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Anna Strobel {*}

Unique Legal Status

Muslims in Austria

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2006/4, P. 200-2004
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In Austria the Islamic Religious Body is acknowledged as corporation under public law since 1979. About 200 teachers give Islamic religious education at public schools according to curricula approved by the state. But also in Austria the living together of the majority society and the Muslim minority is not without tensions. Both sides have to take responsibility for a better integration.

 

Austria so far proved to be in many respects the "Island of the Blessed" for Muslims. Muslims have here often better possibilities and more liberties to exercise their religion than in many countries of the Islamic world. They enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly and press. The practice of the Islamic cult is not or hardly hindered. The legal status which is unique in Europe makes that possible. For it a short view into history is necessary.

After the parliamentary treatment in the Upper Chamber and Lower House already in the year 1912 an Islam Law was issued by Emperor Franz Joseph I. It concerned the acknowledgment of Islam's followers within the Austrian half of the empire. This Islam Law was the basis for the recognition of Islam as a corporation of public law in the year 1979, in which also the proclamation of a Constitution of the Islamic Religious Body and the establishment of the first Viennese Islamic Religion Community took place.

According to Article 1 of the Constitution all those Muslims who have their stay in the Republic Austria belong to the Religious Body. The last census of 2001 had the following result: Among a resident population of 8.032.926 persons the group of the Muslims is with 4,2 per cent or 338.988 persons at the fourth place, after the Catholics (73,6 per cent), irreligious (12 per cent), and Protestants (4,7 per cent). From the 338.988 counted Muslims 96.052 persons had the Austrian nationality. And with regard to the nationality most of the Muslims had come from Turkey: 125.026 Turks were counted.

According to Article 3 of its Constitution the tasks of the Islamic Religious Body concern primarily "the keeping and care of religion among the followers of Islam". After the national acknowledgment of Islam as corporation under public law, numerous associations were created in Austria. According to their size those associations vary between local private clubs and supra-regional organizations. In the nineties there were in whole Austria more than eighty Mosque Communities or Islamic Associations. At the beginning of the 21st century there are more than 200 Mosque Communities for the about 340.000 Muslims.

 

Islamic Religious Education at Public Schools

It is difficult to find out the actual number of the members of those associations, because the circle of sympathizers does usually express its affiliation not by membership dues but by the Islamic alms-tax (Zakat). The associations generally have a prayer room,

 


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a leisure club and a shop. The Turkish associations are very numerous and active in Vienna, Tirol, Upper Austria and Vorarlberg. Sometimes a group operates at the same time several mosques, which can be placed in a block of flats or in a flat let for rent, and registered as "associations". Muslims in Austria differ however not only by their country of origin and denomination but quite substantially also by the type and strength of their religiosity.

The President of the Islamic Religious Body is elected according to its Constitution; as official interlocutor of state or church authorities he is subject to public control. By the acknowledgment of Islam the representatives of the Islamic Religious Body (president, deputy, religion teachers etc.) have become the official contacts for authorities, politicians and journalists.

Even if the Islamic Religious Body "officially" represents the Muslim majority in Austria, some groups or individuals nevertheless act independently of the umbrella organization, e.g. Muhammed Abu Bakr Müller, an Austrian who converted to Islam, who represents a very radical interpretation of Islam, and is often in the media (Bakr Müller does the web page www.islam.at/). The Islamic Religious Body (www.derislam.at) has several times dissociated itself from him, and affirms time and again topical differences.

Also the thirty Turkish associations of the AMGT ("European National View Organisation") are to be mentioned here, the so-called Milli Görüs ("National View"). With the Milli Görüs in Austria it is - in contrast to the Islamic Community Milli Görüs (IGMG) in Germany - not about a registered association but an alliance of mosques.

