912 that was intended to guarantee the rights of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Muslims in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Görmez, who had attended centenary commemorations for the 1912 law, said its replacement would disregard the “morals and laws of coexistence” that Austria had established a century ago.