A Model for Integration : Austria’s New Law on Islam

L’Autriche vient de modifier la loi sur l’organisation de l’islam qui datait de 1912, au temps de l’empire multinational austro-hongrois. La nouvelle loi augmente les droits des musulmans en Autriche mais impose une contrôle plus rigoureux du financement par les pays étrangers. Un commentaire de Adnan Kifayat, pour le German Marshall Fund.

Dealing with issues of Muslim integration is an uncomfortable reality in the United States and Europe. Some countries do not even acknowledge that there is a lack of integration — or worse, they blame Muslim communities themselves for not wanting to integrate. Last month, on the other hand, Austria’s parliament approved revisions to its 1912-vintage law on Islam. The original law, passed when the Habsburg Empire acquired Bosnia and Herzegovina, gave Muslims the freedom to worship and other protections for the empire’s new subjects. The revisions extend additional rights to Austria’s Muslims — rights that other religious groups already enjoy — and take aim at ending foreign funding for extremism. They also guarantee the use of protocols for birth, marriage and death registries accepted by Islam, access to pastoral care at hospitals and prisons, and national recognition of Islamic holidays.

These are welcome steps in normalizing Muslim traditions within the larger Austrian community and ending the notion that Islam is somehow foreign or alien to Europe. “It is important to say clearly that the Muslim community and Islam are a part of Europe and there is a need for the Muslim communities to have a clear legal status,” Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said. “Otherwise many Muslims would feel excluded in our societies.” His is one of the clearest declarations by a European political leader on the need for Europe to be inclusive of its Muslims, both immigrant and native.

Despite criticism of the revised law by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdoğan and some Muslim groups within Austria for being discriminatory against Muslims, its basic goals of integration and ending the nefarious influence of foreign funding are appropriate and much needed in Europe. Indeed, the ultimate goal is normalizing Islam and placing it on an equal footing with other religious groups. At the same time, implementation of the law should be monitored closely to ensure that Muslims are not discriminated against or used as an excuse to exert state control over religion, particularly those sections related to the use of German-language Qu’rans and sermons. These provisions could be viewed as a challenge to more than 1,400 years of Islamic legal and cultural tradition that place a certain primacy on the Arabic language for religious purposes — much like Latin does for Catholics or Hebrew for Jews.

The new law’s barring of foreign funding for mosques and imams, other than one-time donations, will also be worth monitoring. Across Europe, the influence of foreign funding attached to extremist and xenophobic ideologies is a problem, and the political and economic influence of countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia often dissuades governments from taking action. Simply passing a law that bans foreign funding will not solve the issue. The use of legal and financial sanctions that are already part of Austrian and European law and closer cooperation with intelligence partners to identify links with religious extremism should complement the new law and will help Austria distinguish between well-intended charitable funding and official or unofficial financing that is corrosive. Distinguishing between these flows is essential to making sure Austria’s new law works well and does not unintentionally paint Austria’s Muslims as pawns of a foreign country.

In the United States, local community involvement and ownership of mosques, religious schools, and imam training centers has involved a generational process, supported throughout by national-level political leadership that has emphasized integration and equal treatment under the law. This has been combined with the use of financial and legal sanctions against opaque, abusive, and often foreign-funded organizations, and the responsible shepherding of community resources by visionary U.S. Muslim leaders.

Austria and Europe, too, could have empowered and resilient Muslim communities, as long as their political leaders emphasize the need to treat all religions equally. Sustained national-level integration and inclusion efforts will help create space for Austria’s Muslim communities to organize genuinely without foreign interference and evolve their own identity within Europe, as Europeans. But as other countries in Europe consider adopting a version of Austria’s law to help integrate their own Muslim communities, it is important that implementation be carefully monitored and that the new standards not serve as a pretext for singling out Islam or Muslims.