Umbrella organization of that alliance is the in 1988 created "Islamic Federation", which has a kind of coordination function. The ideology of the mosques which are near to Milli Görüs is "Islamic" in the sense of Islamizing all areas of life. Apart from a "modernization and democratization of the Islamic Movement" and an "Islamizing of modernity and democracy" as ideological objectives, in Austria the Milli Görüs Associations concentrate in their practical work mainly on the social integration of Muslims

Since in Austria the religious education at public schools is a right of recognized churches and religious communities, the Islamic Religious Body too made use of that right and established an Islamic instruction. If there were in the eighties about fifty teachers who gave Islamic religious instruction (about half of them taught in Vienna), then there are at present about 200 ladyteachers. In the first years the lacking knowledge of the German language as well as the educational approach of the assigned teachers gave often cause for criticism on the part of parents, of the teaching staff and of the supervisory school authorities - a situation which was quite unsatisfactory for the Islamic Religious Body.

One realized that one could only unsatisfactorily keep up with the legal task to teach religious education. Thus the idea matured to install after the model of the religion-educational academies already existing an own teachers' training college: the Islamic Religion-Educational Academy. With the school year 1998/1999 the teaching could begin in Vienna. The task of the academy is clearly defined: it serves "a scientifically founded and practice-oriented vocational training on high school level in educational and social matters."

 

The Fears in the Population Are To Be Taken Seriously

In whole Austria by the Islamic religious education is cared for more than 37.000 pupils (cf. to this Martina Schmied, Islamische Gemeinschaften als Schulerhalter, in: Religionen unterwegs, Nr. 1/2003,25f.). The Islamic RE teachers come from different Islamic countries, cultures and traditions, they all act however according to a uniform curriculum, and teach in German language. The religious education at public schools, which is based on a uniform curriculum approved by the state, is the guarantee for the state that Islamic religious education is not given outside the school in a way which dodges the state educational system. In Austria there are - due to the state religious education - at least no such problems as with the so-called Koran schools in Germany and Switzerland (cf. to this Anna Strobl, Islam in Österreich. Eine religionssoziologische Untersuchung. Frankfurt 1997).

The self-confidence of the Austrian Muslims has definitely changed in the past years. Meanwhile the second and third generation of Muslims lives in Austria. In the second and third generation the proportional part of persons with qualified graduations rose, and an academic elite came into being. But that group still remains a minority among the Muslims living in Austria (cf. about it Iris Kessner, Christen und Muslime - Nachbarn in Deutschland, ein Beitrag zu einer interkulturellen Hermeneutik, Gütersloh 2004, 166 ff.). The self-confidence of the Austrian Muslims has quite changed in the past years. Thus meanwhile the second and third generation of Muslims lives in Austria. In the second and third generation the proportional part of persons with qualified graduations rose, and an academic elite came into being. But this group remains a minority yet among the Muslims living in Austria (see to this Iris Kessner, Christen und Muslime - Nachbarn in Deutschland, ein Beitrag zu einer interkulturellen Hermeneutik, Gütersloh 2004, 166 ff.).

 


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Today's young Muslims have other questions and answers about an Islam adapted to their personal environment as their parents and grandparents. Many of them grew up in a "double" reality - the argument with the culture of their parents as well as with the culture of their environment has moulded them. For many of those young persons it is important to realize an Islam that places a successful integration into the Austrian society into the centre. The "Muslim Youth Austria" for instance, that launched at the end of the nineties an Islamic youth organization throughout Austria and defines itself as Islamic, independent, multi-ethnical, constitutional and German-speaking, places the work "from and for young people" into the centre of its activity (cf. the Website www.mjoe.at/.

But how does the living together now look like locally? A Muslim pupil explained about that, she had no special difficulties with their Austrian school fellows. But asked about her friends it turned out that they were exclusively Muslim girls; there were hardly any contacts to non-Muslim girls. In such a case conflicts are of course avoided. Problems will only develop when you must get along with each other resp. when you see that your area of life is threatened.

Until a few years ago yet even Christians who deliberately lived their faith became rarely aware of the Islamic faith of the "foreign worker" or "foreigner". Only recently their religion too is increasingly noticed. That is particularly due to the events around the "radical Islam" (among other things: 11 September 2001; terrorist attacks in Madrid in the year 2004 and in London in the year 2005; the murder of the film producer van Gogh; the controversy on the "Mohammed caricatures").

In the Austrian public the question about "Austrian Islam" is characteristically always asked when the "radical Islam" spreads terror and fright. So every "motive case" increasingly raises socio-political questions about the Islamic presence in the West - to a certain extent with the undertone: How does it actually look with "our" Muslims - are "they perhaps also as ready for violence as the Muslims in the media"?

