By Cengiz Aktar
March 18, 2015
In February, the Turkish director of religious affairs strongly criticized Austria for adopting the “Islam Bill”: "It is not proper for every country to build its own version of Islam instead of dealing with the growing Islamophobia in Europe.
No country has the right to make a religion the subject of engineering. I would like to note that the attempts of the rulers to create their own, unique Islam are useless and futile. […] I am worried that with this bill, Austria may have gone backwards by a century in terms of religious freedoms, because the bill introduces a number of restrictions on religious freedoms. However, in this contemporary world, the priorities of the people should be taken into consideration when such a bill is being drafted.” Then, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also voiced some curious ideas, suggesting that the bill was against EU legislation and that Europe was creating its own Feb. 28 order.
Let us first recall what happened. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was the first European state to recognize Islam as an official religion in Europe in 1874. Even though the empire's role in annexing Ottoman territories inhabited by Muslims should be factored into this decision, the recognition remained after the collapse of the empire. So, Austria has an important firsthand experience and history with Islam which should in no way be belittled. Currently, there are nearly half a million Muslims in the country, constituting 6-7 percent of the total population.
Under the new bill, religious officials from other countries will no longer be able to provide religious services in Austria. This means that 65 civil servants appointed by the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate will return home in a year. All Islamic associations will be subordinated to the Austrian Islamic Community, which enjoys a constitutionally recognized status. The income of religious institutions must now come from domestic sources. Alevi religious days (Ashura, Nevruz, Hidhr and Gadir Khum) as well as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha will be recognized as official holydays. A theology school with a separate department on Alevism will be created at the University of Vienna. Religious officials will provide regular services in military barracks, hospitals and prisons. New arrangements are being made for graveyards and Halal slaughtering.
Let's now discuss the reaction of the Religious Affairs Directorate. Contrary to what was argued, the bill was drafted in consultation with the Alevi and Sunni communities. Secondly, as seen in the presidential election, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoys great support in Western Europe among the Turkish voters. Contrary to the directorate's argument, political engineering through religion is the AKP's policy, not that of Western European countries. Through the bill, the Austrian-Turkish Islamic Union (ATIB), which is closely linked to Ankara, will lose its influence. In addition to the loss of political control, religious control will also be lost because of the removal of Turkish religious officials. To address this, the Religious Affairs Directorate has trained Austrian Turks since the time the Austrian bill has been in the spotlight. Nevertheless unanswered questions remain: Would the Muslim Turks comply with the requests of the Religious Affairs Directorate? While the Turkish state criticizes Europe over the shortcomings of integration, why does it raise its voice when integration policies start to apply, as in the case of the bill? Moreover, there is a blurred line between integration and assimilation, which nobody other than those who live there can determine and draw.
The third point is about the concerns of the Religious Affairs Directorate and the AKP about Alevism. In 2013, Alevism was recognized as the 15th largest religious community in Austria. Currently, religious classes are included in the curriculum at 50 schools. The new arrangements for Alevis in the bill bothered the Sunni establishment of the Turkish state. In a message delivered through ATIB, Turkey stressed that the bill harms the unity and togetherness of the Muslim community. By unity, they actually mean denial, and by togetherness, assimilation.
Perhaps the main question is the following: When will Turkey finally realize that people of Turkish origin living in Europe will sooner or later become part of Europe?