By Usama Hasan
26 February 2015
Austria has passed controversial reforms to the country’s 1912 law on Islam that made it an official religion of the country. Is this a step forward or backward?
In Britain, although we have an established church, the idea of officially recognising several religions seems strange. However, it has been common practice in other parts of Europe. The 1912 Austrian law hails from the end of an age when territories in eastern Europe and the Balkans, with mixed Christian and Muslim populations, were regularly fought over and changed hands between empires and kingdoms such as the Ottoman, Serbian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian.
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the Ottomans operated the millet system of self-governing autonomous religious communities: mainly Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Jews. Islam was recognised as an official religion in Russia as far back as the 18th century, with large Muslim communities in the Caucasus and central Asia. This recognition continued throughout the Soviet era until today. And in Egypt, once an Ottoman province, only the three Abrahamic faiths are officially recognised. An alternative, recent approach is the strictly secular constitution of the new Republic of Kosovo, despite the fact that its population is over 90% Muslim: a possible solution in a country that has had shifting Christian and Muslim populations and rulers for centuries.
The new Austrian law is partly aimed at tackling Islamist extremism: there are thought to be between 50 and 100 Austrian foreign fighters with Islamic State, a percentage of Muslim citizens comparable to that of Britain. The law also confirms legal recognition for Islam as a faith, but bans foreign funding for mosques and imams.
The Austrian foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, has stated that “We don’t want our Muslim community to be dependent on foreign funding,” and that “what we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values.”
Such sentiments are shared by large numbers of Muslim organisations and individuals across Europe, including in Britain, who wish to see an organic, integrated form of Islam develop, avoiding foreign influence and funding from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya under Gaddafi, all of which have been busy exporting their versions of Islam abroad for the past few decades.
However, there are a number of issues with this approach: firstly, is this laudable ideal of an authentic, local Islam to be brought about via legislation, or should it come authentically from within communities? It is the job of government and legislation to help nudge society in positive directions, but if there’s much government interference we run the risk of creating an official form of religion co-opted by the state but distrusted by many grassroots believers, thereby increasing the risk of extremism. Ironically, this is the situation in many Middle Eastern dictatorships, and one that Europe would do well to avoid. In the US, and increasingly in the UK, Muslim communities have funded their own institutions as they have become wealthier.
Secondly, our “common European values”, in the words of Kurz, presumably include freedom of religion and universal human rights; state control of, or interference in, religion may not sit well with these values. It will be interesting to see the reactions of UN and EU rapporteurs on religious freedom.
Thirdly, the ban on foreign funding, when not applied to, for instance, Roman Catholics and Jews, is clearly discriminating against Muslims, again violating common European values. Proponents of the ban might argue that this is a tactical move: perhaps if the Middle East and House of Islam can sort itself out soon, there would be no need for such a ban. However, legislation is by its nature not tactical, and it will be difficult to change the law in the future. A better way to address the problem of extremism might be to have proper standards for mosques and imams, such that activity harmful to society is filtered out, irrespective of the funding.
There are other problems with banning foreign funding: for instance, does this apply to other EU states? It also ignores the fact of dual nationality and multiple aspects of people’s identity, a valuable resource that many nations fail to exploit positively, especially in an increasingly globalised world. For Muslims, I’m thinking of the majority south Asian links of British Muslims, north African links of French Muslims and Turkish links of German Muslims. It is foolish to ignore these connections.
Another aspect of the Austrian reform, the requirement for a single German translation of the Qur’an is critiqued here.
We have come a long way since xenophobic notions of “the terrible Turk at the gates of Vienna”, inspired by two separate Ottoman sieges of the Austrian capital. The success or otherwise of the new experiment of Vienna will have important implications around Europe and the world.
Dr Usama Hasan is a former planetarium lecturer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, senior researcher in Islamic studies at the Quilliam Foundation and a part-time imam