When acts of terrorism shake the world also representatives of the Islamic Religious Body are asked for an "official" statement. The events of the last years created anyhow "an atmosphere in which Muslims must constantly defend themselves and explain that they are not terrorists", knows Beate Winkler, directress of the in Vienna established institution "European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia" (EUMC).

A report of the office for the defence of the constitution attests to the Muslims in Austria that also after intensive inquiries no hints to terrorist activities or preparatory acts of Muslims in the country could be traced. For the future the report sees further positive effects, because in Austria Islam was relatively strongly integrated into the society and institutionalized. Nevertheless - the fears of the native non-Muslim population (even if they are extremely vague) are to be taken seriously and must be brought up. There are fears of Austrians of Islamic terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists among other things because they have a material basis in the attempts and acts of terrorism.

That must not be ignored by the Muslims who live in Austria; only their constant dissociation, which clearly and publicly differentiates itself from the activities and goals of Muslims ready for violence can help here gradually to remove fears. Not least Austrian Muslims are to further the ability to consider concrete points of criticism concerning certain Islamic behaviours (e.g. tolerance toward people of a different faith and toward religious minorities, change of faith by Muslims, equal rights of women) and clearly take their stand.

 

Integration Can Only Be a Mutual Process

In June 2003 in Graz a meeting of the "Directors of Islamic Centres and Imams in Europe" took place. The development of an authentic Islam in Europe, which however is independent of the Arab world, was topic of the three-day-long conference. At the end the "Declaration of Graz" was adopted. Here it says among other things: "The Islamic message is built on moderation. From it the clear refusal results to any form of fanaticism, extremism, fatalism. Muslims must tell of their loyalty to constitution and law also in their secular structure."

On 24 April 2005 160 in Austria living directors of public prayer, among them also about 25 women met in Vienna. As Locating Islam in Austria a detailed statement was passed, in which it says among other things: "The participants of the conference emphasize their sticking to constitutional principles in the Republic of Austria, enclosed in it and particularly stressed the equality of all citizens before the law, pluralism, democratic parliamentarism and rule of law. The acknowledgment status of Islam in Austria and the practical advantage associated with it, such as the right to free and public worship, the internal autonomy of the Islamic Religious Body, the religious education in schools, and the consideration of religion e.g. in the federal army are noticed by Muslim citizens and highly estimated.

 


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The moderate and open attitude of Muslims in Austria builds a positive cooperation with society as a whole. A culture of dialogue makes bridge building possible, which takes up topics of general importance in a businesslike manner, instead of locking oneself up in ignorance and ghettos. The negative consequences which are caused by isolation into a kind of parallel society are recognized by the Muslims in Austria and segregation models are therefore rejected" (see www.derislam.at/, 18.9.2005).

But even such positive statements on democracy and constitution can hardly amend the bad image which Islam in the Austrian population enjoys. In Austria, so it seems, the religious interests of Muslims are for the public not of real interest, at least as long as they are regarded as "invisible private affair" (cf. Ludwig Amman, Cola und Koran. Das Wagnis einer islamischen Renaissance, Freiburg 2004, 54). But as Islam is noticed now also in the public area Islam by its symbols (e.g. head cloth, minaret) that gives time and again cause for arguments and defence attitudes.

Already in the past years the fundamental question of building a mosque or of the height of minarets led repeatedly to discussions. For example in the year 2001 a mosque in the Traun city centre was pulled down because of an official decision. The negative answer read among other things: "The established washing facility (three taps for cold water, which were duly attached to the public water mains and to the public sewage channel) can change the sanitary and hygienic conditions in the place" (quoted in: www.islam.at/. In Telfs in Tirol in November 2005 the tempers ran high by the building of a planned minaret. The building of the tower was meanwhile approved in first instance. Building projects of mosques with dome and minaret in the classical style could not be carried out up to now e.g. in Graz and Salzburg due to citizens' initiatives or to high plot prices.

A further set of points of conflict were and are: Islamic cemeteries, slaughter of animals, problems in school/gym instruction (conflicts result with cook instruction, when the Muslim children are not allowed to eat the food which they should prepare according to the Austrian curriculum; with swimming instruction, because girls are not allowed to be in the same bath as boys; during outdoors projects and school meetings, because a girl is not allowed to spend the night without her parents outside the parental dwelling), and in particular with the carrying of religiously motivated clothes. Since then headscarf debates, and associated with it discussions about the integration of Muslims repeatedly flared up, either in consequence of similar debates in Germany and France or because of acts of terrorism committed by followers of Islamic faith.

Up to now in Austria the objectives of the integration of Muslims were predominantly looked for in a conflict-free co-existence, respectively in an assimilation process of the "foreign workers". But can you here really speak of integration? Can a society only demand integration, without also actually supporting it?

Probably not, because the integration of Muslims does not concern Muslims alone. It is only possible when it is understood as mutual process. Integration does also not exclude cultural and religious differences or destroy them in the sense of a one-sided adaptation to the standards and values of the majority society. The Austrian society made its contribution in many things, in order to enable an integrated Austrian Islam (for example the acknowledgment as religious community, the introduction of a nationally promoted religious education).

In each case the principle of equality is to be granted in its entirety to Muslims. There is for instance no reason for the religiously neutral constitutional law to impose stricter standards of restrictions on freedom of religion with Muslims than that is the case with other religious communities. Decisions within these ranges should be made impartially and in the sense of peace and justice.
see Heiner Bielefeldt - Threatened Human Right

 

Without Concessions a Peaceful Living Together Is Impossible

Demands for integration however can also be made to Muslims, in the sense to share with the remaining society those values which are of national importance. The Muslim who enjoys the state protection of his residence country is for instance obliged to respect its legal order. Muslims are to accept that as a result also legal situations are created which are incompatible with a specific view of Islam, because freedom of religion is granted to them and reversely Muslims have not the right to force their conceptions upon non-Muslims.

In Austria we are only at the beginning of a development in which questions of living together between Muslims and non-Muslims (building of mosques, headscarf, spreading of fundamentalist movements among Muslims) will increase. In order to clarify various questions and to solve conflicts also in future, it is necessary to keep in mind the European links. In view of future developments the European countries have anyhow to intensify an appropriate co-operation, and to look for a concept of jointly dealing with the Islamic presence in Europe. But the Muslims must be included in that process. Europe cannot afford it to lock out one party from the process of searching for solutions (cf. about it Alexandre Escudier and others [Editor], Der Islam in Europa. Der Umgang mit dem Islam in Frankreich und Deutschland Göttingen 2003).

 


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Perhaps it will still take many generations until the awareness of a special European Muslim identity (which is also in a constant process of change) will have developed. The Swiss Islam scientist Tariq Ramadan wants that Muslims get enough time for it: "Most religious or national minorities (which can be - depending on the country - Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox believers, but also Poles, Italians, Portuguese etc.) succeeded only after century-long discussions and arguments in establishing themselves in their host countries and in securing their rights. How should Muslims then succeed in solving the problem in only one or two generations?" (Tariq Ramadan, Wandel durch Annäherung, in: Le Monde Diplomatique Nr. 4/1998).

Lots of things therefore remain still to be done, in order actually to realize that ideal picture of an "Island of the Blessed" in the living together of Austrians and Muslims. A lot of enlightenment must still take place, in order to distinguish between concrete threats and dangers and projections and generalizations. Especially as regards enlightenment and conflict management there is still a great need to catch up. Both sides must realize that a peaceful living together is impossible without sacrifices and concessions. Where each side is only anxious to protect its own interests, a relatively peaceful living side by side is perhaps possible for a short time, but in the long run that conception will be no solution.

 

    {*} Anna Strobl is lecturer at the Institute for Ethics and Sociology of the University of Graz and teaches religion and computer science. Main points of work: Social situation from Muslim women in Austria, woman-specific questions in Islamic societies. In her thesis on the religion-sociological situation of Islam in Austria she laid the foundation-stone for the occupation with this topic for many years. In the year 2006 in the Publishing House Apple will appear her book "Halal, Haram and Zakat. Der Islam in Österreich".

 

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